Irrigation’s role in ensuring global food security

Irrigation systems are critical in ensuring global food security, from increased crop production and mitigating water scarcity to stabilizing food production.

The Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, is highlighting the value of smart irrigation through Smart Irrigation Month this July. The initiative was created to promote the social, economic and environmental benefits of efficient irrigation technologies, products and services in landscape, turf and agricultural irrigation. This year’s theme, “What’s the value of smart irrigation?” allows the IA to tell the irrigation industry’s story about how smart irrigation products, technologies and practices are having a positive and beneficial impact on our lives and communities. Smart Irrigation Month is sponsored by HydroPoint.

Irrigated agriculture contributes 40% of the global food supply despite only being 20% of the world’s cultivated land, according to Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The metrics are notable but must be taken into consideration with broader context, says Jippe Hoogeveen, senior technical officer in the FAO Land and Water Division.

How does smart irrigation support food security?

“There are two sides of irrigation,” he says. “Agriculture is the biggest water-using sector, with agriculture using globally about 70% of all the water withdrawal for human use. Industry uses 20% and domestic use is about 10%. It’s really a lot of water that’s being used.”

Hoogeveen says that number can be disconcerting but should be measured against the flipside of irrigation.

“There is also the other side of irrigation, and that is that it gives, indeed, much higher yields and much more reliable yields,” he says.

Nebraska is a good example of an area where irrigation contributes to stability when it comes to crop production, says Peter McCornick, PhD, executive director at the Daughtery Water for Food Institute.

“We’ve got rain-fed in the east and irrigated in the west, but during a situation like we’ve had recently with a drought that’s sitting right over the state, it means more costs for the irrigated farmers to pump the water,” McCornick says. “But they are in a position to actually have a very high-volume crop during a drought because they have irrigation where those sitting on dry land are very much at the whims of the weather and the climate at that time.”

McCornick says what they’re seeing in Nebraska is a move to leveraging irrigation systems as a means of mitigating risk in a changing climate.

“The farmers in the east try to access water to then use irrigation even where it might not have been viable 10 years ago,” says McCornick. “It’s still costly for the farmer [to install an irrigation system] but given the overall risk they’re faced with, their production and the investments they have to make, irrigation gives them security.”

The primary goal of the FAO is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. Hoogeveen says this is a goal that is achievable, but the ability to reach that goal will rely on stability and distribution, an aim irrigation can support.

“I am optimistic,” he says. “We produce enough food for the whole world. The distribution is just not good. The distribution needs to be improved. It is possible. It has been done.”

McCornick says smart irrigation can provide farmers with the tools to substantially increase their yields, but getting the investment to install these systems can be a challenge. He specifically points to African countries as areas with opportunity.

“It’d be very smart for these countries to look carefully at smart irrigation on some of the smaller scales,” McCornick says.

McCornick adds that there is a lot of advancement in technology domestically in the U.S. but the real improvements in terms of water resource stewardship come from conscious management.

“How do you get the farmers the incentives to manage water more carefully to steward it better?” he says. “Once they realize the issues, they do want to try and address those things, but it’s management on a day-to-day basis.” The way smart irrigation practices have worked in Nebraska and other states has really been around recognizing the amount of water being used and accounting for where it’s being applied. With a clear understanding of how much water is being used, it’s easier to see where there are problems.

The solution? Stability in water use and application.

“Nebraska’s been very good at doing that,” he says.

Whatever the future brings for farmers, smart irrigation practices are bound to be a part of it, McCornick says.

“Irrigation continues to play a role in food security,” says McCornick. “Increasingly, the food supply depends on irrigation. Even where water is available, that makes the land more valuable because agriculture can invest more securely to reduce the risk. Irrigation is important not only to increase production but to make production more stable.”

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