Opinion: A twenty-first century challenge: growing more food with less water

By Guest Author

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By Ponsi Trivisvavet, President of Syngenta Seeds, LLC

Earlier this week, agricultural leaders and scholars gathered at the Nebraska Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the seventh annual Water for Food Global Conference to catalyze strategies in support of feeding the world with a finite amount of water.

It's an important dialogue in which the ag community must engage, as water is the biggest single factor limiting the world's ability to feed a growing population. For farmers, it may be the most crucial - and unpredictable - variable.

Because it takes roughly one liter of water to produce a single calorie of food, feeding a growing population requires that we rethink strategies around water. This week's global gathering provided a platform to do that while sharing the ideas essential to helping farmers grow more food with less water.

Managing water more effectively requires an unwavering commitment from the agriculture industry - from breeding crops that convert water to grain more effectively to leveraging data and technology to informing more strategic and precise uses of irrigation methods. Corn hybrids that optimize the conversion of water to grain, for example, represent an important opportunity for agriculture, especially given that weather variability affects all farmers, to some degree, every year. Irrigation management presents another such opportunity, especially in the West, where we've seen how the successful production of numerous types of crops is simply not possible without adequate water.

Lets Talk Food

The water challenge CAN be met, but it will require that all sectors work together - private industry, government, NGOs, academia and public research institutions - in order to implement a broad spectrum of strategic solutions.

Such a focused action plan should include:

·         Access to Technology: ensuring that farmers have the best tools available, including improved plant varieties, seed treatments, crop protection and modern irrigation methods.

·         Knowledge Sharing: providing farmers the most up-to-date agronomic knowledge and methods, specifically tailored to their local conditions.

·         Partnerships: creating collaborations among farmers, governments, businesses, NGOs, schools and public research institutions to create new efficiencies in production.

·         Access to Finance: expanding access to insurance and finance, and sharing risk throughout the food distribution and supply chain, so that farming remains a profitable and sustainable business.

·         Infrastructure: improving traditional infrastructure (roads, rail, water works, manufacturing plants) to give farmers secure access to markets, and developing new high-tech infrastructure (telecom, research stations) to give farmers access to up-to-date information and the latest agronomic knowledge.

·         Constant Innovation: continually improving plant technologies to help growers produce increased yields with less water; and creating protections for intellectual property to encourage investment in plant innovation.

·         Regulatory Action: helping regulators understand and advocate for the importance of agricultural technologies - crop protection products, growth regulators and specially developed crop varieties - that address the global food security challenge.

·         An Inclusive Dialogue: reaching beyond agriculture to bring all stakeholders together to identify ways to save water, including collaboration among industrial, agricultural and domestic users of water, and adjustments to government pricing policies to encourage the efficient use of water.

Also this week, Syngenta provided a progress report on The Good Growth Plan, a global Syngenta initiative introduced in 2013. Among the commitments comprising the plan, Syngenta promised to increase the average productivity of the world's major crops by 20 percent without using more land, water or inputs. To date, more than 3,600 farmers and many organizations are working with us to demonstrate and measure what is possible for 21 crops, the environment and the people in 42 countries.

No government or industry alone can tackle the monumental task of managing our water resources constraints. But farmers, private industry, governments and other stakeholders can do it together. There is no silver bullet - no one answer to the global water challenge - but a concerted effort by all stakeholders to address the most serious challenges and seize our key opportunities CAN enable us to meet the global water challenge.

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