No matter where you live, water is a topic of contention. “Is it clean?” “Is there enough to go around?” “Who gets access to it?” Domestic life, agriculture, and dozens of separate industries depend upon the answers. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. Humanity’s water footprint, like our history, is complicated.

Food dependent on a wavering resource

In the U.S., we often take water for granted, forgetting that on an industrial scale, it’s increasingly scarce.

In fact, ask any farmer to confirm that “water is life”, and you’ll get a slow, sure nod. Whether they’re farming in drought-ridden California or raising cattle near the dangerously low Ogallala aquifer, water is a significant concern to agriculturalists of all kinds. Why? Because agriculture — and therefore our food system — is utterly dependent on the availability of water. And it uses a lot of it. Agriculture is by far the thirstiest consumer of the earth’s water, accounting for 70-80 percent of all water usage around the globe. This is more than three times the agricultural water used 50 years ago, according to the World Health Organization.

Agricultural water use an upward trend

Population growth is a huge part of this equation. In the coming years, we’ll have to grow more food with less water.

From today’s 7+ billion, the world’s population is expected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2030, increasing food demand by 30 percent. And by 2050, with the global population hitting 9.1 billion, food demand will increase by 70 percent.

Another issue dramatically affecting agriculture and water use is climate change. Rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and rainfall variations are adding to pressure on the global agriculture system – which is already struggling to respond to rising demands for food. Periods of drought and heat waves are expected to worsen, and alternating dry spells and heavy rainfalls will contribute to erosion and soil degradation.  “It’s all about the water,” reads the U.S. government’s recent report, Our Changing Climate.

When drought hits, farms are forced to stay alive by pumping water from underground aquifers, depleting groundwater resources for generations to come. During California’s drought years, farms in the central and San Joaquin valleys doubled their pumping rates. And more than 70 percent of the Colorado River is now siphoned off to croplands.

The problem gets worse when demand for food leads farmers to plant water-dependent crops in arid regions that need heavy irrigation to support growing fields. Avocado orchards, many of which are located in arid regions, require 70 gallons of water to produce one avocado. Lettuce, while less thirsty, needs 23 gallons of water per single head of lettuce.

When there’s less of something that more people need, the price goes up, and that’s what’s happening with water today. California’s Public Utilities Commission looked at the future cost of water and concluded that rising demand combined with the need to search for “non-traditional” water sources such as desalinization will drive costs up considerably in the future. Rising water prices will push food costs up as well, as farmers pay more to irrigate crops.

Room for improvement

The bottom line is that we have to change the way we grow food to protect all our resources – our water, our soil, and our ability to feed the world’s current and future hungry mouths. The good news? There’s enormous room for improvement.

The farming industry is changing, supported by people like you, who search for more responsible food. New to the movement? Start by learning as much as you can about these issues and supporting agriculture that doesn’t drain the world’s scarce water resources and degrade the environment.

The good news is that by using the latest in modern technology it’s possible to grow crops without such heavy water use. Plenty’s vertical indoor farms reuse water in a continuous cycle while at the same time carefully controlling temperature, humidity and other factors that affect water use.

Sophisticated software-controlled automation systems use sensors to monitor when plants need water and when they don’t. And thanks to the use of gravity, Plenty’s vertical fields require less energy to distribute that water. The result: lettuce and other crops grown with just one percent of the water that would be required to irrigate conventional fields.

Ready to make change? Start by getting connected.

Plenty is committed to making a change in the food system by conserving water and growing healthier food. Follow us to find ways to contribute and transform ag’s world of water.