Today is National Ag Day! The theme of Ag Day 2021 is “food brings everyone to the table.” These are words that many of us can relate to. While the global population has different ways in which we acquire and eat our food, everyone can understand how important farmers—people who produce our food—are to the rhythms of our daily lives. As we celebrate farmers this Ag Day, we are also reminded that World Water Day was just yesterday, on March 22. Thinking of these two recognition days together, you might consider how crucial both water and food are for our survival. Let’s take a closer look at how farmers are sustainably using water to produce our food and help bring us to the table.
Agricultural water use in the U.S.: Then and now
While there are technologies currently underway for farms to make use of salt and brackish waters for farming, the primary sources of water for farming are freshwater. The most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data on freshwater (a combination of ground water and surface water) withdrawals for all uses shows that total withdrawals more than doubled from 1950 to 1980 before roughly leveling off for a few decades, then decreasing noticeably between 2005 and 2010. Additionally, the U.S. economy grew nearly seven-fold in this 60-year time span—which significantly outpaced the growth rate of water withdrawals. The most recent data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that water use in the United States in 2015 was estimated to be about 322 billion gallons per day (Bgal/d), which was nine percent less than in 2010. However, water used for agricultural irrigation increased two percent between 2010 and 2015.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that agriculture remained a major user of fresh water in the United States, “accounting for approximately 80 percent of the [n]ation’s consumptive water use and over 90 percent in many [w]estern [s]tates.” The agency notes that sustainable irrigation practices are at the core of managing farming productivity and responsible natural resource usage.
Additionally, many scientists have cited that increased productivity in both land and water use are needed in order to ensure food production levels can meet the needs of our growing population. In fact, the International Water Management Institute has asserted that “75 percent of the additional food needed for future decades could be met by bringing the production levels of the world’s low-yield farmers up to 80 percent of what high-yield farmers get from comparable land.” Water-use management is key for closing this significant gap in productivity.
Of course, it’s no big secret that crops need water to grow and flourish, but how the water gets to the crops is important to note. Rain is a major source of water for crops, but what if weather brings too much rain or not enough rain throughout the seasons? These situations have led farmers to get crafty over the years.
Irrigation, which is an artificial system that is built to evenly distribute water to land at a controlled rate, is an important technology to help maximize the efficiency of water use in agriculture. Irrigation techniques are one of the evolving tools farmers use to mindfully utilize the natural resources of water and energy. Another water-management tool of note that we’ve cited in the past includes how biotechnology has provided crops that are drought-resistant (crops that need less water to grow and can withstand long periods of drought) and saline-tolerant (crops that flourish in higher-salinity water and soil). These technologies can aid in the reduction of the use of fresh water while still assisting farms in reaching their productivity goals.
The highest crop yields that can be obtained from irrigation are more than double the best yields from farms that are only rain-fed. Rain-fed farming involves direct rainfall supplying water naturally to cropland. Farms that rely on rainfall for water supplies are less likely run into water contamination issues of food products but are open to water shortages when rainfall is lacking. The USDA has cited that in 2012, irrigated farms accounted for roughly half of the total value of crop sales on 28 percent of U.S. harvested cropland. Also of note, irrigated farms not only work to produce crops for human consumption—they also support the production of animal forage-and-feed crops for livestock and poultry.
There are several types of irrigation, including drip irrigation, surface irrigation, center-pivot irrigation, and lateral-move irrigation. Unfortunately, advanced irrigation systems can be expensive for small-scale farmers in developing countries. Some farmers make their own versions by building earth barriers or furrows that direct rainwater runoff to crops. To prepare for dry periods, farmers can also safely collect rainwater in reservoirs, ponds or other basins. As noted above, more needs to be done to help small farmers in their water use efforts so that we can more efficiently use farmland around the world.
We hope these facts about agricultural water use have shed some light on the importance of water conservation and the work of farmers on this year’s Ag Day. If you’d like to learn more about how you can save water in your home while you care for your lawn, wash clothes, clean dishes or do other things around the house, we think you will find this resource of interest as well! Happy Ag Day!