Agriculture and Water Consumption in the Changing Future

Agriculture—including the production of food, livestock, aquaculture, and naturally grown materials—accounts for 70–80% of water consumption globally.  In the United States, this number is on the order of 34% of our national consumption.  As climate change increases the uncertainty of available water sources, agricultural producers will have to look for new and sustainable methods of maintaining their crop yield. In addition, projected rapid population growth over the next 25 years will increase demands for food and agricultural products worldwide.  An expanding population will also increase water stress by demanding water for products other than agriculture, such as for domestic, energy, and industrial use.  In the United States and many other countries, new trends towards healthier eating have significantly increased the demand for fruits and vegetables, crops that require a high amount of water input.  Additional pressures on water supply come from conservationists who wish to protect flows in order to maintain aquatic habitats for dependent species.  An increase in demand for agricultural products and simultaneous decrease in supply of water will certainly create many difficulties for farmers and agricultural managers in the near future, and it is imperative to begin planning now to find sustainable solutions to these challenges.  Increases in technology and irrigation efficiency, research regarding drought triggers and preparedness, and genetically engineered crops are likely the best solutions to help agricultural producers in a time of increasing water stress.  Each of these solutions also has challenges and risks involved, but the time for action is now, before global food crisis or water conflict erupts.–Nora Studholm
O’Neill, M. P., and Dobrowolski, J. P., 2011.  Water and Agriculture in a Changing Climate.  HortScience 46, 155-157. 

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O’Neill and Dobrowolski suggest several possible solutions for agricultural producers facing water stress, and assert that it is essential to find responses that encompass the physical, biological, social, and economic issues of water resources.  Some of the most promising technological advancements are systems for recycling or reuse of water.  However, these are not without their challenges.  Wastewater, which is in fairly constant supply, cannot keep up with irrigation demands of farmers, and so these systems would be only a partial solution.  In addition, upstream wastewater facilities can have damaging impacts further downstream, including decreases in downstream flows.  In addition, there is a certain amount of stigma surrounding the idea of eating crops grown with recycled water, and the authors propose that educational outreach programs will be necessary to remove these fears from the public perception. 
Another possibility is the creation of water storage ponds to decrease uncertainty of water sources.  These, however, may gather pathogens from wildlife that use them as a water source, and could introduce dangerous diseases into the human population.  Improved irrigation efficiency and an increase in effective global markets for water will also certainly be key components of the solution.  There is also great promise in genetically modified crops, which may be engineered to be drought- or salt-tolerant, decreasing the impact of water uncertainty.  Not only may genetically modified crops increase yield under uncertain conditions, they may be higher quality and more nutritious as well. 
Finally, in this time of growing uncertainty and increases in severe drought, farmers need to have increased drought preparedness.  An unexpected drought could cost over 1 billion dollars in the US alone, and would certainly have other drastic human impacts as well.  Research is currently under way to determine what “triggers” show severe drought approaching, so that agricultural producers can predict them and be ready to implement changes to minimize damage.
            There is no single answer to the challenges facing agricultural producers in the near future.  As population grows and water supply becomes more uncertain, farmers and managers will have to work with all sectors to ensure that global climate change does not spell disaster for agricultural production.

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