Conserving and Improving Water for Food Production through Sustainable Agriculture

Up to 60% of the human adult body is water. Due to this fact, it is therefore essential for our continued survival. Unfortunately, more than 785 million people don’t have access to basic water services. Moreover, 884 million people did not have safe drinking water. What’s worse is that the population is steadily increasing and global water demand along with it. Presently, water demand is at 4,600 cubic kilometres per year and is expected to increase by up to 20% to 30% by 2050. The amount of water that is being withdrawn keeps on increasing. However, natural processes are not able to replace the water that is being removed from rivers and groundwater. Agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of all water use. Increasing water-use efficiency in agriculture is becoming one of the key collective challenges to achieving sustainable development worldwide. By achieving this, water use may become more sustainable.

There are strategies for land management and advanced technologies that can help increase the “crop per drop” or the amount of crops produced per the amount of water used. Since water used in irrigation accounts for 90% of agricultural water demand, it accounts for approximately 63% of all water use. With that said, increasing efficiency in irrigation systems would lead to significant water savings.

Improving irrigation systems is vital. Especially that the international community stated that the agricultural sector should produce enough food for the rising population while saving water in the process at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Developing and applying technology and management is the most challenging part of conserving and improving water for agricultural purposes.

20% of the total arable area in developing countries is irrigated land. This is a significantly large area that may potentially consume a large amount of water. With that said, current water use trends must be improved to achieve sustainable water usage. Advanced farming techniques, investment in crop research, technological change, rural infrastructure and reform of water management are ways for increasing crop yield while improving water productivity. Essentially, improved irrigation water management practices are available worldwide. If these management practices would be followed, irrigation water use efficiency is estimated to increase from 38% to 42% by 2030. Developing countries hold about 75% of the world’s irrigated areas. It is important to know that, besides manpower and expertise, funding is also required for the development of irrigation, and that water management technology is essential in achieving sustainable water usage.

The importance of water to agriculture

  • 5,000 litres of water is utilized for food production to meet a person’s daily needs.

  • 70% of freshwater withdrawn from natural sources is utilized for food production.

  • Increasing the amount of food produced per water used by 1% may be able to save at least 24 litres of water a day per person.

  • Even though only 20% of the total arable area is irrigated, it produces 40% of our food supply.

Research and Innovation for protecting Essential Water while Addressing Farmers Needs

Both private and public sectors are working hard on researching and developing new products and strategies that could protect our essential water resources without compromising the farmers’ needs. These products include new crop varieties that are bred traditionally or through plant biotechnology to make them stress-tolerant, require less water to grow, and utilize water more efficiently. The process of creating new crop varieties involves exhaustive testing to avoid creating products that could potentially harm water quality, biodiversity, or the environment in general. To complement the production of new crops, targeted application technologies are also being developed and produced. Both the production of new crop varieties and targeted application technologies address the need to reduce water consumption, minimize runoff and protect ecosystem health.

Reduction of Water use through Stress Tolerant Crops

Seasonal changes bring about crop stressors such as cold nights, hot midday sun, too little rain, too much rain, early frosts, and more. Studies have shown that these stressors may reduce crop yields by up to 70%. Plants that are tolerant to stress can function as some sort of shock absorber to protect plants from unfavourable growth conditions such as low water levels. Bayer CropScience developed a plant that could serve this function which was already used in the past to help develop corn and oilseed rape varieties with higher vigour and tolerance to a broad range of stresses. Tests were conducted to determine the efficacy of their “shock absorber plants” in protecting oilseed rape from acute periods of drought and high temperatures. They designed the experiments this way because drought and heat stress almost always occur together. Thus, it is a good idea to develop crops with tolerance to both drought and heat stress. This technology exerts its benefits by interacting with pathways that exist in all plants. Thus, even though it was only tested on corn and oilseed rape, the expectation is that it could work on other crops as well. If implemented successfully, this technology may make it unnecessary to use more water during droughts and or hot months.

Plants with Drought Stress Tolerance Gene exhibits Improved Eater Utilisation

Developing and then releasing plants with new genes may take a long time. However, great strides have been made with regards to making crops drought stress-tolerant. For instance, drought-tolerant genes have been incorporated into some corn and soybean strains. Trials conducted in 2003 revealed that the crops that were implanted with the gene were able to produce more yield for less water. This biotechnology could lead to major reductions in the amount of water that is used to grow crops.

There are several ways to make crops drought resistant. Scientists from the University of Cape Town took genes from the resurrection plant or Xerophyta viscosa and integrated them into crop plants like maize. The scientists specifically chose the resurrection plant because they have the ability to survive even when severely dehydrated. Moreover, they can be revived after three days of normal watering. In this study, researchers were able to isolate 60 genes from X. viscosa that could confer resistance against drought, heat, and low water availability. They were even able to integrate the gene to model plants. The goal is to identify which among the 60 genes can be successfully integrated into crops to make them even more drought resistant. Scientists involved in this study have successfully isolated one gene and integrated it into other plants which made them drought, heat and salt tolerant. They are also testing another gene that may provide the same effects. Genes that could confer beneficial effects to crops, once identified, could lead to the development of seeds that improve agricultural production in dry regions. The goal of these researches is to increase food security, especially in poor areas without compromising water resources.

Developing Innovative application technologies to reduce water consumption

One way to lessen water consumption is by improving the way water is introduced into the crops which could reduce the amount of water required to spray crop protection products without lowering their efficacy. Currently, some countries have implemented technologies such as air induction nozzles as an efficient method of watering crops. The air induction nozzles mix air with the spray liquid to water the crops; they are becoming more common in horticultural crops. This type of sprayer has the potential to reduce the amount of water used from a range of 1,500 to 2,500 litres per ha to a range of 200 to 800 litres per ha. Combining low-volume water-based sprays with application nozzles that directly target each crop row utilizes 8 to 50 litres of water instead of 800 litres.

The traditional method of preventing soil-inhabiting termites from entering buildings was to use large volumes of liquid insecticide and apply it to the soil. This creates some sort of barrier around the house because the termites won’t go through the soil that has been treated with insecticides. However, creating a perfect insecticide barrier is not easy and oftentimes these barriers may have gaps in them that allow termites to go through. Moreover, this method of insecticide application may lead to water pollution. Creating technologies that would improve the efficiency of termiticide application could protect water resources from this chemical. This is exactly what DowAgroSciences tried to develop, an application system for an insecticide that does not use water. In this new application system, barriers aren’t created. Instead termite activity is detected through a special monitoring device. Once the termites are located, a bait that delivers the termiticides is inserted into the soil. When the termites would consume the bait, the termiticides wouldn't kill them immediately. Instead, the termites are kept alive so that they could deliver the termiticides to their colony themselves. This mechanism of termiticide delivery is very targeted. Applying the traditional termiticide on an average-sized building would use up to 760 litres of water. DowAgroSciences’ new method of termiticide application saves a significant amount of water and prevents ground and surface water contamination.

Reducing Water Usage for Insecticides by Protecting Plants from Inside Out

Foliar sprays which apply fertilizers directly to a plants’ leaves may use about 500 litres of water. If the usage of foliar sprays would be reduced, a significant amount of water would be saved. This could be done by treating the seeds when they are still germinating. Essentially, protecting the seeds from the inside out. Treating the seeds would allow the transport of important substances to all parts of the growing plant via its sap. Aside from that, this method will protect sensitive young plants from sucking pest and disease pressures at the earliest stage. There are various factors that affect the length of protection such as the nature of the crops, the seed treatment product used, and the pest to be controlled, but protection usually lasts for 6 to 10 weeks.

Using Water Efficiently through Effective Land Management Systems

Weeds compete with crops for water, light, and nutrients. With that said, reducing weeds can increase the efficiency of water use. Reducing weeds can be achieved by using herbicides. Aside from that, herbicides are often used in land management methods that improve water retention such as conservation tillage. Innovative rice production techniques which require relatively less water compared to conventional techniques rely on herbicides. Land management systems are already in place in several countries and they reveal that it is an effective method for reducing water use.

Preventing water losses through Conservation Tillage

Integrated crop and weed management include reduced or no-tillage methods which are collectively described as conservation tillage. These methods use less water but increase productivity and they do this by increasing levels of soil organic matter and thereby increasing water retention. Using conservation tillage leads to higher yields even in drought-prone areas that have no irrigation. Besides reducing water usage, conservation tillage offers several other benefits including soil erosion prevention, reduction of greenhouse gases released from the soil, overall improvement of air quality, and the protection of wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Several countries including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Canada, and the US adopted conservation tillage extensively because there were several observable benefits. Australia used conservation systems in 80% of their crops in 2002. A joint programme between the Crops Research Institute in Kumasi, Sasakawa Global 2000, and the Monsanto Company introduced no-till with mulch to Ghana in the 1990s. In 2000, globally, it was estimated that 100,000 small-scale farmers applied no-till on an estimated total land area of 45,000 hectares. As a result, more water was available in the dry years in areas where conservation tillage was utilized. Conservation tillage improves land fertility so that it remains fertile for a long time which reduces crop turnaround time. Aside from that, conservation tillage attracts a large number of beneficial insects that pest control is facilitated. The positive effects of conservation tillage on crop yields were corroborated by a study conducted in Ghana which revealed that no-till farmers experienced higher maize yields, about 45% more, compared to farmers who did not use no-till farming during years of regular dryness or wetness. However, in drier years, like in 2000, the crop yields were even higher at 48%. The SOil and WAter Protection (SOWAP) project, a collaboration between Syngentia UK and EU LIFE, assessed the viability and effectiveness of conservation tillage systems. The goal of this project is to develop sustainable arable systems for farmers that are based on scientific evidence. Tillage causes soil disturbance which could lead to high runoff rates and silty water that could wind up in streams, ditches, and ponds. Another goal of SOWAP is to reduce the negative impact of agricultural practices on freshwater bodies and sources. This is why SOWAP is studying the effects of conservation tillage on water quality and biodiversity so that they could address these problems properly. The SOil and WAter Protection project involves the installation of innovative high-tech monitoring equipment on test sites that are scattered throughout the UK, Belgium and Hungary and the creation of links between these monitoring equipment and a coordinated monitoring network in France, Italy and southern Europe.

Developing Rice Production Systems that requires less Water

Asian countries are the primary producers of rice. In fact, around 90% of the world's rice is consumed in Asia. Moreover, 90% of agricultural water use in Asia is used for rice production. Unfortunately, rice production consumes a lot of water. The International Rice Research Institute or IRRI estimated that to produce a kilo of rice you have to use 5,000 litres of water to grow them. With that said, there is an urgent need to reduce water consumption in rice production systems.

Direct seeding of pre-germinated rice is a growing practice, especially in the Philippines. It has the potential to reduce water usage in rice production. Pre-germinated rice is cultivated by submerging rice seeds in water for 12 to 24 hrs or until small shoots appear at the end of the seed. After which, they are planted in a rice paddy. Due to this, the need to use a paddy is reduced by 20 days compared to traditional transplanting. This translates to a 15 to 20% reduction in water usage. The main reason why other farmers are reluctant to adopt rice pre-germination is that it requires a different type of weed management strategy. Bayer CropScience offers a different method which is dry direct seeding. Dry direct seeding requires less labour, the crops tend to mature faster than transplanted ones and utilize less water. Nonetheless, they have more competition from weeds. Bayer CropScience developed a herbicide that was designed specifically for dry direct seeding. This eliminates dry direct seeding’s main drawback. Due to Bayer CropScience’s innovative herbicide, dry direct seeding has gained wide acceptance by farmers. There is a steady increase of farmers who adopt this practice which leads to a steady decrease in water use for rice farming. The most challenging “weed” to manage in rice production is the weedy rice or red rice. It is botanically the same species as cultivated white rice. Due to this fact, efforts to control the red rice population would always have a negative effect on cultivated white rice. This ultimately led to the adoption of the “flood and plant” system; a costly and wasteful crop practice to manage weedy rice. The “Flood and plant” system is based on the fact that flooding a land area creates anaerobic conditions which suppress red rice growth. However, this method of controlling the red rice population is not very effective and could cause water quality degradation through runoff. The chemical company BASF developed a new herbicide that allows farmers to control weeds, including weedy rice, without flooding and therefore conserving water. Aside from herbicides, BASF developed a rice seed that grows more rice which leads to a reduction in intervals between crops. Traditional rice growing practice involves leaving a rice field bare for 4 to 6 weeks to allow the red rice to emerge so that their population can be controlled. Using BASF new rice seeds eliminates the need to leave the rice field bare for 4 to 6 weeks which conserves the field moisture, reserving them for cultivating white rice.

Simultaneously Managing Alien Species and Protecting Water Bodies

Alien invasive plants may have a negative effect on water bodies. These negative effects include increasing evaporation rates and reducing stream flow and dilution capacity. Due to these, they are threatening scarce water resources. However, alien invasive plants can be managed efficiently using herbicides. Protecting the quality and quantity of water bodies is part of broader integrated management of farms or landscapes. More than just protecting the degradation of water catchment areas, managing alien invasive plant species promotes coherence in biodiversity networks and thus their conservation.

Regenerating Natural Vegetation in nearby Water Bodies

A large citrus farmer, The Department of Biological Sciences of the University of Sao Paulo, and Bayer CropScience launched a pilot project in 2001 which aimed to raise awareness among farmers about water body protection and biodiversity conservation. Another goal of this pilot project includes promoting the importance of maintaining or reestablishing permanent wildlife preservation areas on the farm. The pilot project lasted for 1 year and by the end of 2002, an estimated 4000 native plant seedlings had been planted around the water body on the citrus farm with the aim of restoring the natural vegetation in the area. The findings of this pilot project were disseminated to farmers in Sao Paulo through various media. These media include a joint report by all project partners, a manual explaining how the farmer can produce native seedlings and a video that documents all phases of the project. The main goal of disseminating information from the pilot project through various media is to increase awareness of the issue and help other farmers improve their knowledge and adoption of appropriate techniques for water bodies and biodiversity protection.

The Positive Effect of Eliminating Alien Plants on Water and Ecosystem Health

Plants that are not native to the area, or Alien plants, have a negative effect on water quantity because they often require more water than native plants. In 1995, South Africa tackled the problem of invading alien plants through a multi-stakeholder programme called Working for Water (WfW) which is under the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. In South Africa, it was shown that alien species consume a lot of water. As a matter of fact, the 150 species of invading alien plants in South Africa depleted up to 10% of the continent’s scarce annual water supply. Aside from decreasing availability of water, alien plant species can crowd out and out-compete indigenous plants which could increase the likelihood of forest fires, endangering wildlife. The WfW programme has cleared alien plants from 200,000 hectares per year through the 300+ projects that they initiated in South Africa. This clearing of alien plants is labour intensive which is why it has been an important source of local employment. Aside from physically removing alien plants, biological control programmes are also in place. However, biological control programmes may not be enough to deal with alien invasive plants thoroughly.

Protecting Water Quality Through Good Agricultural Practices

In any agricultural production system, sustainable agriculture is synonymous with good agricultural practices and product stewardship. There are several multi-stakeholder partnership initiatives within the industry that support efforts to maintain and or improve water quality. These efforts to maintain and or improve water quality include reducing soil erosion, avoiding pesticide run-off and increasing wildlife habitat as part of a holistic farm or land management approach.

Making Rinse Water Safe for the Environment

Rinse water is often dumped into the environment indiscriminately. However, rinse water, or the water used to clean agricultural products, is often contaminated with active substances. This is why Dow AgroSciences, the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, and the Chambers of Agriculture, in France, are coming together to develop a photocatalytic treatment process that could eliminate crop protection products, such as pesticides, in the post-application rinse water from spray tanks and sprayers. By eliminating the crop protection products from the rinse water, disposing of them would not cause any adverse effects to the environment.

Preventing Nitrogen contamination of Water Supplies

One method for preventing nitrogen contamination of water supplies is to improve the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrification is a microbial process by which reduced nitrogen compounds, primarily ammonia, are sequentially oxidized to nitrite and nitrate. However, this natural process can cause the leaching of nitrogen compounds into the environment, reduce the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers, and cause water contamination. To protect water supplies from nitrogen contamination, Dow AgroSciences developed a product to inhibit the process of nitrification. Once Dow AgroSciences’ product inhibits the nitrification process, the nitrogen fertilizer applied on the soil wouldn’t be lost into water supplies and/or into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide. Inhibiting the nitrification process is considered a good agricultural practice that increases fertilizer use efficiency while simultaneously avoiding nitrogen leaching into the environment. Due to this, the adoption of this particular product from Dow AgroSciences has increased in the past five years. Currently, nitrification inhibitors are used on over 2 million hectares yearly, resulting in the potential conservation of over 56 million kilograms of nitrogen annually.

Controlled Fertilizer Release

Controlled fertilizer release is a method for growing plants wherein fertilizers are released gradually in small but sufficient amounts. This improves the efficiency of nutrient uptake by ensuring that nutrients are in the soil in plant-available forms when the crops need them most. Due to the controlled fertilizer release, the crops would receive the appropriate amount of nutrients at critical stages of their development. This improves root growth, drought tolerance, shoot quality, and flowering while reducing the risk of fertilizer leaching. Currently, controlled-release fertilizers remain a niche market. This is quite unfortunate because controlled fertilizer release offers the long-term potential to reduce unwanted impacts on waterways and improve water use efficiency especially in areas where farmers don’t have access to high-tech equipment for precision fertilization.

Fertigation - merging Fertilization and Irrigation

The general consensus on drip irrigation systems is that they are irrigation systems that are more water-efficient. Fertigation is a new system that innovates on drip irrigation systems. In this new system, important chemical compounds and minerals are introduced into the crops drip by drip through the irrigation water. Fertigation underwent a series of field trials in India and Thailand. In these field trials, it was revealed that crops receiving fertigation produced yields that were 120% to 200% greater than those that followed conventional methods for fertilization and irrigation. More field trials are needed to fully understand its environmental implications but so far researchers have demonstrated that fertigation can improve the efficiency of irrigation which lowers water consumption.

Water and Sanitation

Conserving and improving water quality and quantity for food production through sustainable agricultural practices affects not only the agricultural industry but exerts a positive impact on households and entire communities as well. Since water quality and quantity are protected, there would be sufficient water that could be utilized for sanitation which could ultimately promote public health.

Improving Food Security and Water Availability for Households through Drip Irrigation

The Center for Development and Environment at The University of Bern and the Eritrean College of Agriculture at the University of Asmara, funded by Syngenta’s Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, initiated a multi-stakeholder project which demonstrated the effectiveness of drip irrigation in small-scale farms. To specify, small-scale farmers are those that cultivate less than one hectare of land. As observed in previous studies, drip irrigation systems tend to be effective for this scale. In this project, it was observed that drip irrigation offers significant water conservation benefits and increases household food security. Despite having significant added costs, the return of investment for drip irrigation systems can be achieved in two to three cultivations because it can significantly increase yields and profitability.

Final Thoughts

Humans consume water not only through domestic use such as for drinking, washing, bathing, and cleaning but also through the food production process. In essence, we need to spend water to generate food. This means that what we eat and how we produce the things that we eat affect water quality and water quantity. Unfortunately, our rising population, which ultimately raises food demand, and our food habits are straining our limited water resources. Nonetheless, we have the obligation to provide safe and adequate food for all. Recalling all of the studies, research, and projects that we have mentioned, we can safely conclude that through sustainable agriculture we can ensure food security while preserving water quality and quantity.


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