Severe Droughts Require Action to Avoid a Food Crisis
Water scarcity affects billions of people, not only in the southern hemisphere but also increasingly in Europe and North America. It is one of the major challenges we face around the globe that is steadily exacerbating – threatening agriculture and our food already today. What can we do to address a neglected problem?
Marci Green is desperately waiting for rain. “If we get rains in June, we might be able to save the season,” she says, looking out of the window and letting her eyes wander over the fields surrounding her family farm in eastern Washington State. It’s late May and the region has experienced “pretty serious” droughts as Marci reports.
“We compare it to the 2015 drought, which on average cut our yields in half across all crops.” She is a sixth-generation farmer, growing wheat, bluegrass seed, pulses and recently canola with her husband and her two sons. “During the past years, we’ve seen a lot more weather extremes. It’s drier, it’s warmer and it’s windier,” she says.
What for Marci is merely an observation is in fact a thoroughly studied and measured effect of climate change. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2019, global warming is projected to increase the number of water-stressed regions and exacerbate the shortages in the regions already defined as water-stressed.
Rising temperatures are making already dry regions drier and wet regions wetter. Greater water evaporation, surface drying and groundwater depletion are threatening the livelihoods of farmers in numerous regions around the globe while others see their yields jeopardized by flooding and hurricanes.
Water scarcity aggravates poverty and hunger
More extreme and less predictable weather conditions especially affect low-income communities. “As over 80 percent of our freshwater consumption is accounted for by agriculture, water scarcity directly impacts food security and exacerbates poverty and hunger,” explains Dr. Suhas P. Wani, Former Director of the ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) Development Center and consultant to the Asian Development Bank in Manila.
Without action, Suhas warns, the number of people suffering from hunger could increase by 10 million every year globally.
Livelihoods are also affected in more developed regions. In California alone, the 2015 drought that Marci recalls resulted in $1.84 billion in direct costs and a loss of over 10,000 seasonal jobs. The state is facing yet another hot, dry summer and is experiencing severe drought these days.
Since 2015, droughts in Europe have become more severe than any over the past 2,100 years, according to a study published in March 2021 in the journal Nature Geoscience. The researchers found that recent series of summer droughts in Europe have brought devastating ecological, agricultural, and economic impacts.
The European Environmental Agency EEA expects that droughts and water scarcity will aggravate during the remainder of the century and states in a report that the changing climatic conditions are already putting cultivation in Europe under pressure, especially for Mediterranean crops such as olives and grapes.
The worrying paradox: In 2050, our planet will need to provide food for an estimated 9 to 10 billion people. That’s going to require a lot of water. Using water in a more sustainable manner and growing “more crops per drop” is the challenge we are facing globally. Technology and adapted farming practices could be part of the answer.
Resilient varieties and sustainable farming practices
“The widespread adoption of improved agronomic practices, advances in plant breeding that deliver more resilient crops, and adoption of biotechnology in local communities will help farmers make better use of water on their farms to meet the demands and nourish a growing world,” points out Stella Salvo, Head of Breeding Partnerships for Smallholder Farming for Bayer’s Crop Science division.
… 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record with an average global temperature 1.2° Celsius above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level.
"We are developing maize and rice hybrids that help our customer’s farms be more productive, with higher drought and stress tolerance and stronger resilience against devastating pests and diseases.”
Specific technologies and farming methods can also reduce the amount of water needed for cultivation. A combination of practices such as drip irrigation, integrated weed management, and reduced tillage can contribute to higher water retention in the field allowing for more water availability for the crop.
Drip irrigation systems distribute water through a network of valves, pipes and tubes, bringing it directly to the plants’ roots and avoiding evaporation. They can reduce water consumption by up to 60 percent. Tillage, in turn, leads to more evaporation and lets more soil dry out at the surface, which is why less tillage saves water. As weeds can thrive with no tillage, this practice has to be combined with proper weed management measures.
“We are grateful that researchers are developing new varieties with drought tolerance,” confirms Marci Green. “And we use minimum till to preserve moisture in the soil. But to do so, we also need technological innovation – such as weed control options that work in a no-till environment.”
Suhas Wani agrees that technology is a key factor to increase and secure agricultural productivity despite climate change: “We need seeds that are more resilient against high temperatures, emerging pests, diseases and droughts as well as varieties that need less time for cultivation as seasons shorten.”
“Innovative technologies and precision agriculture help farmers do more with less land, water and energy,” points out Stella Salvo. “And I believe we can breed to design these products and tailor these solutions for all farmers, large and small! As someone who’s been fortunate to meet and help farmers across the globe, I’ve seen firsthand what better access to technology and knowledge means for smallholders in ensuring more robust and reliable harvests. I’m hopeful that more of the world will begin to see and understand that modern agriculture tools are safe, sustainable and effective.”
Fighting climate change with climate-smart agriculture
The only option seems to be an integrated approach with improved varieties that can better withstand climate change and farming practices that help fight it. That way, agriculture becomes part of the solution. “Artificial intelligence is changing the way we do plant breeding. We are evolving our science from a process of selecting the best to designing the best. And we have to partner and engage in new technologies to keep up with the pace of climate change,” explains Stella Salvo.
“These technologies not only save water, they can also help to reduce chemical inputs needed to protect yield and help to preserve soil health. As we continue to understand the insights that digital technologies enable for better harvests, our solutions can be more precise and thus more efficient.”
On Marci’s farm, several such practices have already been implemented. “We use precision technology and variable fertilizer rates determined through GPS. That way, we only put it, where it’s needed. Especially the younger generation is very innovative and much more open to new things and different ways,” says Marci. Her sons are in their late twenties and are looking into climate-smart farming options including carbon sequestration and digital management of crop protection application.
Suhas knows that in less developed regions, many farmers still lack access to the knowledge and the technology needed to adapt their farming operations to climate change. “In India, 51 percent of farmers do not get any support from any partner. 11 percent rely exclusively on support from the government. We need a knowledge delivery system that combines all players, public and private, including industry and NGOs,” he stresses.
“We have to make sure that all these great technologies also reach smallholders across the globe so that they have access to the solutions they need.” Stella Salvo agrees: “We have to empower smallholders and scientists in developing nations and give them a seat at the table to tell us what kinds of technologies and seeds they need. The best part of knowledge transfer is that it’s a two-way street.”
Whether you talk to a water expert from the Southern Hemisphere, a farmer in North America or a representative of a multinational company, one thing becomes clear: the time to act is now. 2020 has been one of the three warmest years on record.
When launching the World Meteorological Organization’s report on the State of the Global Climate 2020, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called 2021 “the make it or break it year,” the year for climate action – action across disciplines and geographies, and not only on June 17, the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought
June 17: Desertification and Drought Day
The UN General Assembly officially declared June 17 as “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought” in order to promote public awareness and let people know that desertification and drought can be effectively tackled via cooperation at all levels. Through more awareness, the UN hopes to strengthen implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa.