Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Feeding the Future: Caring for Our Water

By Lucy Dean StocktonPublished March 24, 2014

Climate change is altering the Earth's temperature, as well as global precipitation distributions, which has huge implications for all of Earth's ecosystems. It will have a particularly large effect on agriculture, a huge consumer of water resources. Potential ways to address this issue include mitigation strategies to prevent further global warming and adaptation strategies which will help farmers cultivate crops in an environment more compatible with the changing climate. These techniques are based in conservation principles and can be incentivized through the use of policy.

By Lucy Dean Stockton, 3/24/14:

It is impossible to ignore the growing unpredictability of the United States' climate systems, from California's three-year drought to Minnesota's ‘polar blasts'. Unfortunately, the danger and inconvenience that many regions face are minimal compared to the drastically changing climatology issues facing agricultural areas. This is particularly consequential for our managed ecosystems (farms) because agriculture is forever linked to the uncontrollable provisions of rain and sunlight. It is impossible to isolate agriculture from rainfall, winter winds, and summer heat.

            The drastic changes in weather and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events associated with climate change are especially concerning for the future of agriculture. Scientists have noted that since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been a change in global precipitation of 2% though it has not been uniform across the world.  We have recently seen extreme records for both rainfall and drought. In 2012, there were 3,527 weather records broken for heat, rainfall, and snowfall. NOAA declared 2012 a year of drought emergency, naming 1300 counties in conditions of ‘drought disaster' — the highest amount ever. Yet, the summer of 2013 was incredibly wet for other parts of the country. In the South, excess rain drowned huge amounts of crops while Northeastern farmers reported some of their wettest conditions ever.

            The manager of Sgrecci Dairy Farms in upstate New York said that he planted sorghum sudangrass in anticipation of another dry summer season, yet there was tremendous rainfall instead. He claimed that he erred by not following the traditional farmer wisdom by "reacting to the weather conditions in the last year." But one has to wonder if traditional farmer wisdom still holds value in a world changing so drastically. What does this mean for us moving forward? The prediction is mixed.

            I foresee an even greater dependence on groundwater withdrawal. This exploitative action has greater implications for the future than a poor growing season does. The Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Southwestern United States has been pumped to record-low levels and other water reserves globally are quickly disappearing. We are running out of groundwater and we can't continue to depend on the water from the sky.

Now is the time to take action. But the solution can't be come from farmers alone. Instead, it is more effective and more equitable to enact legislation. A good approach would be introducing subsidies and tax breaks for farmers looking to buy new water-conscious irrigation technology. However, the most effective strategy would be placing a tax on water usage because that would discourage excessive consumption with an economic punishment. According to the USDA, agriculture can consume between 80 and 90% of the nation's groundwater and surface water reserves in some Western states, and accounts for almost half of all water use in this country.

Ultimately, solutions must integrate  principles of conservation agriculture, more conscious cultivation and consumption, and climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Conservation agriculture can develop techniques to preserve our environment while we produce for our growing population. We need to pursue ‘the Grand Challenge' by increasing agricultural production while reducing our environmental footprint.

            Farmers should adopt a combination of mitigation and adaptation strategies. Mitigation aims to prevent future climate change by reducing carbon emissions and pollution. This is essential because agriculture is a major contributor to global carbon emissions, responsible for 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2011. Adaptation strategies, such as changing what we grow and altering our food distribution system, are reactionary solutions to  existing environmental changes.

            In California, one of the hardest-hit states, possible mitigation-minded legislation includes subsidizing water-conservation technology such as drip irrigation to drastically reduce water loss to evaporation. Mandating farmers to irrigate early in the morning or very late at night is also a promising measure because it reduces evaporation from heat. Other possibilities include allocating water limits before the growing season begins and taxing water overconsumption.

Recent weather patterns have shown that dry areas getting drier and wet areas getting wetter. While it is impossible to redistribute rainfall and aquifer deposits, it is important that each region adapts to its changing environment by planting better crops and restricting water use.

Dealing with the problems inherent in the culture of cultivation is even more essential. California grows most of the nation's fruits and vegetables on input-intensive farms that require significant quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, and water. Before California promoted horticulture-style farms, its flora was more adapted to desert environments. Shifting the landscape back to its natural state may be unreasonable to mandate, yet examining this shift sheds light on a greater problem intrinsic in America's food system.  We are changing our natural environment to suit industrial needs. We continue to demand what Earth cannot give us and we will not know how to respond when it fights back. We must take action now to explore our options and prevent further change.