Managing water is paramount for the future of food production

The key for our future food productionWith an increasing population that needs more food and more water to live, we can expect that water is going to become a highly strategic and needed resource. As climate changes, the current rain distribution and geographic availability of water is likely to change dramatically, too. This increasing competition between agricultural areas and urban areas will bring major changes on how we use water for both personal use and for food production. On the personal side, we certainly can expect that current bathroom systems to disappear, as they use too much water. Every time we flush a toilet tank, we actually waste the daily drinking water needs of a couple of people, and local water reserves are gradually depleted as well. Clearly, this has no future. Similarly, we can expect the legislation on water use for lawn sprinkling and car washing to change.

Food production will become more and more focused on water efficiency. The main themes will be about taking what we need, but no more, and about collecting, conserving and recycling water. This will bring us to rethink our crop production, the watering systems we use and develop systems aimed at collecting and conserving water.

Our choice of crops will get under review. Some plants have such high needs for water that their production systems will have to be altered, or maybe even we will have no other choice of limiting them to small selected areas. The use of combined crop productions on the same field is likely to gain some popularity back, as this is a way of saving water and protecting the plants and the soil from excessive evaporation. This, of course, will mean a different look on yields and on harvesting systems. IrrigationMore efficient irrigation systems will replace the old ones. Computerized systems are already in use in wine production, using sensors for humidity and temperature, to determine how much water the plants needs at the most optimal time of the day and deliver it at the exact spot. You can expect that such an optimization approach will prevail. The path that Monsanto follows with the production of genetically modified (GM) wheat that needs only a third of regular wheat varieties is quite interesting. The tricky part is the GM part, as on the contrary to natural “mutations”, such a process does not undergo natural selection, and therefore we do not know what possible side effects it might bring. Nonetheless, this is an attempt to deal with future water shortages. Hopefully, other less controversial solutions can be found that will deliver a similar result. Once again, we can shape our future through continuing innovation.

Food processing, such as slaughterhouses or washing stations for produce, uses large amounts of water. In these sectors, too, new more efficient systems will have to be designed to reduce water use, and they will have to guarantee to meet hygiene and food safety standards. Water treatment and recycling have already been in use for years and they will continue to gain market share.

Next to the above, which is mostly in the hands of individuals and companies, there is a need for political action to address water shortages and water quality issues that expand far beyond the local operations. A number of agricultural areas suffer from drought on a regular basis, such as Australia and some parts of Canada. Other areas have seen the flow of rivers drop dramatically, like for instance the Yang Tse River in China, which has more and more difficulties to reach the sea. In other areas, such in the Arabic Peninsula, the countries realize that traditional irrigation systems are meeting some serious limitations because of the competition between need for drinking water and need for irrigation. Some very interesting projects are in the works to offer alternatives. For example, there are studies to consider the use of floating islands covered with solar panels in order to produce on the spot the energy necessary to desalinize seawater, therefore providing these areas with water that does not originate from underground reserves.

These problems affect the availability, the quality of the water and strongly affect the environment. Failure to address and more importantly to solve such problems properly would have catastrophic consequences for large populations. A balanced plan to offer the availability to water for people, agriculture and industries is absolutely necessary.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.