Washington — The 2012 drought in the U.S. Midwest affected both farmers in the region and consumers halfway around the world who rely on U.S. grain exports, according to a noted water management and development expert.
Globally, water and agricultural productivity are interconnected challenges, said Roberto Lenton, director of the Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Countries must find ways to provide food security for the world's growing population while ensuring that scarce water resources are conserved so they can be used for other critical purposes."
The world's population is expected to increase 40 percent by 2050 and double its demand for food. Increased incomes in growing economies also mean increased demand for protein, which requires more water to produce. Limited cropland, competing demands for water, particularly by municipal and industrial users, and a changing climate also threaten water supplies, Lenton said.
Lenton will participate in a session about agriculture's role in confronting global water challenges at the Borlaug Symposium October 17-19 in Des Moines, Iowa, an event timed to highlight the themes of World Food Day, October 16.
WATER FOR FOOD
The Water for Food Institute was established to help countries use their limited freshwater supply effectively and sustainably, Lenton said. Locating the institute in Nebraska, in the heart of the country's maize and soybean growing area, takes advantage of the state's investments in irrigation and its adoption of a sound water-use policy.
The 2012 drought -- the worst in more than 50 years for several U.S. states -- reduced yields in many states, but not Nebraska. It is expected to end its 2012 summer growing season with its eighth-largest grain yield in history while drawing down its aquifer just 1 percent, Lenton said. More than 65 percent of the High Plains Aquifer, the largest in North America, lies beneath the state.
In the 1970s, Nebraska invested heavily in irrigation and adopted a water-management policy among 23 elected, local watershed-governing bodies. The state has more irrigated farm land -- about 4 million hectares -- than most countries in the Americas, Lenton said.
Nebraska's drought tolerance has been aided by drought-resistant crop varieties, conservation tillage, and better technologies such as center-pivot sprinklers, which use less water than flooding irrigation, and moisture sensors that relay soil moisture information to farmers via mobile phone. "Farmers then can apply water only when it is absolutely needed," Lenton said.
In countries with fewer resources and small plots of arable land, technologies like microdrip systems and treadle pumps have proven successful, Lenton added.
Even though water challenges are global, Lenton said, solutions must be developed locally because water availability, water requirements, and technological and policy options differ depending on local conditions.
For instance, he said, western Nebraska is drier than eastern Nebraska. Because groundwater levels also vary, some regions limit new water permits while other localities do not. Also, drip irrigation that is useful in dry regions with small farms is not economically or practically feasible in other areas.
"Simply put, we will need to do more with less," Lenton said.
The Water for Food Institute grew out of a 2009 conference hosted by the University of Nebraska and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was established in 2010 with a $50 million grant from the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation. Daugherty founded Valmont Industries of Omaha, which makes irrigation systems.
In July, the institute and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization agreed to partner on research and education efforts in water and food security. The partnership will focus on sustainably increasing crop yields and water productivity using mapping, modeling and yield-gap analyses to estimate potential yields of major food crops. It also will work to improve drought monitoring and drought-resistant plant breeding.