Tell a talented bunch of high school students that water shortages will be a roadblock to growing enough food to feed America and the world in the future and you may get blank stares. One bright student points out that at least in theory, the amount of water in the water cycle serving the planet remains constant.
That may be so, but the number of people in the world isn't remaining constant, and will continue to grow into the future, notes Marcos Fernandez, associate dean of the Purdue University College of Agriculture. He believes water is one of the challenges that farmers and those who support farmers must overcome to meet global food demands by 3050, when the world population is projected to reach 9 billion, up from 7 billion today. Other key challenges include a declining amount of land available to grow food on, thanks to urban development, and more demands on the energy system in this country.
The problem with water is that there won't be enough in the future to meet demands of U.S. and world populations, and demands of those irrigating crops in dry areas at the same time. Water rights are already a serious issue in some western states. At some point, the discussion will become: "Who gets the water, people in cities and towns who need it to live, or farmers and ranchers who need water to irrigate land that otherwise wouldn't grow crops?"
Fernandez believes part of the solution to turning these challenges into opportunities is technology. Students coming out of college now and those who come out in the future will search for technology to help make better use of resources, including water, he notes.
For example, Pioneer Hi-Bred International just announced 17 new products for drought-stressed environments this year. They're part of Pioneer's Aqua-Max brand of hybrids, developed to perform better under less than ideal amounts of water. Other companies are also working on drought tolerant hybrids and crops.
The issue right now is a matter of degrees. A drought-tolerant hybrid may do 10 to 20% better than a non-drought tolerant hybrid under extreme conditions. However, it doesn't mean it will do 100% better. It will still require a certain amount of water to produce good yields.