March 23, 2013

World Water Day: Embrace Technology to Get More Crop Per Drop

By Dr. Margaret Zeigler and Dr. Roberto Lenton

Dr. Margaret Zeigler is the executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative and Dr. Roberto Lenton is the founding executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Water, climate, and agricultural experts connect the changing climate with the capacity to sustainably feed a growing global population.

Extreme weather in 2012 demonstrated the impacts of climate disruption on global food systems. Farms across three continents saw decreased yields due to record drought and heat in the U.S. and Europe and below average rainfall during India’s monsoons. Serious climatic challenges are just one factor affecting global food security. Growing global populations and rising incomes in developing and transition countries are reshaping global food demand. 

Higher incomes, urbanization and entrance into an expanding middle class affect how much and what people eat. Agriculture now accounts for roughly 70 percent of global water use. Without a significant boost in water-use efficiency, agricultural water demand would grow by 45 percent by 2030 as increasingly affluent consumers demand higher value food, especially meat, eggs, and dairy.

Changing consumption patterns are already taking shape in India, where spending on animal-based food doubled between 2005 and 2010. The International Water Management Institute projects that Indians will consume 64 percent more of their calories from animal products in 2025 than in 2000.

The application of new and existing technologies across the agricultural value chain can significantly increase the efficiency of water use. Technology can facilitate productivity gains that will help offset increasing populations and shifting diets by factoring local conditions and preparing for future challenges posed by climate change.

More than 40 percent of the global food supply is grown on irrigated cropland, so highly efficient irrigation is critical to growing more food using less water. Center pivot irrigation, commonly used on large farms, has water application efficiencies of 85 to 90 percent, and benefits soil conservation by reducing tillage and water run-off. Drip and micro-irrigation technologies are important tools in many water-scarce regions. Advanced by 2012 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Daniel Hillel, such technologies dramatically reduce the amount of water needed to plant crops, maintain crop health, and increase yields.

Irrigation technologies can be supercharged by adding revolutionary information technology tools, such as soil moisture monitors that regulate water use, improved weather forecasts and models, and networked water gauges in rivers and reservoirs. IBM research shows that combining soil moisture measurement with irrigation control can reduce water use and nutrient runoff by 50 percent – efficiencies that also reduce energy use and protect the environment.

Through information technology and analytics, we are better able to predict water shortages and surpluses. Detailed maps of river systems and surrounding topography and hyper-local weather predictions can be leveraged to provide specific flood warnings up to four days in advance. Better information allows producers to make better decisions about their water use, such as delaying irrigation when significant rain is expected.

In Africa, where 75 percent of the world’s most severe droughts over the past 10 years occurred, maize is the primary food source for more than 300 million people.
A public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is using advanced breeding techniques and biotechnology to develop drought-tolerant maize that mitigates drought’s effects on small-scale farmers and their families.

Wireless underground sensor networks to provide precise, real-time data about soil moisture and other changing conditions are being developed by Mehmet Can Vuran, a computer scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The idea, Vuran says, is to let the soil tell producers how much and when to water. This wireless technology transmits information from the soil to the irrigation system or a base station up to 25 feet away, which then determines when to turn on the water and how much to apply. Underground sensors may reduce irrigation by 25 percent, depending on soil conditions and crop type.

Education about on-farm best practices can also return significant water savings. In Asia, rice production accounts for half of all water used for irrigated agriculture. The International Rice Research Institute promotes alternate wetting and drying lowland rice paddies to reduce water use by 15 to 25 percent or more.

Although the challenges posed by changing populations, diets, and climates are significant, so is our capacity for innovation. Technology can raise worldwide productivity to alleviate the overall impact of unpredictable global weather patterns.

In recognition of UN World Water Day, on March 20 in Washington DC the Global Harvest Initiative and Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute hosted two panel discussions featuring agriculture, water, climate change and development experts. The event was titled “Too Hot, Too Wet, Too Dry: Building Resilient Agroecosystems." Learn more and watch event video here

Dr. Margaret Zeigler has dedicated her career to addressing global hunger and food security, currently serving as the executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative, a private-sector voice for productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain to sustainably meet the demands of a growing world. The Global Harvest’s growing membership includes Accenture, DuPont, Elanco, IBM, John Deere, and Monsanto.

Dr. Roberto Lenton is a specialist in water management and development and the founding executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska, which was established in 2010 through a $50 million grant from the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation to advance innovation in water productivity through scientific and policy research and education. 


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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