Industries in Depth

How can we make agriculture more water-efficient?

Sarah Murray
Journalist, Financial Times/Economist Group
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Time is growing short to fix the food-water nexus. By 2050, food production needs to increase by an estimated 60% to accommodate population growth and the shift towards meat-intensive diets. Over the same period, says NASA, climate change will increase the likelihood of mega-droughts (droughts lasting 30 years or more). All countries will be affected, including the US, where drought likelihood will rise from 12% today to 60-80% by 2050, according to a NASA report released last month.

With agriculture accounting for 70% of total global water withdrawals, it is easy to see why José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), recently warned of the impacts of climate change and water scarcity on the stability of our global food-production system.

Achieving more water-efficient farming will require both a technological and a finance push.

On the technology side, advanced irrigation techniques will need to be deployed to replace traditional ones, like flood irrigation, that can lose up to 50% of the water to evaporation.

Precision agriculture, or smart farming, could be a solution. Poised to become a $6bn industry by 2022, it leverages big data and sensor technology to optimise agricultural production. Soil moisture sensors made by AquaSpy, for example, check on roots every 15 minutes, monitoring environmental conditions and informing an automated system when to irrigate. Similarly, drones such as those supplied by All Drone Solutions can help farmers build aerial maps to locate soil stress and more efficiently use water, fertiliser and/or pesticides.

Genetic engineering, already used to make some plants like soybeans or cotton resistant to insects and herbicides, is another route being explored. Since 2006, for example, the “drought-tolerant maize for Africa” initiative has developed 153 new varieties of maize that can produce up to 30% more than their non-modified counterparts in times of drought.

As promising as they are, many of these solutions remain unaffordable for the world’s 570m family farms, 72% of which are less than 1 ha and are often used for subsistence farming.

This is as much a policy issue as it is one of access to finance: Even a simple technology like drip irrigation is expensive—between $10,000 and $12,000 per hectare, according to the FAO. Micro and mobile finance will have a role to play.

So will the provision of weather or drought insurance. Such insurance, however, requires accurate data on moisture levels. This is precisely the goal of the SMAP satellite that NASA launched successfully on January 31. SMAP will monitor moisture levels across the globe at scales as low as 9 km, making its resolution five times that of the satellite launched by the European Space Agency five years ago. In the meantime, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been working with USAID to deliver drought-resistant seeds to more than 3m farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Making agriculture water-efficient, then, seems achievable. But, as the above suggests, it will require all actors to work together.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Sarah Murray writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: Irrigation hoses water a sports field in Del Mar, California.  REUTERS/Mike Blake 

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