Agriculture and drought: how technology can make every drop count

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have always thrived in temperate climates characterized by plenty of rainfall. Water is the "blue gold" that fuels agricultural production, but what happens if climate change and desertification start to affect water supplies? What role can AgTech play in making the agricultural sector more resilient to water scarcity? Let's take a look.

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Throughout the summer of 2022, news of land scorcing droughts has reached us from all over the world, as large areas of the Northern Hemisphere experienced numerous heat waves and lack of precipitation. Categorizing these events as exceptional, however, would be a naive mistake: climate trends have long been clear weather stress events are increasing.

An increasingly worrying climate trend

In the case of Europe, over the past century 45 major drought episodes have occurred, causing an estimated $27.5 billion in economic damage. Nowadays,  15% of the EU's land area and 17% of its population are regularly affected by drought, with crops being threatened on a regular basis by dry weather conditions.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, climate change is causing a significant decrease in the amount of rainfall worldwide. In North America, the average annual millimetres of rainfall in areas such as the Southwest region has consistently decreased. A warmer climate promotes desertification and evaporation. According to some climatological models, rising global temperatures will also lead to increasingly extreme phenomena, alternating periods of severe drought and floods.

Agriculture and drought: multi-level damage

Agriculture is heavily impacted by drought. The bad news is that crops consumed predominantly by humans are extremely affected. The impact on grains (corn, rice, soybeans, millet, wheat) is devastating, and for other cultivations it’s even worse. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and medicinal herbs are more vulnerable to drought than cereals and wheat because they require a higher value per unit of land/water.

In addition, there is also collateral damage to business activities that count on agriculture as a source of profit. Making recurring droughts, is not just an environmental and food security issue, but also an economic concern.

African farmer manually watering his cabbage field in Southern Mali.

According to FAO, 1.3 billion human beings, 40 percent of the world's working population rely on agriculture as the main income provider. Drought threatens to plunge in poverty and hunger huge segments of the global population.

Knowing the soil to irrigate it better

Irrigation sensors are the first tools in the hands of farmers to have a holistic view of crops. Such technology can be implanted directly in the soil, or used from above via aircraft and satellites. Being aware of the hydration level of the soil allows a much more widespread and targeted use of resources, avoiding waste and automating a process that would otherwise involve constant checks by the farmer.

For a detailed overview of the features of this smart watering technology, you can refer to this overview by the U.S. State Environmental Protection Agency.

Agronomic techniques available to all

Another strategy to fight drought is moisture pathways. This technique reuses the seeding furrows from the previous agricultural season: the furrows still contain some of the moisture from the plants previously planted. Moisture paths enable the water consumption of industrial crops to be cut down and free the farmer from having to dig new furrows during the planting process.

This agronomic technique requires little technological effort, but it is already put into practice in many arid places around the world. Australian growers, for example, are mastering it with great profit in canola crops.

Enabling predictive models with the help of technology

Farmer measuring irrigation water with digital PH meter.

Algorithms and smart farming: in Texas, for example, an algorithm designed by the Agricultural Research Service has been active since 2015, systematizing data collection through instruments and researchers, to enable a predictive model. Based on this, the algorithm communicates accurate irrigation inputs based on the water stress that individual crops are undergoing.

This analysis highlights a number of promising adjustments, developing and adopting smart solutions to strengthen water resilience, while respecting the environment and meeting the needs of the food industry’s stakeholders.

Droughts and other extreme weather events are on the rise, the effects of climate change on agriculture are causing continuous food losses, leading to food insecurity and economic instability. Bold industry interventions are needed to channel investments in the development and large-scale adoption of AgTech innovations that have the potential to make agriculture more resilient to changing weather conditions and preserve our water resources.


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