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How high-tech agriculture can prevent oncoming global water wars

How high-tech agriculture can prevent oncoming global water wars thumbnail

Forget about oil or gas – you should be worrying about the less discussed but far more concerning fact that the world is running out of clean, drinkable water.

I wrote this article while in Kathmandu. Nepal’s capital and largest city has a severe water shortage. Even though all homeowners pay a fee to the government to get water on tap, supplies run only once a week for a few hours. Desperate residents are then forced to purchase water from private suppliers. While this is affordable for richer people, it’s a big problem for the lower and middle classes. For many in the developing world, water is really the difference between prosperity and poverty.

More than a billion people around the world have no reasonable access to fresh water. Most of the diseases in developing countries are associated with water, causing millions of deaths each year (a child is estimated to die from diarrhoea every 17 seconds).

Given all this, we have to come up with a solution to global water use fast, before water scarcity becomes a major cause of international conflict.

The vast majority of our water is found in the oceans. Only 3% is fresh and can be used for farming and drinking, and in any case most of this is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. That means just 0.5% of the Earth’s water is accessible and, of this, more than two thirds is used in agriculture.

If we’re going to cut back on our water usage, we have to focus on making our farms more sustainable and efficient. With the global population still growing, we’ll need to produce ever more crops using less water, in less agricultural land.

Worldwide, just over a third (37%) of the land that could be used to grow crops is currently used. Potential farmland is available, but it’s not developed due a lack of infrastructure, forest cover or conservation. A lack of land isn’t really a big problem as of now – but water is.

Go beyond traditional farming

So how to grow crops using less water? One option would be to find a sustainable way to remove salt from our (essentially infinite) reserves of sea water. The farm in South Australia pictured below uses energy from the sun to extract seawater and desalinate it to create fresh water, which can be used to grow crops in large greenhouses.

Such farms are based in barren areas, and the plants are grown with hydroponics systems that don’t require soil. Growing crops like this all year round would significantly reduce freshwater usage in hot and dry regions, but the cost of setting up these greenhouses remains an issue.

Water shortages would also ease significantly if farmers could simply use less water to produce the same yield. Easier said than done, of course, but this is especially important in drought-prone areas.

Plant scientists around the world are busy identifying genes that enable plant growth in arid, dry conditions. For example, what is it that makes upland rice grow in dry soil while lowland rice requires well irrigated paddy fields for growth?

Upland rice growing on a hillside in Bolivia, far from any paddy fields.

Once the keys to drought tolerance are identified, they can be introduced in crops through genetic engineering (and no, this doesn’t involve injecting food with toxins as suggested by a Google image search).

Farmers traditionally bred drought tolerant crops through the slow and painstaking process of selection and crossing over many generations. Genetic engineering (GE) provides a short-cut.

A recent study identified diverse root architecture systems in different chickpea varieties. Future studies hope to identify genes that make some roots efficient at capturing water and nutrients from dry soils. Once a genetic factor is identified, scientists are able to directly deliver the gene that helps plants to capture more water.

A key factor for drought-tolerance in plants is the plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA), which increases plants’ water efficiency in droughts. But ABA also reduces the efficiency of photosynthesis, which reduces plant growth in the longer term, and as a result crop yields decrease.

Desert plants know how to retain moisture and cope with heat.
OverlandTheAmericas / shutterstock

But plants didn’t always have this trade-off: modern crops have lost a key gene that enabled early land plants like mosses to tolerate extreme dehydration. This enabled early plants to colonise land from freshwater around 500m years ago. Modern desert mosses also collect water through their leaves which helps them to grow in dry conditions.

This is the big challenge for plant scientists. To engineer crops that can be grown with minimum irrigation and that will eventually help relieve water scarcity, we’ll have to reintroduce the dehydration tolerance systems which many “higher” plants have lost but things like moss have necessarily retained.

Genetic engineering remains controversial even though extensive scientific studies report GE crops available in the markets are safe for consumption. This is partly just a communication failure. But the fact is we will eventually need to use all the tech available to us, and GE crops have too much potential to ignore.

(Rupesh Paudyal is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Molecular and Cellular Biology at University of LeedsThis article was originally published on The Conversation.)


18 Comments on "How high-tech agriculture can prevent oncoming global water wars"

  1. makati1 on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 5:56 am 

    Big Ag doesn’t want anything to compete with their chemical farming methods. They have been breeding hardiness out of crop plants for decades. Weakening them with chemicals in the form of pesticides and weed killers. Now even making the use of local varieties illegal and promoting only their GMO ‘franken-seeds’ that require their chemicals to live and grow.

    It’s ALL about money and control. Read the book: “Farmers of Forty Centuries” if you want to understand how we can feed billions with less. Permaculture, and hard, manual labor, not DOW and Monsanto.

  2. Davy on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 7:08 am 

    Too bad for you makati because Asia is too far past a stable population to transition to an alternative arrangement without a mass die off. Asia has the fastest growing middle class that points to Asia now embracing overconsumption. Asia’s ecosystems are being destroyed rapidly. “Farmers of Forty Centuries” works when there is something to work with. Asia may get to a workable arrangement but not as-is. You often claim we can feed 10BIL and I say BS to that dreams. You often say the west must consume less but you fail to say how Asia will consume less. People like you want the weight of saving the planet to fall on the west but without asking the same of Asia.

  3. dave thompson on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 7:14 am 

    7.4+ billion people = disaster.

  4. Davy on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 8:06 am 

    Dave that is pretty obvious. Too bad we have no clue what level is sustainable and how we are going to get there. What is worse is we have no agreement that population is a problem. The makati’s of the world talk cavalierly like we can feed 10BIL. You know makati’s argument that is “if the west quit eating meat” and “western food waste”. What a joke when the largest increase in meat eating and waste is in Asia. Any sacrifices made by the west will be consumed by Asia. We have economist that say population is good. Economist are whining about the aging of the population with little concern about actual amounts. Religions and social narratives are families are good and some even feel larger families are better. The list of challenges against reducing population are huge as the population continues to progressively grow into a range of danger. Food production is more than soil and water. These days it is oil and the economy. Oil is depleting and the economy is unstable. Something is going to happen and soon and it can’t be good.

  5. onlooker on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 8:51 am 

    This article is just more techno optimism. First off that statistic about land use is deceptive. The land not in use is not because it is marginally productive. But most important is the supposition that our mandate is to allow more and more people to live on this Earth. Well that would invite ever more problems related to resources and waste. Be wary of any and all articles that do not that do not take into account overpopulation and overconsumption

  6. farmboy on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 9:03 am 

    These bullshit articles fail to take into account the natural cycle of water. The earth gets plenty of water. Problem is that humans have so destroyed the surface of vast areas of the earth so that when it does rain most of the water runs off causing massive erosion and the little that does penetrate can be lost to evaporation by the next day.

    Israel for example is considered to be a progrresive nation especially in water management, but when you look at that landscape you see all these gullies. They call them waddis. Waddis are such a prominent part of their landscape that they even have names; waddi this and waddi that.

    Approx 1/3 of Israel is in a 21 inch rainfall area. That could be growing 2 tons or more of forage per year, but all they got covering lots of this area is some thorn bushes over bare eroded ground.

    The best answers I know of to fixing the water cycle is the practicing of holistic management.

  7. dave thompson on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 9:19 am 

    “What is worse is we have no agreement that population is a problem.’ YOU BET’CH DAVEY. Overshoot of the bacteria called humanity is never addressed in these articles. There is no answer, we can only watch and hope to live in relative comfort and simplicity.

  8. Sissyfuss on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 10:31 am 

    There is plenty of water for a sustainable level of human population. Overpopulation is like pollution. It’s more sensible and efficient to prevent its release than to try to clean it up after it enters the environment.

  9. penury on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 3:31 pm 

    Have you ever noticed that fixes for problems always center on providing more tech to make more of the resource in question? And never the needed step of reducing the requirement for the resource in the first place. The answer is not in their solutions, predicaments do not have solutions, human overshoot is a predicament, clean water is not a problem, human over population is THE problem,

  10. onlooker on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 3:35 pm 

    Yes Penury your not imagining things. Because at its heart this Civilization lost all semblance of control and just became an insatiable profit making venture. So naturally, the veneer is always, do not worry we have this or that technology which will solve everything and allow us to continue on a merry growth ride. So our growth has becomes just like cancerous growth.

  11. makati1 on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 4:47 pm 

    onlooker, much land is not used because, it is not used. There are hundreds of square miles of land here in the Ps that COULD be farmed but is not because of man made legalities, not conducive to mechanical farming, or the need is not recognized … yet. Our farm is one example. Five plus hectares of good, farmable land not used because it was not needed. Plenty of water,(3 meters plus per year) good soil (slightly acid, volcanic), and a year round growing season. It is surrounded by similar land, also not being used at the moment.

    ASSUMING that the world is what the USMSM portrays it to be, is NOT reality. I am sure that there are thousands of square miles of farmable land still out there to be used, but not by mechanical, oil fed methods. By “old fashioned”, conservative, manual labor, methods which is the only kind that will be available in the near future.

  12. penury on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 4:58 pm 

    Mak many years ago when I was in the P.I. flying as a passenger around the islands I think I saw more undeveloped land than I did developed. Several of the island I visited were uninhabitable due to no fresh water, and a water table of 1 foot. Anyway the people lived there and grew crops, so I guess there will be a way.

  13. makati1 on Mon, 9th Jan 2017 5:57 pm 

    penury, the land use has probably not changed much in those years. With a large percentage of population currently living and working in the cities, there are fewer farmers to increase land use. That will change. At least there is still about 29% of the population engaged in farming (vs just 0.7% in the US). Some of the city dwellers are already moving out of the cities and back to the family owned land. Two of our farm neighbor families are good examples.

    There is always a way, if you have the need. History id full of examples. Not easy, but doable.

  14. Boat on Tue, 10th Jan 2017 8:07 am 


    Here is some mak type thinking. The US needs to collaspe……but……please don’t use genetically altered seeds because that might hurt them.

  15. Kenz300 on Tue, 10th Jan 2017 9:36 am 

    CLIMATE CHANGE, declining fish stocks, droughts, floods, air water and land pollution, poverty, water and food shortages, unemployment and poverty all stem from the worlds worst environmental problem……. OVER POPULATION.

    Yet the world adds 80 million more mouths to feed, clothe, house and provide energy and water for every year… this is unsustainable… and is a big part of the Climate Change problem

    Birth Control Options: Pictures, Types, Side Effects, Costs, & Effectiveness

  16. peakyeast on Tue, 10th Jan 2017 3:19 pm 

    @mak: I have to ask – What about other species on earth? Do you not care for anything else but humans? Should other living organisms not have any space at all? Must it all be humans and their “enslaved” species?

  17. makati1 on Tue, 10th Jan 2017 7:56 pm 

    peaky, I do not mention them because they do not exist here, for the most part. At least the larger life forms. The poor hunt for food, and have for millenia. Only the wealthy hunt for sport. I love nature, and, if that can be called a religion, then I am very religious. I am also a realist.

    The fauna here will survive or not, depending on climate change more than how much farmland is put into use. Actually, they will do better with farmland they can raid. Monkeys will manage better than humans, the snakes and lizards will survive on the increase in rodents feeding on farm crops. Ditto for the smaller creatures that have survived to this point.

    If you look around you in the U$, not much survives or will survive when it really gets tough. Hunters will kill off every edible animal and fish the first winter or two. The next year will see the groundhogs, possums and the like in the gun sights. Ditto for the snakes and alligators of the south.

    The Ps could develop most of the possible farming land not being used and there would still be a lot of space left for the animals. I am not concerned. Mother Nature will take care of her own. The way we are going, humans are going to kill the entire ecosphere anyway. Nothing will survive.

    So, yes, develop the ‘unused’ land to the extent possible. Nature will adapt.

  18. Davy on Wed, 11th Jan 2017 5:37 am 

    The P’s are 100MIL people in the space of the state of Arizona. Its forests and seas have been destroyed as viable sources of support without fossil fuels. There are serious erosion issues and water quality has been destroyed. Salt water is intruding on aquifers. Industrial pollution is taking effect like in China. The South China Sea is nearly devoid of fish to catch from over fishing. Climate change issues are the highest for the P’s than any other major country and makati is not concerned. He is just concerned for how bad it is in North America. This is clearly an example of behavioral issues of someone who brags about himself, attacks others, and then ignore their own problems. Of any one on this board makati is most at risk and most in denial. Makati’s fantasy farm, he is always preaching about, he is never at. We know this because if he were there he would not be here. He is here every day attacking the US and talking up his P’s. Makati acts the farming expert but lives in a condo above a Manila regional urban area population of 20MIL. This 20MIL has some of the highest population densities anywhere in the world. What a joke and people here believe the shit and love makati’s hate and discontent. lol.

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