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Smart agriculture and the coming water crisis

Water conference set for Oct. 17-18.
Agriculture and science-based research tackle water shortage issues

No one denies the importance of water. We use it and depend upon it in a myriad of ways each day, from washing and bathing and satisfying our need to nurture our lawns and using it for recreational purposes. Without water, not only would life be different, but life as we know it would cease to exist.

Farmers understand the importance of water more than most. Without it, farming and ranching would not be possible. Agriculture, in fact, represents the largest user of water worldwide, nearly 70 percent according to the United Nation's 2018 Water Development Report. While the industry is often criticized for using too much water on their fields, no one is complaining about having plentiful amounts of their favorite food.

Most of the food we grow or raise on a farm or ranch is full of water, which represents one of the many ways we satisfy our thirst, our need for water. Even though, as each year sees less water than the year before, we're beginning to realize that the resource is limited. It's no secret that water is becoming more scarce, and for a lot of reasons.

As the population grows, so does our demand on water–for all aspects of human life. The more people we have, greater the need for food and water. Also, as populations expand and grow, we see more industrial use for water, and greater demand on water resources. Hydrologists have been telling us for years that water, our most precious and necessary resource, could one day be more valuable than oil or gold. While that sounds like something you would only hear at the movies, consider having little or no water at all while living on a barren landscape of dried-up limbs and bones.

Staving off a world without water

Thanks to modern science, agriculture has been learning a great deal about the life cycle of our planet and has been researching and developing ways to reduce water usage on the farm and ranch. New methods for soil health, preservation and preparation, such as of no-till farming, have been developed and are helping to change the way we farm. Plants that use less water and are tolerant to more arid growing drought conditions are helping the industry reduce its water footprint as well.

According to the UN, the main opportunities to increase agricultural productivity lie in "rain fed systems” that account for the bulk of current agricultural production. But science indicates changing climate conditions will alter hydrological systems worldwide, as rainfall patterns are predicted to become increasingly variable and extreme weather events more frequent.

Some of the latest tools being researched to help us grow more food with less water are programs that focus on climate-smart agriculture (CSA), especially to help small farmers adapt to and mitigate the availability of less water in the coming years.

In a CSA farm environment, farmers would rely on rainfall to fight its increasingly erratic behavior, by making the most of every drop, and storing excess for use in times of need by harvesting rainwater. While this wouldn't greatly lower the overall need for water on the farm, hydrologists tell us every drop of conservation counts.

But catching rain and storing it for a dry day is not the only new tool in the shed.

BioLumic of New Zealand, a privately held company, has created the first ultraviolet (UV) crop yield enhancement system. Company officials say by treating seedlings and seeds with ultraviolet light, significant improvements have been noted.

The system has been in operation at a large California produce plant for several years and also at a produce operation in Mexico with some promising results. Seeds treated by UV light have been producing produce with a 22 percent jump in yields. And those are not isolated incidents. The system is in trial stage at numerous locations around the world with similar results.

"Light is an extremely powerful biological tool that can safely manipulate plants without the concerns often associated with genetic modification, chemical usage, and other treatments," said BioLumic CEO Warren Bebb. "BioLumic is the only company using light as an ag treatment at the beginning of a plant’s life."

According to BioLumic researchers, exposure to a short-duration treatment of UV-enriched light at a critical stage in a plant’s development helps to turn on characteristics to help the seed or seedlings to more effectively defend itself against disease or pest attacks, and more efficiently use water and nutrients from the soil.

Company officials say their technology is rooted in more than a decade of research into UV photomorphogenesis, a process whereby a precise UV treatment induces plant root and leaf development and activates its secondary metabolism.

"Given the multi-million acre opportunity for high-value crops and rapidly growing seed treatment market, we think BioLumic could change the Ag industry’s approach to crop productivity and seed treatments by sustainably turning on stronger plant characteristics with the power of light," said Kirk Haney, a managing partner for the company.

Research doesn’t just support produce, but other high value crops as well.

A study released last year by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory indicates a new genetic discovery that could soon make hardy, drought resistant varieties of several types of crops, including rice, wheat and soybeans.

Dr Xiaohan Yang, a plant biologist at the Oak Ridge Laboratory, says drought-resistant plants share a mechanism known as crassulacean acid metabolism, or CAM, which allows them to survive despite low levels of water. He said researchers have discovered CAM is essentially a form of photosynthesis in which the pores in a plant’s leaves only open to let in carbon dioxide at night. During the day, when the sun is out, the pores remain closed to prevent water escaping. This creates an environment where plants are better able to tolerate dry conditions."

“As we reveal the building blocks that make up CAM photosynthesis, we will be able to bioengineer the metabolic processes of water-heavy crops such as rice, wheat, soybeans and poplar to accelerate their adaptation to water-limited environments," Yang said. "These convergent changes in gene expression and protein sequences could be introduced into plants that rely on traditional photosynthesis, accelerating their evolution to become more water-use efficient."

While other, and more traditional research continues at universities and private and public labs around the world, scientists say they are burning the midnight oil at every level to help agriculture reduce its water footprint in the face of declining water resources that are expected to continue in the years ahead.

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