Agriculture is faced with the challenge of meeting our growing demand for food. Modern irrigation systems can secure production for the long term.
In Texas, farmers often look up at the sky. Their existence depends on water, and this is often in short supply. Modern irrigation systems, which guarantee the efficient use of this precious elixir of life, have therefore become all the more vital. To this end, fruit farmers in the Rio Grande Valley have switched from traditional furrow irrigation methods to sprinkler systems in recent years, and water consumption has promptly sunk by 35 to 40 percent. At the same time, the percentage of fruit that can be classed as Grade A in terms of size and quality has increased. In other words, less can be more when it comes to irrigation – if the right technology is used.
Water quantities control yields
Water management that supports sustainable agriculture is an important issue. After all, our demand for food is already so great that, globally, 70 percent of fresh water used today flows into the agricultural sector. And the world’s population continues to grow. It is estimated that 9.7 billion people will be living on the planet by 2050. At the same time, our eating habits are changing. Meat consumption is rising above all in emerging countries, and with it the amount of water required for cattle and for producing their feed. In this context, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is emphasising the need for better irrigation methods. Such methods are a key to sustainable production. A further aspect is climate change, which will affect precipitation levels in many countries. Many scientists in the field of international agricultural research are therefore working to develop new breeds of crops. Over recent decades, they have succeeded again and again in introducing seeds to the market that require less water than their predecessors. Future changes include new varieties of maize and wheat that are expected to tolerate dry conditions even better.
Modern sprinkler systems can also raise agricultural yields. They increase the amount of water on the fields and help the plants avoid stress in periods of drought. A sprinkler system can also prevent topsoil from drying out too much. Rain is able to soak in more easily and less water is lost due to runoff or evaporation. The water also cools the plants from above, a requirement for certain crops such as potatoes.
A good example of how much a new irrigation technology can influence plant growth can be seen in the winegrowing industry. Winemakers are increasingly replacing the previous typical sprinkler systems with drip irrigation. The hoses lie directly on top of the soil and release water drop by drop through small holes. This means evaporation is very low, and the consistent dripping in the same place ensures that the liquid penetrates deep into the ground. This can have a positive influence on both yields and quality, at least to a certain extent: if the fruit is irrigated more intensively at the beginning of its development, its volume increases. During the grapes’ ripening phase, moisture influences their rate of photosynthesis and storage of metabolites; even their taste changes.
These effects can be further enhanced through electronic control. For example, a project group led by the Technical University of Berlin is developing an intelligent irrigation system that works using sensors. The system checks soil moisture and precipitation levels and can use this information to independently determine the amount of water that should be released.
The Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Centre), on the other hand, is pursuing a different approach. There, scientists have developed a virtual model of a fluvial topography to improve weather forecasts and flood forecasts for real riverscapes. After a three-year funding phase, the model will now be applied to an existing research area in one of the four observatories of the TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories) research project, which will study the regional consequences of climate change for at least 15 years.
percent of the water required by agriculture to produce enough food is supplied by rain (on an international average). Irrigation accounts for 20 percent of this amount – with significant variations from region to region.
percent: In the EU, between 15 and 60 percent of agricultural water consumption can be saved using new technology, depending on the region and previously used techniques.
percent of the world’s population could suffer from water shortages by 2030 if conditions such as water management and distribution do not change.
the number of times process water can be recycled. So it can be used again, e.g. for industry.
billion people currently live on Earth according to UN estimates. In 1950, this figure was only 2.5 billion. Agriculture therefore needs to produce significantly greater quantities of food.
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