How Agritech can help farmers tackle water supply challenges

Iris Alting Ellena Cartlidge

By Iris Alting, Ellena Cartlidge

Water is essential for agricultural production and food security. Yet, freshwater scarcity is leading to one of the greatest challenges of our time. Water covers 70 percent of our planet, but only 3 percent of the world’s water is freshwater and two thirds of that is frozen in glaciers or otherwise unavailable for human use. With a growing world population, the demand for freshwater increases.

As climate change is already resulting in severe drought around the world, we’re witnessing yield-reductions of numerous crops. For example, Canada has recorded a 45 percent drop in its pea production and pea prices have drastically increased by 120 percent in comparison to last year. In addition to drought, heavy rainfall around the world is causing crop failures as seedlings are washed away and established plants succumb to root rot from saturated soil.

How to future-proof the agricultural supply-chain with Agritech

Agriculture accounts for approximately 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally. New agricultural technology (Agritech) can be used to support farmers and companies in making their practices more sustainable. The Internet of Things (IoT), precision irrigation, predictive weather analytics, and water protection and cleaning technologies are already modernising agriculture.

It is no secret that many companies are looking for solutions to reduce their water footprint, like Unilever who are aiming to implement water stewardship programs in 100 of their most water-stressed areas by 2030. Mondelez is also acting by targeting an absolute water use reduction of 10 percent on priority sites where water is most scarce. We’ve identified four key technologies that help to reduce farmers’ water footprint.

1. Internet of things and geographical information systems

Internet of things (IoT) and geographical information systems (GIS) allow farmers to monitor their crops through sensors and qualitative analysis, leading to healthier soil management strategies for crop production. IoT sensors perform countless activities, for example measuring soil, temperature, and humidity and data is shared with the farmer through mobile applications in real-time.

A successful experiment using an IoT-based irrigation system to improve water efficiency was completed by UNDP Accelerator Lab India. There were clear benefits in terms of crop health, size, grain weight, pod formation, maturity, and volume. This IoT system provides real-time information with respect to soil types, localised weather forecasts, and estimating water loss from evaporation.

GIS analysis includes moisture, topography, rainfall, and severe weather prediction. The benefit of this technology is that it builds multilayer maps, to understand which areas for example have dryer soil and need more water. IoT and GIS can be combined with precision irrigation tools, like drones and robots to automate the system.

2. Precision irrigation

Precision irrigation reduces water footprints, improves site-specific nutrient uptake in plant roots, increasing yield, profitability, and healthier soil. Precision irrigation often uses robots and drones to precisely deliver water to crops in rural locations quickly and in high quantities. Some drones are capable of carrying a 10-litre payload to treat roughly 10,000 square meters per hour. Drones are a growing industry, already contributing over $32 billion worth of services to farmers around the world.

The University of Agriculture in Nitra in Slovakia evaluated the efficiency of precision irrigation for potatoes. Compared to conventional water application, precision irrigation contributed to water savings of 478 cubic meter to hectare. Connecting precision irrigation technologies to data-output technologies (like IoT and GIS) could build an autonomous and accurate water-irrigation system.

3. Predictive weather analytics

By analysing weather forecast data through predictive weather analytics, farmers can make proactive decisions, water could be conserved, and other crop-risks can be avoided.

Different sources of data for predictive weather analytics include satellite monitoring, on-field radars, artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, and machine learning. By measuring temperature, rainfall, wind, drought duration, and frequency, farmers can lower costs, minimise risks, and improve yields.

Benchmark Labs has developed an AI- and IoT-driven forecasting technology for farmers to optimise their irrigation practices, and Sentera’s Field Agent tool pulls data from multiple sources including satellites, weather forecasts and pest models, so that direct crop advisors can scout the right areas of the field at the right time for more efficient decisions.

4. Water protection and cleaning technologies

In addition to examining water conservation technologies, avoiding evaporation and leakage in the first place is extremely important, especially as global temperatures are rising. Earlier this year, the California Water Department and researchers of the University of California ran tests where solar panels were installed over irrigation canals to save water and boost electricity output. Although the solution is expensive, it is expected that if all 4,000 miles of California’s irrigation canals had solar canopies, 63 billion gallons of water could be saved from evaporation each year.

Cleaning water that is currently unsafe to consume is another way to improve access to safe water. Water Source Australia developed a transformational cloud-connected water treatment unit that uses IoT for analytics, treatment, and maintenance. The unit can create potable water at a rate of more than eight litres per minute.

Invest in Agritech to meet sustainability goals

Clean freshwater scarcity is one of the greatest challenges of our time and is likely to get worse as weather conditions change and natural systems that help generate and collect fresh water are further disrupted. Implementing smart agri-technologies like IoT/GIS, precision irrigation, predictive weather analytics, and water protection and cleaning technologies, will allow for water to be conserved for times of drought and optimised for more efficient use. By investing in Agritech and supporting farmers to make their practices more efficient, sustainability goals can be achieved for both farmers and the wider supply-chain.

Following COP27, world leaders need to prioritise action on water and climate to reduce water-related issues globally by 2050 and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Action needs to be taken at a much faster pace.

About the authors

Iris Alting
Iris Alting PA sustainability and climate response expert
Ellena Cartlidge
Ellena Cartlidge PA agri-tech expert

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