The worst U.S. drought in more than five decades shows a global need to improve water management to prevent crop disasters, university researchers and policy experts said.
Governments should encourage investment in irrigation, which is more costly than the improved seeds and fertilizers often advocated to increase food production, Roberto Lenton, a professor of water management and head of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska, said today at the World Food Prize Conference.
“Those farmers who were already using conservation techniques to conserve water, they fared best in the drought,” Lenton said during a panel discussion at the conference in Des Moines, Iowa. “One of the clear lessons is the importance of irrigation.” Farming without tilling, which keeps more water in the soil, drought-resistant crops, and technology that irrigates plants with less water all preserved yields this year, he said.
Competition for increasingly scarce water in the next decade will fuel instability in regions such as South Asia and the Middle East that are important to American national security, according to a U.S. intelligence report released this year. As nations increase water-related projects to gain influence, vulnerable dams, irrigation projects and reservoirs could become targets for terrorists or military strikes, the authors of the report said.
Higher global tensions over water will require the U.S. to take a leading role in managing the resource, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in March.
Annual global water requirements by 2030 will be 40 percent more than current sustainable supplies, according to a 2009 report by the 2030 Water Resources Group, a World Bank-sponsored collaboration that included Coca-Cola Co. and Nestle SA among its members.
Water use that’s outstripping sustainable levels will make crop failures more frequent, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, supervisory board chairman at Nestle, the world’s largest food company, said yesterday in a speech at the conference. Cost increases in drought years are aggravated by the increased strain on water supplies in more-normal periods, as less moisture is available to mitigate the effects of dry weather, Brabeck-Letmathe said.
“In normal years, we are using the buffers of water that are needed in difficult years,” he said.
This year’s drought in the U.S. will push the average yield for corn, the nation’s most-valuable crop, to a 17-year low of 122 bushels an acre, according to the Department of Agriculture. It has also prompted some farmers to rethink crop planning, as climate change means less water in some areas, and more in others.
The phenomenon will probably push U.S. corn-growing regions north while making alternatives to the grain more important elsewhere as water sources evolve, John Soper, the vice president of crop genetics research and development for Pioneer, the seed division of DuPont Co., said in an interview last month.
The world had 868 million hungry people in the 2010-2012 period, and 20 countries have “extremely alarming” or “alarming” hunger levels, the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization and the International Food Policy Research Institute said last week in separate reports.
About 75 percent of African countries are at “high” or “extreme risk” of unrest and famine stemming from food shortages and rising prices, according to risk-advisory firm Maplecroft.
The annual World Food Prize conference honors individuals “who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food.” This year’s winner, Daniel Hillel, an Israeli scientist who pioneered “micro-irrigation,” was announced in June.