Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Can the tide be turned on water use efficiency?

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Too easy to use badly

There are agriculture innovations that can ease the global water supply crisis, but time is short

Access to water is a real problem. As the latest UN data suggests, the world faces a 40% shortfall in global water supply by 2030. And with less than 1.2% of all water on earth available for human use, a sustainable supply of good-quality water can no longer be relied on by companies not least in the agriculture sector.

So, the decision taken by 83 of the world’s agriculture ministers meeting in Berlin in January comes as no surprise. The ninth Berlin Agriculture Ministers’ Conference concluded with the signing of a communiqué to put much more effort into developing sustainable water management strategies and practices for agriculture – including boosting access to water, improving water quality and managing surplus water.

Creative management

There are, of course, innovations that are having positive impact. Creative, low-tech water management techniques can be highly effective. Recent examples of managed flooding in California, for example, offer encouragement and point to effective strategies that can make use of excess rainfall when it does come to replenish ground water aquifers that are relied on in times of drought .

More and more research and development is going into optimising water management – and how relatively straightforward ecological practices, such as cover crops and agroforestry, might offer sponge-like properties to both hold more water and drain it more effectively.

Using discarded wastewater is another option being trialled by the likes of Californian organic specialists Fetzer Vineyards. The company has just installed a new wastewater treatment system which uses the digestive power of microbes and earthworms to remove contaminants from its wastewater. It will process about 15m gallons (57m litres) of water a year, repurposing salvaged water for all of the vineyards’ irrigation needs.

Many companies, including Fetzer, are increasingly using smart water meters and software-as-a-service systems to monitor them.

By building up a database of water use patterns to spot patterns and variances, address unintended flows, and identify optimisation opportunities, the business says it is set to cut water use by 15% in the first year of use, despite decades of hard work to conserve water using more conventional methods. “New technologies in water efficiency, water reuse, water catchment, and water treatment … will all work together to help build a more water secure future,” Josh Prigge, Fetzer director of regenerative development, says.

Food company support?

However, using wastewater more effectively is only part of the answer, says Eliza Roberts, water programme manager at Boston-based business coalition Ceres. The Feeding Ourselves Thirsty report from Ceres, evaluates how companies are responding to water risk – and the huge number of different indicators used to gauge how well they are doing, from executive oversight within a company, to providing financial incentives to farmers to use water more efficiently.

Roberts argues that farmers are facing increasing pressure to not just reduce costs and increase yields in a competitive environment but to comply with many different surveys and codes from many different suppliers, and urges food companies to support growers financially as they develop better water-use techniques.

Combined approach

There are also agri-business solutions that have developed, such as using hybrid seed alongside smarter irrigation, that also make a significant impact on water use. Speaking at a recent Innovation Forum webinar, Duane Martin, corn product manager at Syngenta, outlined how the combination of a genetically altered water optimised corn seed – designed to respond to water stress more effectively at all stages of the growing season – with a smart irrigation scheduling system can provide the same crop yield and a 20% reduction in water use for farmers in the US western prairies.

This solution, of course, has the benefit of having a demonstrably positive impact on the farmer’s profitability, reducing a necessary input while keeping yields high.

And while the Berlin communiqué makes no direct mention of using gene altering or editing technologies – unsurprising given the controversy surrounding this in Europe and the US – there is agreement on the urgency for research and development that improves the drought stress tolerance and water use efficiency of crops.

What that actually means in practice will certainly go a long way to determine if the gap can be closed on the potential 2030 40% water supply shortfall.

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