While growing populations, high water demand and climate impacts are significant hurdles, the collection and management of data from the efforts to address these challenges pose another logistical hurdle, said Executive Director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, Roberto Lenton.
Lenton hosted conversations about these challenges in Washington D.C. this week as well as today at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo.
The Water for Food Institute uses its founding $50 million gift donated by the Daugherty Charitable Foundation in educational and research efforts “to produce more food in the face of diminishing water supplies.”
According to the Danforth Plant Science Center, water use is predicted to increase by 50 percent in developing countries and 18 percent in developed countries by 2025. Notably, 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used to produce food.
Since 1950, world population increased by 2.5 billion people to 7 billion and over that same period the irrigation area doubled and water withdrawals tripled, explained Monsanto Vice President of Sustainable Agriculture Policy, Michael Doane. “We can’t afford to do that again,” he added, as the population is expected to grow to 9 billion people in 2050.
At Monsanto, Doane said research stems from three pillars of seed genetics, agronomic practices and biotechnology to address more efficient water use in plants and on-farm conservation practices.
According to data presented by Doane, a 40 percent gap exists between projected freshwater demand and supply by 2030. Yield demands for corn, soybean and cotton will increase by 2030, but will need to be met with a dwindled water supply. Doane said the 2030 average yield goal for corn is 275 bushels per acre, 75 bushels per acre for soybean and 1, 270 pounds per acre for cotton.
In essence, “We need to double global food production by 2050 and reduce agriculture’s environmental impact – all while reducing water use,” according to DWFI.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman addressed water supply issues for American farmers, particularly irrigation availability in certain regions of the country where large urban areas compete with agriculture for water use.
In efforts to figure out ways to use less water to grow crops, he said, “Farmers are highly adaptable and they will continue to adapt as necessary as we move forward.”
Stallman also noted that biotechnology is one of the tools farmers use to minimize water use and continue to produce decent yields during droughts, which are expected to persist in 2013.
Lenton said that some signs of improvement in water productivity are evident. “In the U.S., water use and water consumption was going up, as expected, quite rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “In the last few decades it’s leveled off. This has to be a result of improvements in water productivity.”
For example, “Just genetics alone have doubled water productivity of corn,” Monsanto’s Doane said. He explained that, currently, corn yields average 10 bushels per every inch of water, while the in the 1960s, corn averaged around five bushels per inch of water.
However, tracking and monitoring these changes on a global scale are also huge challenges. “We don’t really have good data to tell us how we are doing in different countries in terms of producing more with less,” Lenton said. “Certainly there is a sense that we are making progress in that area.”
“Our ability to be able to monitor what’s going on is hugely important and our ability to be able to collect this data has really considerably improved,” Lenton said. “Now the issue is, ‘How do we manage all this data?’”
He said one of the Institute’s goals is to “get a handle on what countries are making in terms of water productivity,” or the amount of output they get per each unit of water. The Institute is producing an annual water productivity report with data on a country by country basis.
For example, India is among the select countries the University of Nebraska identified as a partner for its global activities.
The university and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have an agreement to collaborate on research and education efforts in water and food security. Lenton said the partnership will help the Institute’s goals of finding innovations in drought management, drought-tolerant crops, and high-efficiency irrigation in order to create what he called, “more crop per drop.”
Doane described regulatory approvals for crop technology as an additional global challenge for food security. “The U.S. has traditionally been a leading country in terms of putting together a clear regulatory process and the need for that continues,” he said. “There are many countries around the world that do not even have an approved pathway.”
He added that less than 10 percent of the agricultural acres worldwide are optimized with the tools of genetics, advanced agronomic practices and biotechnology, but “we have the ability to be vastly more productive.”
Just as addressing the global water supply challenge will involve a host of factors, with no “silver bullet,” properly implementing these practices will involve combining information technology with traditional areas, Lenton summarized. He emphasized that the future will rely on innovative systems that allow more precise distribution of water and irrigation in farming.
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