Nebraska farmers set world standard for sustainable water use, food production

Nebraska farmers set world standard for sustainable water use, food production

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - 12:30pm

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2016 12:31 pm | Updated: 12:33 pm, Tue Nov 22, 2016.

KEARNEY — The ability of farmers around the world to produce more food with existing resources may depend on learning about water sustainability and food production from Nebraska ag producers.

“Nebraska is a living laboratory,” said Peter McCornick, new executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Although he doesn’t particularly like that term, he said it reflects Nebraskans’ expertise in managing water for food security.

McCornick joined the WFI in August. He previously was deputy director general of research at the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka.

The native of Scotland holds a doctorate in ag engineering from Colorado State University and has led research and development programs for water, agriculture and the environment in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the United States.

He spoke Monday in Kearney at the annual convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations.

McCornick said WFI’s goal is to help achieve a water- and food-secure world. It’s a complicated task because water issues are site specific, as reflected in the different programs and goals in Nebraska’s 23 natural resources districts.

WFI depends on local, national and global partnerships to work on research, policy issues and ways to make more places self-sufficient in food production. Teaching farmers how to grow more food with sustainable resources isn’t easy in places without outreach programs such as Nebraska Extension.

“We have a system established that works pretty well. Other parts of the world don’t have that luxury,” McCornick said, including places with underfunded or nonexistent outreach programs.

World population, estimated to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, isn’t the only food production challenge.

“Everyone wants that middle class income,” McCornick said. “As those communities get wealthier, they want a different diet.”

Typically, they want higher protein diets involving more animal products that require more water to produce.

“The demand for food is expanding faster than we would expect strictly from the linear growth in population,” McCormick said.

For example, diet changes are driving groundwater issues in India, which now has the world’s second-largest dairy industry. He said 54 percent of the groundwater there comes from declining wells.

Today, 44 percent of global food production involves groundwater use, McCornick said, but 33 percent comes from nonrenewable resources.

Key areas of attention for WFI are India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan where food demand drives irrigation use to mitigate climate variability, whether it’s due to natural or man-made causes. McCornick said implementing governance systems for the millions of wells in those countries is a huge challenge.

WFI focuses on sub-Sahara Africa, where only 4 percent of ag land is irrigated and crop yields are very low, he said, while also working in big food producing nations such as Brazil, China, Argentina and India on increasing production that is sustainable.

The biggest challenge in the Middle East is the water supply, he added.

McCormick said it is important to use the “data rich environment” in Nebraska, where water resources have been managed and monitored, and technologies such as pivot irrigation systems allow farmers to produce more with less water. What is learned by mapping Nebraska data can aid researchers in creating maps of the world’s water-productivity gap areas to help identify issues and how to address them.

In Africa, WFI is targeting Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana where the challenge is building economically viable systems that also improve local food security.

A Tanzania experiment features a community-owned pivot irrigation system on community-owned land divided into small plots for individual farmers. McCormick said Valmont contributed equipment, and WFI works with World Vision on such projects.

Growing high value crops at such sites helps increase livelihoods for entire communities, he said, and there are similar experimental projects now in Ghana, Rwanda and South Africa.

It’s not just the lack of irrigation and modern farming practices that cause farmers in many countries to underperform. McCornick said other issues include limited access to markets to buy inputs and sell crops.

Meeting the world’s growing need for food will require closing water-productivity gaps, teaching farmers about irrigation water management and enhancing use of high-productivity technologies such as pivots, he said.

Another part of the sustainability picture is ensuring that ag water use doesn’t hurt ecosystems or public health.

“Water quality, I think, is as much of a challenge as water quantity worldwide,” McCornick said.

lori.potter@kearneyhub.com