Washington — Farmers and public officials can take a variety of steps to build resilience to periodic drought, according to a group of public and private-sector experts.
"Trends in global food demand and water availability ... point to the need for growing more food with less water," said Roberto Lenton, executive director of the Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Lenton led an experts' discussion on building resilience in agro-ecosystems March 20 at the National Press Club in Washington.
"Farmers across the globe are seeking ways to make every drop of water count, whether through improved crops, advances in irrigation, or new tillage and cropping systems," University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken wrote in a Water for Food Institute report released at the start of the discussion. The event was sponsored by the Daugherty institute and the Washington-based Global Harvest Initiative.
The report recommends pivot or drip irrigation instead of flooding as an effective water-saving method and planting riparian buffers to reduce erosion and improve water quality. It highlights the critical role that governments have in ensuring effective management of water for agriculture.
The 2012 drought in the United States and other countries was "a normal part of the climate cycle," said Mark Svoboda, a National Drought Mitigation Center climatologist, also based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. However, the U.S. drought has persisted into early 2013 and current soil-moisture conditions are similar to what they normally would be two or three years into a drought, which could negatively affect 2013 farm production levels, he said.
Paul Weisenfeld of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau of Food Security said the global food price spikes of 2007-2008 raised alarms about rising demand for food by an increasing population and potential constraints to food production.
One constraint he noted is a cycle in which low-resource farmers are caught. Low incomes mean they can afford to buy only low-quality seeds. They continue to use traditional, labor-intensive farming practices, lack credit to purchase improved seeds, fertilizer and equipment, and lack access to risk-information systems that would help them plan for and respond to weather-related emergencies. "The result is vulnerability that keeps repeating itself," Weisenfeld said.
He said USAID encourages more private-sector investment in technologies that can help vulnerable farmers and encourages the farmers to invest more of their resources in improved farm inputs. USAID also encourages governments to adopt policies that support investment, he said.
Weisenfeld said USAID has increased fourfold its support for agricultural research aimed at developing more varieties of seeds that resist drought, floods and increased salinization. Other USAID-supported research is being directed to preventing pest diseases in both crops and livestock.
Weisenfeld pointed out that USAID is developing packages of agricultural technologies that can be used by farmers in vulnerable agro-ecological zones. USAID also links its humanitarian aid efforts to its development programs, saving costs and building resilience skills among people affected by a weather-related disaster, he said.
Manish Bapna, managing director of the World Resources Institute, mentioned "more careful selection of seeds, judicious use of fertilizers, improved weather forecasting, and minimizing waste from food [harvest] to fork" as other methods for increasing productivity for a growing population with limited water resources.
USAID says 70 percent of water consumed is directed to agriculture.
The Daugherty Water for Food Institute is a research, education and policy analysis organization committed to helping users efficiently use limited freshwater resources, with a particular focus on ensuring food security for current and future generations. Nebraska is one of the world's most important food-producing areas and had the highest percentage of land mass under severe drought in 2012, according to event panelist Ronnie Green of the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.