How confident is BCI that real water savings are being achieved?

Environmental academics teach their students about the Jevons Paradox. In the 1860s English economist Jevons noted that greatly increased efficiency in steam engines led to an increase in coal consumption rather than the expected decrease. The explanation is that increased efficiency lowered the relative cost of coal which led to greater demand.

This paradox, called the ‘rebound effect’ in contemporary society, applies to many, if not all eco-efficiency initiatives. If fishermen are taught to fish more efficiently, we should not be surprised that their aggregate catch increases. Similarly, eco-efficiency initiatives in agriculture deliver the desired yield increases and resource savings on a ‘like for like’ basis, but this increased efficiency may lead to ‘intensification’ and/or expansion of farming. This intensification may be good in terms of development benefits, but it may be undesirable if it results in deforestation, or increased use of water in water-stressed areas.

Better Cotton is not immune to the Jevons Paradox. A number of recent studies looking at rice, cotton and sugarcane eco-efficiency measures have highlighted the need to be cautious about claims related to net water savings to the ecosystem. It seems obvious that a farmer who adopts drip feed irrigation is going to use less water than one who uses inefficient ‘flooded furrow’ irrigation, and Better Cotton field measurements confirm this.

However, the science shows us that although flooding a field may be a wasteful practice on a local basis, the ‘wasted’ or excess water may well seep back into the aquifer and be available for use elsewhere in the water basin. Equally problematic is the increased use of water that results from intensification/expansion of cotton (or sugarcane or rice) farming in a region as a by-product of yield improvement methodologies.

So what to do? Clearly, we need to be precise in the language we use about water savings resulting from eco-efficiency. BCI is very clear in claims about water savings, and always compares the actual results observed to comparison groups who have not adopted the Better Cotton methodologies. Better Cotton is delivering real benefits in this respect and the challenge is to accelerate adoption of these practices, not slow them. That said, we also acknowledge that ultimately, water conservation and water quality measures need to be judged at catchment level, and not just at farm level.

Intensification of cotton farming as a result of eco-efficiency (and related increased usage of water) requires thoughtful analysis. Various ‘Water Stewardship’ initiatives which look at water management on a catchment level have been launched by organisations such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship, WWF and progressive partner companies, and BCI will collaborate closely with initiatives like these in the future.