Advancements in agriculture over the last hundred years have radically changed farming practices, bringing an age-old, labour intensive activity into the 21st Century. Today’s merger of science with agriculture continues to push the boundaries of what is possible, but has in the process raised some ethical conundrums, like the use of GMOs to augment the world’s food supply.
Ethical and philosophical matters can be debated endlessly, often times taking policy makers and thinkers further into the clouds, and away from the lived experiences of people on the ground. Water use in agriculture has far-reaching impacts, and it is worth considering how best to manage the world’s water supply for today—and tomorrow.
Just over 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water, and of that, under 3 percent is freshwater. Food production accounts for 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals, making agriculture the largest consumer of freshwater in the world. Water waste, contamination, and irrigation issues are viable problems that affect millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Innovative ideas to address water use issues, including harnessing green water resources and wastewater management techniques, create promising possibilities about the future of water in agriculture.
Freshwater scarcity is a growing problem, particularly at a time when complications from climate change, pollution, and over-abstraction are mounting. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), major food producing nations, such as the United States, China, India, and Spain have hit their ceiling, or are close to hitting their ceiling, on renewable water resource limits.
This complex issue has several causes, including irrigation system leaks, inefficient methods used in fields, and the farming of crops that are not appropriate to the environment. Political and public awareness about the issue is low, and when this is compounded by misallocated subsidies and haphazard or ineffectual environmental legislation, water waste increases.
A recent report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) notes that over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater makes it back into the environment without any treatment. This leads to contaminated drinking water, and jeopardizes marine wildlife while disrupting food chains. Wastewater from agriculture is a major area of concern, as fertilizer overuse and surface runoff, both in crop and livestock production, create wastewater that is released into the environment. Pesticides, salts, sediments, and other pollutants, all by-products of agriculture activities, further exacerbate wastewater.
Researchers have been exploring ways to address water waste in agriculture by taking a more holistic look at the problem. The last decade has seen a focus on green water, or rain water, and the impacts it can have on the environment and, consequently, food production. By focusing on both blue water (irrigation of fresh water) and green water, new strategies can be developed to better manage water use in agriculture, and elsewhere.
Integrated agriculture-aquaculture manages crops, vegetables, livestock, trees, and fish together in a collective system. This can lead to stable production, efficiency, and sustainability. Best of all, waste as output can be re-purposed from one area, and turned into input for another. Ultimately, the idea is to understand wastewater not as a problem, but as a possible solution to the water use issues facing the world.
Efficient water use is indispensable for humans to survive into the future. So, too, is developing strategies that can help address problems in unique ways. The UNESCO report is a step in the right direction, making many important points, including this one:
“If adequately treated and safely applied, wastewater is a valuable source of both water and nutrients, contributing to food security and the improvement of livelihoods” – p.74
The key point here is food security, and how innovative models can help alleviate difficulties. Fed, a Vancouver-based nutrition company, addresses food security by combining science and technology to improve human health. Nutritious meals, created by experts, that satisfy daily requirements while also minimizing the negative environmental impacts of food production and consumption.
We are currently working hard to make Fed a reality, and are aiming to launch later in 2017. Sign up now for our mailing list to receive updates and early access to our meals.