5 Ways Smart Agriculture Turns Less Water into More Food

smart-agFood security and water security are two sides of the same coin: how are we going to feed and hydrate the world’s growing population in the face of greater and greater water scarcity? Climate change — for which we are indirectly responsible, and mismanagement of water resources — for which we are directly responsible, are threatening our ability to sustain ourselves on this beautiful planet of ours. The scary statistics are well known and I won’t repeat them here. But perhaps the silver lining in this cloud is that necessity, as usual, is inspiring a great deal of inventiveness in agriculture. The following are five strategies that are aiming to raise the IQ of agriculture so that we can grow more food with less water:

1. Data-driven, precision agriculture

gprsCompanies such as Hortau and CropX are implementing radio- or cellular-enabled sensor systems that track variables including rainfall, humidity, soil composition, topography, temperature, and sunlight. Once analyzed, this information lets farmers develop a detailed picture of conditions on the ground and make smarter decisions about irrigation. In addition to saving water (potentially 20-30%), the systems reduce the need for fertilizer and prevent runoff from overwatering[1].

And it’s not just commercial companies that are promoting data-driven precision agriculture. One of the variables that help farmers better calculate their irrigation water needs is “reference evapotranspiration”: water lost from a well-watered grass field under current local conditions. New, affordable sensor technology called surface renewal, developed jointly by the USDA Agricultural Research Service and UC Davis, can now perform real-time, highly accurate evapotranspiration measurements in the farmer’s field — saving much-needed water for other uses.[3]

Also see our blog IoT-enabled Precision Agriculture Comes of Age.

2. Re-use of waste water

Some forward-looking water-scarce countries have already implemented large-scale programs to recycle waste water for irrigation purposes. Israel, for example, which is 60% desert, recycles 80% of its sewage water. We are seeing more and more public-private partnerships that are promoting innovative water re-use technologies. For example, the WateReuse Association, Water Environment & Reuse Foundation, and Pentair, a global leader in creating sustainable water solutions, have come together to advance innovative sustainable farming approaches, including a pilot in Monterey, CA that has evolved into the largest agricultural re-use irrigation project in the United States. Since the 1940s, heavy agriculture and municipal groundwater demands in Monterey’s Salinas Valley have led to the development of severe groundwater over-pumping, resulting in saltwater intrusion. By using recycled water, growers no longer have to pump groundwater from their wells for irrigation purposes. Recycled water is distributed to 12,000 acres of farmland in Northern Monterey County with an average of 60% of the area’s water recycled each year.[2]

Also see our blog Recycled Water: Are We Ready?.

3. More resilient crops

Without getting into the controversial GMO issue, developing strains of crops that are more resilient to water scarcity is one of the keys to producing more food with less water. Companies providing innovative solutions in this area are attracting serious investor attention. Boston-based Indigo Agriculture Inc., for example, recently raised $100 million to continue development of its technology that alters the mix of fungi and bacteria that live inside plants to create super crops that can thrive in stressful conditions. The company has planted its first crop, a type of cotton that requires less water, on more than 50,000 acres in the United States. It expects to introduce a variety of water-efficient wheat later this year.[5]

4. More efficient irrigation

Switching to more efficient irrigation methods has a dramatic impact on agricultural water consumption. There are four main types of irrigation: surface (flood and furrow); sprinkler; drip (including low-volume micro-sprinkler); and subsurface. Surface methods generally lose the most water to evaporation and have thus been declining in popularity for several decades in the face of more efficient drip systems, which deliver water more directly to the plant’s root zone. In many arid regions and countries, farmers are eligible for government subsidies to ease the initial up-front costs of installing drip irrigation systems.[3]

5. Urban agriculture: Aquaponics

Will more and more of our food be grown in closed-loop urban aquaponics facilities that merge aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soil-less plant growing) in a symbiotic environment? Johns Hopkins University’s Food System Labs has established a scaled up aquaponics pilot plant that produces fish and vegetables to sell at local farmers markets and restaurants.[6] In St. Paul, MI Pentair and Urban Organics have collaborated to establish a state-of-the-art aquaponics farm in a former brewery in a part of the city that had previously been considered a food desert. The fish provide the nutrients for the plants, and the plants help to clean the water for the fish. The produce and herbs are 100% organically certified by the USDA National Organic Program.[2] Leading agronomists in India are also promoting urban agriculture as a way “…to grow delicious and nutrient-dense food with the taste, size, shape, texture and flavour of individual choice indoor anytime and anywhere…”[4]


[1] Laura Adler, Internet of Things Helps Cities Manage Water, September 2015
[2] Pentair and Water Sector Groups Collaborate to Advance Sustainable Water Reuse in Agriculture, May 24, 2016, NASDAQ Press Release
[3] Andrew McElrone, California Farmers Count Every Drop with Efficient Irrigation Technologies, USDA Blogs, May 26, 2016
[4] Water scarcity a serious concern in farm sector, says agricultural scientist, The Hindu, May 28, 2016
[5] Curt Woodward, Investors bet $100m on Indigo’s crop growth technology, Boston Globe, July 21, 2016 [6] Katie Pearce, Johns Hopkins aquaponics testing ground gives way to urban teaching farm, July 18, 2016


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