The Next Agriculture Revolution — More Crop Per Drop

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6 December 2015 | Giulio Boccaletti

As farmers once again rise to the challenge of overcoming resource scarcity with the help of water-conservation technologies, other industries should take note. Part of a series exploring what can be achieved on the energy and the environmental front this decade.

Necessity is the mother of innovation. Ask farmers, who have long lived by these words — as the need to feed communities gave rise to aqueducts, plows and seed drills. With the next agricultural revolution poised to take off in the face of increasingly scarce water supplies, other industries can learn from how the sector harnesses the latest technologies to produce more crop per drop.

Farmers will need to continue to maximize yield, but will now have to do so with less water. With three-quarters of our irrigated agriculture experiencing water shortages, innovation within the agriculture sector and application of new technologies — such as precision irrigation and real-time data management — will be critical to better managing limited freshwater resources and feeding growing populations around the world.

Today, half of the world’s population is impacted by water shortages. One in four cities is located in an area with an over-allocated watershed, and farmers around the world have been forced to fallow fields due to lack of water supplies. Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of global water withdrawals (and over 90 percent of consumption), and demand could grow by 20 percent by 2030 without efficiency gains.

The traditional solution to this problem has been to build more supply infrastructure — reservoirs, canals, diversion — but options are becoming increasingly narrow, as we run into the limitations of what nature can provide in many parts of the world. We need to get smarter about how we use every drop.

While water may not be the traditional muse for the high-tech industry, the answer to the global water challenge must rest in part on technology to better manage scarce water supplies — especially in the agricultural sector. Technology has the potential to help the sector reduce water consumption and remotely measure surface and groundwater levels, providing real-time data to help make more informed withdrawal decisions. These improvements could lead to better water management at the local level, and build sustainability into our global water outlook.

In California, the drought has limited water allocations from surface sources, forcing farmers to rely even more on groundwater supplies. These valuable “water banks” risk depletion, yet we haven’t been able to say when — due to the lack of data. While the state works on developing sustainable groundwater plans that work to rebalance the current water challenge across the state, advancements in satellite technology could play an important part in the solution.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) has been able to provide the first picture of the state of water resources below the surface, using two satellites that measure the impact of large deposits of water, such as the aquifer under the Central Valley in California, on the earth’s gravitational field. The latest analysis shows that one-third of the world’s aquifers are being rapidly depleted. This type of data, when integrated with other sources of remote sensing information on surface water conditions, could be used by farmers, utilities and regulators can make more informed decisions on withdrawals and replenishment needs, including those in the Central Valley.

On-the-ground technology is just as important to improve water management — if not more. Drip irrigation systems are becoming increasingly popular on farms around the world. The more direct watering and fertilizer application from drip irrigation systems have shown positive results, often achieving significant water reductions.

Center pivot irrigation uses sprinklers attached to a center pivot to more evenly distribute water to plants. University of Georgia faculty improved the system to allow farmers to remotely turn off specific nozzles on pivot irrigators as they cross over roads, ponds or other areas where crops aren’t grown.

While improvements to drip or center pivot irrigation may not be the most trendy water-efficiency technologies on the market, they have the potential to demonstrate water savings in the next five years if applied at scale. Investments in this area can start changing the trajectory of our current water consumption to a more sustainable direction.

In the not so distant future, we may see agricultural water savings right down the street. A new trend has emerged for high-value agricultural production — vertical farming. Vertical farming companies report using much less water than traditional farming and generating less waste. If the method can overcome the high cost of lighting required to sustain plant growth, fresh food can be grown in places once deemed unsuitable for agriculture year-round.

Farmers have long endured the variance of weather patterns and continued to feed the world — so there’s no doubt they will rise to the challenge of producing more with less. With farmers and the tech sector working together on solutions to better manage what limited resources we have, there’s hope that the next agricultural revolution can spark a transformation in how other industries approach water management, as well.

This blog was originally posted on GEReports. To read the original blog, click here.