Farming accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawal, compared to 20% for industry and 10% for households. Freshwater withdrawal has tripled since the 1960s, and the pressure on water supplies keeps rising, mostly driven by population growth (80 million people added to the planet each year), changing lifestyles and the rising demand for biofuels, around 1000 liters of water are needed to produce a single liter of ethanol from sugar beet.
With world population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050 and meat diets on the rise, the impact of irrigation on blue water resources (i.e. ground and surface water) will become unstainable, unless we reconsider the current form of irrigation altogether: the average water footprint of a beef calorie is 7 to 8 times higher than it is for vegetables or pulses.
The problem is exacerbated by climate change. Shifting precipitation and temperature patterns combined with increased rivalry for access to freshwater will force farmers to optimize their irrigation strategies. So how do we square the circle of keeping blue water withdrawal in check, while increasing food production? The answer is straightforward: knowledge and technological progress.
Boosting water-use efficiency in farming: the role of the Internet of Things
Precision irrigation follows a methodology of taking into account spatial and temporal variability in water stress. In this way, precision farming technologies enable farmers to delineate management and actuation zones for irrigation according to variations in crop and soil characteristics, with the objective of optimizing blue water use. The concept is now being enhanced by data-enabled technologies: smart irrigation systems monitor crop and soil water needs in real time based on a network of wireless captors, storing and processing data in cloud applications. At the end of the cycle, the underlying information feeds into irrigation protocols, defining when and where to spray water, and in what amount. For example, combining soil/crop data with weather forecasts can delay irrigation if a storm is looming.
The integration of waters-stress monitoring, data analysis and irrigation decisions require a synergizing architecture for data flows and smart devices: this is why the Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to play an increasingly central role in farming.
The momentum on smart irrigation is part of a broader push to increase Total Factor Productivity (TFP) in agriculture. With freshwater and land being limited, young people turning away from rural areas, and investments in fixed assets still constrained by declining revenue for farmers, the main lever left for increasing outputs and fostering food security lies in knowledge and technical progress.
This is why EU-funded projects such as IoF2020 and previously FutureFarm are more important than ever: R&I is key to enable agricultural production to keep pace with global food demand. In the long run, productivity growth represents a function of innovation, and farming is no exception.
Would you like to know more on how smart farming is impacting irrigation? Then click here.
Illustration Photo: Low energy precision application irrigation (credits: AgriLife Today / Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))