Global threat of food and environmental problems: agriculture must be more sustainable

Published: 11 December 2014

As result of excessive water consumption and water contamination in agricultural areas, the availability of clean water is falling worldwide.

Unless we intervene soon, the present problems with drought, contaminated water and algae will become slowly but surely unmanageable. So agriculture must become more sustainable.

Global threat

A few examples

In some parts of the Midwest of the United States, yields have been declining since the early 1990s because of falling water tables. In Toledo (Ohio) this summer, inhabitants could not drink tap water for one week because it was severely polluted by algae, which had flourished as nutrients (from fertiliser) entered the water from agricultural land. In the Gulf of Mexico, there is a dead zone with no oxygen in the water every summer, killing fish and plants. The effects can also be seen in the Netherlands, where agricultural exports are the highest in the world after the United States. Even back in 2012, Deltares concluded that the water quality in brooks and streams was impaired in half of Dutch agricultural areas. After the extreme drought in 2003, it was seen that the average annual damage to agriculture resulting from drought amounted to 10% of agricultural returns, in other words 1.3 billion euros.

Solutions

In order to cater to demand for food in future, we will have to produce more with less water. We need new technology, new regulations, and new economic stimuli to produce in sustainable ways. The American department of agriculture (USDA) is conducting a major study of the ecological impact of over-fertilisation. Satellite imaging and models have already provided a pin-sharp picture of where, and how fast, water tables are falling and rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs are drying up. Deltares can supply knowledge about monitoring methods and forecasting models, and we are working on new solutions such as a system for purification of agricultural water.

Scientific session on 15 and 16 December in San Francisco

On 15 and 16 December, Deltares is organising, in collaboration with the USDA, a session to discuss options for more productive and sustainable food production. The session, called ‘The Agricultural impact on water resources’, will be at the 2014 edition of the AGU Fall Meeting, which is held every year in San Francisco. The AGU is the world’s largest conference in the field of earth sciences. It is attended by more than 27,000 scientists, policymakers, teachers and students, who meet to share pioneering research.

Worldwide regulation required

Joachim Rozemeijer (hydrology and water quality expert at Deltares and one of the two session chairs at the session at the AGU Fall Meeting): “Current agricultural methods cannot be sustained indefinitely. The clean water is running out and the eutrophication of nature areas and coastal waters is becoming unmanageable. Many solutions are available, but they are not being deployed on a large enough scale. In the 1990s, Europe made a good step in the right direction by introducing restrictions to manure and fertiliser application. In other parts of the world, such as the USA, South America, China and Southeast Asia, the problems are rapidly getting worse and regulation is required there, too.”