Western Canadian farmers and agricultural stakeholders have made significant improvements in water efficiency over the years.
Many have switched to pipelines instead of open canals and have adopted conservation methods such as variable rate irrigation methods and low pressure systems.
But the job doesn’t stop there.
The global demand for water, land and food is expected to grow at a constant pace over the next several decades, just as threats from climate change, more variable weather and a rising world population and affluence promise to put added stress on our need for both crops and water.
These challenges are intensifying as the world nears the end of the United Nation’s Decade for Action, Water for Life initiative, which is slated to wrap up in 2015.
Information first and then action are vital if we are to make any headway.
The report by the Expert Panel on Sustainable Management of Water in the Agricultural Landscapes of Canada, called Water and Agriculture in Canada: towards sustainable management of water resources, points out the need to identify future risks in markets, land use, water use and climate to better set a course of action.
The panel, set up by the federal government to provide scientific guidance for water sustainability, consists of a collection of experts from across Canada.
The report, released earlier this year, pointed out that Canada’s crop export opportunities are likely to grow, even as demand for water increases, partially to feed crops but for myriad other uses as well: urban, industrial and recreational.
Producers, policy-makers and other stakeholders will require detailed information to make decisions on production, infrastructure investments and agricultural policies.
Agriculture requires a reliable supply of fresh water, and the panel points out that an integrated water and climate monitoring system with forecasting capabilities could greatly mitigate risk and identify opportunities.
Recommendations also include measuring the effects of agricultural practices on water and ecosystems and for improving knowledge of promising farm technology. The study also focused on establishing more effective systems and policies to support sustainable practices.
Crop production is the number one global consumer of fresh water. The issues of food security and universal access to safe, potable water are inextricably linked.
One way to improve both is cited as a key finding of another recent study, this one from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the University of Bonn’s Institute of Crop Science and Resource Conservation.
The study found that we have much to gain by boosting efficiency in areas with the least productive land at the lowest end of the water productivity scale (crop produced per unit of water).
It estimated that increasing water productivity to just the 20th percentile (meaning 80 percent of regions studied would still be more efficient) could increase crop production in those areas by 30 percent with no increase in water or land use.
The World Food Programme estimates 870 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, and the benefits to be gained from some relatively simple, locally instituted management practices are huge.
There are many ways to boost water efficiency, many of them not dependent on water at all. For example, better quality seeds that use moisture more effectively, proper soil nutrients and reducing wind erosion all play important roles in obtaining more crop for every drop of water.
Granted, there are myriad other concerns, such as reducing food waste and spoilage and improving distribution.
However, improving water productivity and management must be a key pillar in any foundation for a sustainable future.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.