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The future of food in a water-scarce world

By Brenda Bouw April 06, 2016

Water covers about 70 percent of the planet’s surface. But the amount of freshwater available for human use — everything from brushing our teeth to growing our food — is a small fraction of that.

More than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and as many as 3.5 billion  could experience water scarcity by 2025. By 2030, the United Nations estimates 47 percent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress.

Water scarcity is now considered one of the greatest risks facing the planet, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2016 report. A lack of water is an increasing problem for agriculture production in particular, especially as the United Nations projects the global population will reach about 8.5 billion by 2030, compared with about 7.3 billion people in 2015.

Agriculture production accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2050, an additional one billion metric tons of cereals and 200 million metric tons of meat will have to be produced each year to satisfy the world’s appetite, the FAO says.

“We will see more demand for water. The challenge is managing that and to ensure we don’t increase our overall water needs,” said Peter McCornick, deputy director general (research) at the International Water Management Institute based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Seeking solutions for water scarcity

The growing concerns around water scarcity have led industries and governments to look for ways to better manage consumption through public policy changes that restrict usage, as well as new technologies and innovation. New tools include more advanced irrigation systems that use less water and precision agriculture that incorporates data to boost productivity and improve soil health.

“Water is both a humanitarian and a food security issue,” said Mark Murphy, assistant vice president of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Cargill. “The world’s food system is under increasing stress as population grows in emerging economies, diets shift, and the effects of extreme weather and climate are ever more present.”

Experts are also calling for a greater focus on food production in rain-fed areas, to reduce the need for irrigation. There are also calls to reduce dependence on irrigation through price signaling — gradually increasing the price of water in places where it is scarcer.

Local efforts

Although water scarcity is a global issue, the solutions must be identified at the local level, McCornick said, adding,” Each region has its own issue with water scarcity.”
A recently completed five-year demonstration project for corn farmers accessing the Ogallala Aquifer, a large aquifer located beneath the Great Plains in the United States, offers one such example.

The project, conducted by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, involved nine producers and 14 demonstration sites in northwest Texas. It included water conservation technologies, such as pivot irrigation systems, which apply water from overhead instead of the traditional flood irrigation systems. The project also included the use of soil sensors to collect more information on crop moisture levels. The crops were monitored for irrigation water, crop water demand, yields, input costs and overall producer profitability.

Over the course of the project, irrigation was reduced by just over six inches. Such a change over the one million acres of irrigated cropland within the district could save 500,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year, according to the project’s final report. That’s enough to supply water to Austin, Texas, for five years. The project also revealed that planting later reduced irrigation needs and that newer drought-tolerant hybrid plants helped to boost yields when water was scarcer.

The project highlights just some of the new approaches being used around the world to conserve water, while maintaining and even boosting crop yields. Another example is high-efficiency drip irrigation systems, a conservation method through which water slowly drips to the roots of plants. These drip systems are usually more expensive than pivot systems.

In places like India and Africa, more farmers are using kits that combine solar water pumping technology with less sophisticated drip systems, as well as rain catchment systems that help trap and store water for later use.

“The private sector is expected to be proactive in addressing water stewardship,” said Murphy. “This creates both challenges and opportunities, but we are working to conserve water in areas of scarcity, improve water quality in areas impacted by agriculture, and ensure access to clean water in the communities where we operate.”

Lack of rainfall a major concern

Innovations to conserve water are becoming increasingly important given the toll that drought and other severe weather patterns are taking on global food production.
New research published in the journal Nature shows global production damage from more recent droughts was 7 percent higher than in past decades. What’s more, the damage was 8 percent to 11 percent higher in developed countries than in developing ones.

The study — based on UN crop data from 2,800 weather disasters in 177 countries between 1964 and 2007 — claims to be the first to quantify the relationship between weather-related disasters and crop yields around the world.

“Our findings may help to guide agricultural priorities in international disaster risk reduction and adaptation efforts,” stated the authors of the report.

Experts believe better progress can be made by increasing food production in rain-fed regions, and reducing or stopping production entirely in certain areas where water is most scarce.
Another potential solution is pricing water based on local extraction sustainability. That means lower prices for farmers in areas with a water surplus, and higher prices where long-term water supply is not sustainable.

Switching crops to conserve water

Some farmers are switching crops to cope with water scarcity issues as “a last resort,” said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics at Iowa State University.
In drought-stricken California, for example, some farmers are switching from animal-forage crops, such as alfalfa, to less water-intensive crops, such as grains and vegetables. Alfalfa is the state’s thirstiest crop, ahead of almonds and rice, according to data from the California Department of Water Resources, compiled by Bloomberg.

Some farmers are also switching to new breeds of plants and seeds that consume less water.
“It’s not doom and gloom. All of these things are responses to scarcity,” said Babcock. “That is what a market economy is supposed to do — minimize the disruptions that occur.”

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience in print, broadcast, digital and social media.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.