By: David Morgan 

One of the best ways to mark World Water Day is to think—when you sit down for lunch or dinner—that every meal you eat “consumes” hundreds of gallons of water.

To be more precise, it takes about a half gallon of water to grow just one single calorie of food, or nearly 800 gallons of water to produce the nutrition needed to sustain a human being for a day.

Or imagine it this way: That glass of milk that went with your breakfast required about 264 gallons of water to produce. And the hamburger you had for lunch? Try 635 gallons of water. The bun alone took about 21 gallons.

And yet, our fresh water resources are beginning to dry up and, as they do, the risk that food could become far more expensive and scarce for much of the world increases.

This may sound counterintuitive for people used to seeing NASA photos of our planet mostly covered by water. Yet, almost 98 percent of this water is salty ocean.  Much of the rest is too contaminated to drink. Some 21 percent of the available surface water in China is unfit to use for watering crops, much less for direct human consumption. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the local water is so polluted that half of the city’s water supply has to be shipped in.

Some 80 countries suffer from water shortages as do California and Texas. In 2005, 12 percent of the world was living in water-stressed conditions. That percentage will triple by 2025.

And yet we will need ever more water to feed a growing and hungry world.

World population is projected to rise by more than 2 billion by the middle of this century. Feeding such a vast world population by today’s standards would be a tall order. The real challenge is going to be even steeper. With hundreds of millions of people in the developing world rising into the ranks of the middle-class, the demand for a wider variety of food with richer calories will inexorably rise, as well.

When you take into account the world’s rising dietary standards along with population growth, experts believe we will have to double agriculture production. To achieve this goal will thus require double the amount of water now used to feed the world—unless we make significant changes to the way we grow our food.

The 2030 Water Resources Council, a consortium of public and private organizations, reports that water needs will exceed current, accessible, reliable water supplies by 40 percent in 20 years.

How will we grow twice as much food, without draining every river, lake and wild stream in the world? Innovate.

Because the amount of fresh water in the world is static it makes sense that the most innovative way forward is to vastly increase water efficiency—that is improve the crop-per-drop—of agriculture. And the best way to do that is to make full use of innovation and agricultural technology.

This means biotechology and new plant breeding techniques to produce crops that can thrive on less water. For example, one new corn-hybrid from my own company delivers up to 15% yield preservation under moderate to severe moisture stress. And more are on the way.

Other technologies—compounds that provide seed care and herbicides that reduce water-hungry weeds are needed. So are plant growth regulators, products that help increase yields by as much as 25 percent, while reducing water needs by 15 percent.

Consider what technology has already achieved in U.S. soybean production. Between 1987 and 2007, the United States enjoyed a 29 percent increase in soybeans yields, while the use of irrigation water reduced by 20 percent. Not incidentally, soil erosion declined by almost 50 percent. Also, the amount of energy used to grow these soybeans fell by 48 percent and greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 38 percent. [You can see these figures in dramatic chart form and similar exponential improvements in the other crops here ].

Those impressive savings occurred in the most advanced agricultural region on earth. But the opportunities in regions where agriculture is less advanced are even more dramatic. It is estimated that Asia could boost its agricultural productivity by 20 percent by simply adopting current technology.

In the face of a world that could face both hunger and thirst, we need everything in agriculture that innovation can produce—including biotechnology, herbicides, and other advanced farming techniques.

As we celebrate World Water Day, it is important for those of us who are dedicated to agriculture to make it clear to the public that our generation will need to double agricultural production with the same amount or even less water than we use today to grow our crops. It is a formidable challenge, but one we can meet.

We have the technology. We have the solutions. All we need is the willingness to apply what we know to the task at hand.

This isn’t a challenge just for farmers, just for politicians, NGOs or business. It is a challenge for all of us, collectively, in every part of society. Working together we can expand the circle of productivity that has allowed us to continually Grow More From Less. We can keep the fields blooming and our growing population fed. We can create a world of sustainable, stable growth and abundance, in both this generation and for those to come.

About the author:  David Morgan has spent his entire career in agriculture. After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Agricultural and Forestry Sciences from Oxford University, he joined DuPont in agricultural R&D in the United Kingdom. Making the transition to commercial and country management roles, David worked for a number of companies that evolved through a series of acquisitions and mergers. David joined Syngenta in 2007 and he recently assumed the North America Region Director role while retaining oversight for all the Seeds businesses within the region. David’s primary focus is on leading the Syngenta team in their creation of crop and customer focused strategies and the development of innovative technology solutions for North American producers.


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