Agricultural needs and water management: a tricky equation for the future


Agriculture is today taking a great toll on water resources in order to feed the planet, in a world where these resources are limited and the population is growing. But the future needn’t be a worry: we can produce more food with less water. This challenge can and will be achieved thanks to a redefinition of our agricultural practices, ever-increasing cooperation between farmers, corporations and policymakers… and the right amount of creativity to come up with new techniques and solutions.


As the world population keeps growing, more and more food is needed. But water resources are not infinite, and agriculture is already using the majority of them. How will we manage agricultural water when there are 9 billion people on earth – and everyone must be fed?

Last month, in its final resolution, the Rio +20 Summit reaffirmed the Millennium Development Goal concerning water: to halve the number of people who lack access to drinking water by 2015. Water is one of the most visible and easy to understand ecological concerns, for it directly affects the lives of human beings all over the world:

today, over 800 million people still do not have consistent and secure access to water.

The quantity of water available on Earth is limited: only 3% of it is fresh water, and a little less than 1% is easily accessible, in the form of lakes, rivers or underground reservoirs. Today, in order to feed the world, agriculture uses over 70% of this precious resource. Between 1900 and 1975, water consumption for agricultural purposes increased six-fold! We now face a crucial challenge: if we want to comply with the Millennium Development Goal, if we want to provide enough water and food to the 9 billion human beings there will be on earth by 2050, agriculture must simultaneously produce more food and use less water. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that food production must increase by 50% by 2030, and double by 2050. This will have to be achieved with less water, mainly because of the pressures exerted by growing urbanization, industrialization and climate change. So is this equation impossible to solve?

Changing our ways

The equation must and can be solved, provided that we change some of our agricultural practices, and promote creativity and entrepreneurship to create new techniques and solutions. In the developed world, choices which have been made will have to be questioned. Since the beginning of the 20th century, agriculture has relied primarily on irrigation and fertilizers. This has enabled yields to skyrocket throughout the last fifty years: in 1960, each farmer produced enough food for an average of 9 people. Today, a farmer singlehandedly feeds 60 people – good news as far as food availability is concerned. But there are drawbacks too. First of all, the efficiency of irrigation is limited: it is estimated that 30 to 60% of water sprayed evaporates and is of no benefit to crops. We thus need enormous amounts of water to produce food:

25 litres are needed for 1 kilo of lettuce, 400 litres for 1 kilo of corn, 1,500 litres for 1 kilo of wheat… and 25,000 litres for 100 grams of beef!

These figures highlight very effectively the fact that, while it is extremely important to control, monitor and reduce our water consumption at home on a day-to-day basis, the greatest burden that we impose on the environment is through the food we eat.

Secondly, the massive use of phytosanitary products, fertilizers and nitrates to increase yield has its effects on the quality of water. This makes the water issue not only about quantity. Water pollution makes soils erode much more quickly, affects the health of the farmers that are exposed to endocrine disrupters, and impairs the economic cycle of water, since depolluting water to make it drinkable again comes at a cost. Also, when it comes to breeding, the concentration of cattle generates more animal waste than the soil can take. This gets washed away to the streams and groundwater tables, and becomes responsible for bacteriological pollution.

Finally, our practice of concentrating on monocultures is partially responsible for soil exhaustion and the impoverishment of water tables. In France, around half of the water used in agriculture is dedicated to growing corn, and it is estimated that half of the country’s wetlands have disappeared over the past 30 years because of this choice. To preserve water resources, NGOs like WWF are calling for a different agricultural model that also favours polycultures. But this is just one of the many answers that can be found to the issues that agriculture is already facing, and with which it will be more and more harshly confronted in the years to come. Agriculture must change some of its ways… and invent new solutions, be they high-tech or plain natural.

Persuasive measures and private initiatives

In France, in November 2011, the Ministry of Ecology and the Ministry of Agriculture announced a plan to adapt water management in agriculture which will be developed in two mains ways. Firstly, by increasing the resources by creating more reservoirs, which will also be more efficient. Secondly, by decreasing the need for water, in particular by planting less demanding crops, for instance soy rather than corn to feed animals. Irrigation system efficiency and crop diversification will also be tackled.In fact, as is often the case with wide-scale agricultural changes, political will is needed to encourage and support initiatives, to provide them with a favourable legal framework, or sometimes help and subsidies, in other words to build a “change-friendly” culture. As the OECD puts it in its publication Sustainable Management of Water Resources in Agriculture,

in the future, farmers will have to be given the right signals so as to rationalize the use of water and better its agricultural management.

But there is also much that the private sector can do right away. Farmers, for instance, can already chose crops depending on their water needs and on the climate, gather rainwater more efficiently and systematically, work with suitable equipment in order to avoid water loss, spray more accurately, etc. Corporations also have their say, since they have both the power and the motives to promote better management of resources such as water. This is exactly why Danone, in its latest annual report, has made the “protection of access to raw materials” one of its 6 strategic axes. Meeting this challenge means, among other issues, safeguarding springs. In 1992, Danone thus helped create Apieme,

an innovative association of local stakeholders dedicated to protecting the Evian spring by encouraging the growth of non-polluting businesses around the catchment area.

The model has since been extended to other springs and other parts of the world: Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay and Indonesia. In the latter, the project manages the rural ecosystem around the Aqua spring, in order not only to protect the water, but also to “maintain economic activity and preserve jobs, manage water, promote sustainable farming practices and support local farm cooperatives. By the end of its first phase in November 2011, the project had helped 500 farmers gain access to micro-credit and created 30 new jobs.” Living proof that private players have a range of actions via which they can make a difference!

Creativity to the rescue

Then, there are also more “futuristic” ways of tackling the issue. And we are not thinking of seawater desalination, which is extremely costly and thus affordable only for the richest countries. There are in fact brand new growing techniques that are the result of avant-garde scientific expertise, and which have already proven pertinent. In Brazil, original agronomical techniques were invented a few years ago to fight erosion and impoverishment of the soil, and thus guarantee its food productivity and prevent famines. These techniques go by the name of “agrobiological management of soils”. The main idea is that the soil is no longer ploughed but constantly protected by plant cover, made either from “dead” materials (straws, culture by-products, etc.) or “live” ones (living plant cover of grasses or legumes). The farmer plants his seeds directly across this natural cover, which acts as a protective blanket. The technique has been exported to regions where culture can be difficult, for instance in Madagascar. And the benefits are numerous, since agrobiological management enables complete control over erosion, and also over some pest species and several plant diseases. Soil fertility and productivity also progressively increase, while the workforce gets more productive too, thanks to reduced labour time and to the diversification of crops. Beyond the environmental advantages of this method, there is also the promise of better working and living conditions for farmers. In other words, a healthy ecosystem for all – which is maybe, at least in the developing world, what it all boils down to. According to the OECD,

the proportion of the population experiencing pronounced hydric stress can be expected to increase from 44% in 2005 to 47% in 2050.

Many of those affected are peasants, fishermen and breeders living in developing countries: guaranteeing access to agricultural water for these small farmers would allow food production to be increased, but it is in fact also absolutely key to these people’s own food safety. The World Health Organization (WHO) reminds us that the right to sufficient food and the right to water are fundamental human rights. They demand that agriculture be guaranteed durable access to water resources, especially for farmers who run small, low-income farms and who must also provide for themselves.

Renewing our agricultural system is not only a matter of feeding the planet. It has also much to do with water preservation, both in terms of quality and quantity. And we are obliged to achieve it if we want to guarantee a better future for those who actually feed the rest of us: the farmers. The stakes are huge, the task seems infinite. But it is possible. It is, in fact, the direction of progress, of ever increasing productivity. If we adopt the right approach, we will be able to produce more food with less water, to guarantee yield without an increase in irrigation needs. The OECD is almost optimistic and foresees a drop in the share of water that is used for agricultural purposes… at least in the developing world. In the North, the decrease will be slower. We had better get the work started!

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