August 20, 2015

The Key to Sustainable Agriculture Development is Water Management

By Tony Carr, MS candidate in Transnational Ecosystem Based Water Management at the University Duisburg-Essen and the Radboud University Nijmegen, visiting scholar at the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska, and 2015 Next Generation Delegate.
Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series

Participating in The Chicago Council's Global Food Security Symposium 2015 as a part of the Next Generation Delegation was a unique and valuable experience. I gained insight into the working field of improving agricultural systems and food security, learned about interesting projects, and met fellow researchers and policy makers.

One topic at the Symposium that was less familiar to me was the subject of biotechnology in the context of food security. As an ecologist with a focus on water resources, I am not used to the strong emphasis on biotechnology. In my opinion, biotechnological aspects should be part of the discussion on how to increase yields, but they should not be included at the expense of ecological sustainability of environmental and agricultural systems. Water, especially, is among the most important natural resources and should be included more in the discussion.

Although water is one of the most relevant inputs for a working agricultural system, many examples inside and outside of the United States demonstrate that the sustainable use of this resource is not emphasized enough. The current water shortage in California due to failed agricultural groundwater management underscores that water is not an infinite resource. Institutional rules governing water access can promote the sustainable use of water, as they have already done in different parts of the world. For example, pumping restrictions for farmers in Nebraska began more than 30 years ago. Examples like this should be promoted to demonstrate how to sustain agricultural systems in the long term.

In addition to ensuring the sustainability of water resources, we should discuss how to increase the availability of water, especially in the developing world. South of the Sahara, where the problem of malnutrition is among the most severe, 60 percent of the population lives in rural areas in which rain-fed agriculture is the main or only source of livelihood. In those areas, rain-fed agriculture not only mandates that agricultural production stop during the dry season, but also results in cereal crops of limited nutritional content and low market value. Irrigated agriculture in those regions could both increase production of crops and livestock, and reduce vulnerability to droughts and climate change. Therefore, part of the discussion of increasing food security should also include how to place smart investments and trigger public support for irrigated agriculture in developing countries.

Water as one of the main factors for a reliable working agricultural system should assume a more important role in the discussion of improving global nutrition. A broader discussion including the sustainability of environmental resources would be congruent with The Chicago Council’s recommendation to promote sustainability and reduce environmental impacts, and would contribute to the commitment of a long term global food and nutrition security strategy.

Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.