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Severe Droughts Require Action to Avoid a Food Crisis

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.

“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.”

“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.”

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