The Importance of Water Conservation for the Future of Farming – a guest post by James Madeiros*
How do you grow crops and raise livestock for food without water? The answer is, you don’t.
Some may find this assessment too hyperbolic given the history of the world and the current state of water as a natural resource, but these are the same people who will be most surprised when global water scarcity reaches an undeniable degree.
Agricultural activity consumers the largest amount of water in the world by a wide margin, with irrigated agriculture utilizing 75% of the world’s freshwater resources. The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) most recent assessment places the United States use of water for irrigation very close to the global average, at 67% of the country’s total freshwater resources.
This does not take into account the needs for livestock. Estimates vary more due to countries’ varying requirements for livestock care, but U.S. livestock consumed 2.14 billion gallons a day in 2005 according to USGS estimates.
The bulk of these statistics are based on information gathered in 2005 by the USGS, which publishes such data every five years. The publishing date for 2010 data has been delayed, however, until 2014. The reason this is significant is because in 2005, the world’s population stood at 6.5 billion, and has already increased nearly 500 million to 6.99 billion as of February 19, 2012.
Although total growth is slowing, the global population is projected to keep increasing well into the 22nd century. Daily advancements in technology, medicine and food production support expanded growth, although scientists are divided on whether humanity will reach “zero population growth” (a balance between births and deaths) or whether growth will continue unabated. If the latter holds, humanity will simply not survive.
As it stands, though, society may not have to wait that long to find out if the planet does not embrace the philosophy and methodologies of water conservation. It must be remembered that Earth is a “closed system” in that it does not gain or lose water. It changes forms, but the Earth has always had the same amount of water, at least as far as human civilization is concerned. Earth has not, however, always had so many people who need water for their own survival as well as for the crops and livestock they consume.
Advancements in irrigation, water recycling and food production have brought civilization a long way. In fact, the population could not have grown as much as it did without the revolutionary developments that have occurred in agriculture. Even so, food production does not match the pace of population growth, and production in general has been on the decline for the last 20 years.
There are myriad reasons for this, many of which have less to do with water conservation and more to do with unchecked population growth, but it is a known fact that many areas of the world suffer from poor water management and infrastructure for both farmland and communities. So, what’s the answer?
A more or less universal acknowledgement of procreation as a human right means that a successful plan must hinge upon a more discriminating use of water. Water wars are not a future concern – they are a present fact, and the conflict is poised to spread to areas and cultures that share a misconception that they are immune to water shortages.
The ultimate answer is unknown, although it is sure to involve a combination of better education on the importance of water conservation in farming and the advancement of a regulatory structure in the agricultural sector that reflects the importance of protecting the planet’s most precious natural resource.
*James Madeiros is a writer for Seametrics, a manufacturer of water flow meters that are used by farmers to measure and reduce the water used in irrigation.