New Technology, Water Recycling
and Other Advances Should Reduce Our Farms’ Thirst
What will the future of agriculture and food production look like?
Most of us are aware of some sobering statistics: With the planet’s population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, and incomes rising, demand for food is likely to double. Demand for water, meanwhile, is projected to grow roughly 55%, according to the 2014 U.N. World Water Development Report, while more than 40% of the world’s population will be living in areas of severe water stress.
Those are daunting challenges, to be sure.
But from where I’m sitting, I also see a steady stream of new farming technologies, practices and ideas that are increasing our ability to use limited resources efficiently—particularly water. And that promises a future agriculture that can feed the world, sustainably, for generations to come.
Capturing, recycling and reusing water will become the rule rather than the exception in food production and processing. Processing the food we eat every day makes up 50% of our total water footprint. It is not difficult to imagine most consumer products of the future bearing a “Water Footprint” rating.
A glimpse of that water-efficient future is already visible at the University of California, Davis, where my colleagues recently opened the world’s only LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified winery, brewery and food-processing facility. Wineries typically draw lots of water from public systems to clean their equipment. Ours gets all of the water it needs and more by capturing and filtering rainwater. In addition, some 90% of the water and chemicals from each cleaning cycle will be recovered for future use, helping reduce water-consumption to less than one-fifth of the average for a winery its size, drastically reducing the chemical footprint as well.
In the same vein, new technology will materially change many existing agricultural practices. I’m not talking about inventing or improving some farming tool—the traditional way new technology has changed agriculture in the past. Rather, agriculture will change thanks to the application of big data.
Already we have “prescriptive farming,” in which data collected using tractors and GPS helps farmers decide which seeds to plant in each patch of land and how to cultivate them. Soon, we’ll have networks of sensors that detect moisture in the ground or on plants themselves and transmit their data to drones, which are poised to become farming’s new intelligence-gathering tool of choice. Within the next decade, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts, 80% of commercial drones will be used for agricultural purposes. Unmanned aircraft with sensors, infrared cameras and the ability to transmit data in real time not only will help farms use less water, but also will be able to delineate the impact of pests and provide clues to their refuges.
Big data and its applications for water management will be deployed not just by farms and agribusiness but also by public authorities that play a role in agriculture. Networks with sensors for moisture detection will direct the timing, location and duration of irrigation that will be a key part of conservation and governance by water authorities.
Agriculture’s thirst for water will drive new policies as well as practices. Politicians, farmers and economists will wrestle with how water should be used, metered and taxed. One possibility is to control access through use of water credits awarded on the basis of conservation metrics. A cap-and-trade market could then be established, similar to the pollution credits markets already in effect in Europe and in the Northeast. Public policies and the market will reward efficient use of water and cooperative water use.
Better water management, though essential, won’t accomplish another crucial goal: getting fresh produce to urban markets more efficiently or sustainably. Such efficiency will be even more critical as our global population becomes more urbanized. The solution will be self-sustaining urban food production, where crops will be grown year-round in “vertical farms,” reducing the need for the carbon-emitting transport of fruits and vegetables over long distances and vastly reducing water use. By using recycled water, vertical farms are capable of using 98% less water per item of produce than traditional farming. I can envision a future where every community purchases its produce from its own vertical farm—taking “locally grown” to a whole new level.
The future of agriculture—and at its heart, more efficient water use—will have an enormous impact on our economy, our politics and our way of life. In the broadest sense, how well we manage to produce more with less will determine whether we live in a sustainable world.