The agriculture industry, and human food output, will be increasingly affected by water scarcity in the coming years. There are many reasons why this is the case, and each one merits considerable public and civic discussion. Good news arrives in the form of “smart agriculture” — a family of technology dedicated, in part, to helping the world’s farmers make the most of the water they use in the process of growing our food crops.
Minimizing water usage is one of several important steps worth taking right now. What’s hanging in the balance? In addition to a healthy and equitably distributed water table around the globe, using technology to reach a balance between crop output and resource usage will also deliver the means to feed the incoming human generations using the land we already possess. That’s 8.6 billion souls by 2030 and 11.2 billion by 2100.
There are many places in agricultural production where the collection of data can help pinpoint waste and aid in more precisely and efficiently applying current water supplies to crops. As with other smart technologies, sensors pave the way to this greater level of resource awareness. There’s never been a more important time to cultivate that awareness either — not now that the world’s demand for water is growing twice as fast as our population itself.
Companies are experimenting with low-cost sensors based on cellular and radio connectivity. When placed throughout plantable areas, these sensors can take in and transmit data about:
- Sunlight throughout the day and the growing season
- The composition and nutrient balance of the soil
- Ongoing temperature fluctuations
- Levels of humidity and rainfall
Even topography plays a role. With these data points accounted for, farmers have a more complete picture of conditions where they will be planting and irrigating crops. Better understanding the variables listed above helps ensure irrigation isn’t wasted on areas that don’t need it. More data about the soil and atmospheric conditions can help optimize — in many cases reduce — the fertilizer needed for a bountiful harvest. The savings for water alone, according to findings so far, could be as much as 20 or 30 percent.
There are quite a few startups and even mature companies working on solving various water problems by using data first and foremost. A software technology company called CropX got the attention of Google in recent years as its innovative wireless sensors helps farmers save water and energy and boost crop yield. CropX isn’t shy about what it wants to achieve either; it wears its high-tech influences on its collective sleeves: “We want to be the Apple of agriculture, in terms of sleek software and hardware integration … and the Google of agriculture in dealing with the massive flow of information that comes from the Internet of Things.”
More intelligent ways to reuse wastewater
Necessity is the mother of invention. In desert countries like Israel, in which 60 percent of the land is arid, reusing water is less a suggestion and more a social and economic imperative. As a result, some parts of Israel reuse 80 percent of the water in its sewers, most of which is earmarked for irrigation purposes. Compared with other industrialized countries, including the U.S., this is a remarkable benchmark.
California has been hard-hit by droughts in recent months and years. Droughts, forest fires and trade disputes have hit the state (and the world’s fifth largest economy) hard — and the mixture of unfavorable factors has analysts warning the farming community to prepare for another tough year ahead in 2019. Even with all this going on, Nestle found enough sympathy in local government to secure permits to pump millions of gallons of water out of the state for resale elsewhere.
Related Post: Why I Boycotted Nestle
Making smarter civic decisions is an important part of bringing agricultural, public and corporate water demands back into balance with what’s actually physically available. Smarter technology can enter the mix, too.
A number of companies and nonprofit organizations in the state have been working for years to raise consciousness about how to irrigate farmland more effectively — including using wastewater. By recycling water and using it to satisfy the needs of some 12,000 acres of crops, Monterey County in California was able to reuse 60 percent of its wastewater.
According to the USDA, smart irrigation and water reuse systems come in several varieties and may include many partners or pieces of infrastructure. Until recently, several of these were cost-prohibitive. Not for much longer, though:
- Drip-based systems, while simple, deliver considerable water savings over surface-based methods of irrigation, such as sprinklers and furrows.
- The California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) is a real-world example of the “net” of sensors described above. Using data from 200 weather stations, it can provide guidance to farmers for determining their land’s actual water demands. It’s a function of evapotranspiration as well as local weather patterns — and the data and recommendations are more visible and accessible than ever.
- Individual farmers can now study their fields’ evapotranspiration rates and other variables, too. Cost-prohibitive until a breakthrough at the University of California, Davis, farmers can now react in real-time to conditions out in the fields even as they’re still developing.
There are other ways to stretch our water budgets further, too. Johns Hopkins University has shown a new approach to aquaponics for urban areas. The concept is surprisingly elegant: Create more advanced aquaponics facilities that can house fish and plant crops in the same space. The plants keep the water clean for the fish, and all can thrive in areas of the world which previously struggled with limited water sources or had difficulty producing healthful food in sufficient quantities. The double-duty facilities cut down further on wasted water and effort.
Exploring new ways to maximise crop yield
There’s another way to go about growing more food without using more water, and it involves coming at the problem from the other way around.
The manipulation of food species at the genetic level — both plant and animal — has been an important part of agriculture for a long time. The controversy over GMOs is both more, and less, of a scandal than it seems: Engaging in selective breeding is nothing new, while patenting organisms definitely is. There can be significant benefits to treating or manipulating some of the species humans rely on for food, so long as it’s done humanely.
In part to sidestep the controversy over genetically modified crops — a clearly imperfect solution to the problem of maximizing yields — scientists in New Zealand are using another tool to manipulate crop potential: light.
Ultraviolet (UV) light has shown promise, in pilot programs in California, Mexico and elsewhere, in stimulating more productive growing cycles. Seeds treated with the BioLumic ultraviolet crop yield enhancement system have shown 22 percent increases in crop yields in some test runs. Similar results have been reported elsewhere in the world. Without any genetic manipulation or potentially harmful chemicals, UV light, applied to seeds during critical moments in their early development, has the effect of jump-starting those seeds’ crop-bearing potential.
The technology behind the BioLumic system has been in development for decades, according to the company — and it might become an essential next step in making sure our crops can get by with less water without reducing their yield. Technology may help deliver us from some of our wastefulness. When it comes to managing our water, there’s no better solution than curbing our bad habits to begin with.
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