As World Water Day focuses on responding to the urban challenge of 'Water for Cities,' it is also a global reminder of the critical role water plays in food production. With urban populations growing by two people every second and cities reaching deeper and further for freshwater resources, farmers must produce more food with even less available water. Water management in agriculture must be considered a priority to enable water and food security for our growing urban population.
From modern plant varieties that produce higher yields, to the adoption of conservation tillage that preserves soil moisture, plant science innovations are already leading progress on global water conservation efforts, and hold tremendous potential for the future. According to the United Nations, a 1 per cent increase in water productivity in food production alone can make up to an extra 24 liters of water available per person per day.
"Thanks in large part to the many advances we've made in the plant sciences, we're able to grow 'more crop per drop' - meaning farmers can produce food using less water," says Howard Minigh, President and CEO of CropLife International. "Continuing these advancements will be critical as our planet faces increasing water scarcity due to a rising population, climate change, and more extreme growing environments such as drought."
With the global population projected to reach 9.1 billion people by 2050 from about 6.8 billion in 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated we will need a 70 per cent increase in world food production. It's also estimated that by 2030, close to half the world's population will be living under severe water stress, making conservation efforts essential.
Enhanced crop varieties, crop protection products and farming techniques are helping plants grow and thrive on less water, as well as be more resistant to pests and diseases, which is helping advance water conservation efforts. A study in the United States, for example, found that 50,000 fewer gallons of water are needed to grow an irrigated acre of corn today, compared to twenty years ago. One acre of irrigated cotton requires about 30 per cent less water than two decades ago.
Biotech traits that enable plants to cope with drought and other water-related stresses are another innovation that offers great potential to improving water use efficiency. The first drought-tolerant crops are expected to be commercialized in the U.S. by 2012 and in sub-Saharan Africa by 2017. Scientists expect maize with drought tolerance to produce about two million more tons of food under moderate drought conditions, meaning an additional 14 to 21 million people could be fed.
Improved farming techniques
Improved farming techniques, such as increased drip and sprinkler irrigation, combined with best practices such as no-till farming, improved drainage, better varieties and optimized fertilizer use are all part of agriculture's water conservation efforts.
"We will face enormous challenges over the next few decades to feed our growing population while at the same time protecting our resources and using them wisely," says Minigh. "Science can help us in many ways, including conserving water, producing more food and continuously making our environmental stewardship practices even better."
The plant science industry is committed to providing farmers with the technology and knowledge they need to optimize yields and increase water efficiency, and continuing partnerships to help ensure these tools reach those who need it most.
For more information on water use in agriculture, visit CropLife International's website  and 'Perspective on Water Security'. For further information on public-private partnerships in agriculture, please consult the brochure Advancing agricultural innovation through public-private partnerships.