To feed the rapidly growing population, agriculture is increasingly under pressure to produce more with less. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we use water as efficiently as possible – now. Netafim agronomist Charl van Reenen explains why urgent changes in the way we irrigate are critical and why these changes will benefit everyone.
Water and other resources are increasingly scarce, and the responsibility to produce more food while resources are dwindling rests on the shoulders of farmers. In less than a decade from now, South Africa may have 17% less water than it actually needs. By 2050, the globe may have 25% less water than it needs.
According to Charl van Reenen, an agronomist at Netafim South Africa, around 69% of globally available water goes into agriculture. In South Africa that figure sits at 62%.
Yet only 7% of irrigation is optimised through precision irrigation solutions. “Of the 20% of arable land that is irrigated, approximately 70% is irrigated through less efficient methods such as flood irrigation and the like.”
Considering the many challenges we face around climate change and dwindling resources, the industry must always chase efficiency. In fact, says Van Reenen, increasing water scarcity, unpredictable rainfall, declining water quality and poor water management are not far-removed future concepts; they are already dominating conversations about food security.
Farmers’ own pockets
Using water wisely is not just for the sake of the planet, however. There’s a very real and measurable benefit for farmers, adds Van Reenen.
For starters, inputs are more expensive than ever. And even though farmers cannot control the prices of these inputs, they can control the efficiency with which it is applied and therefore the amounts required, to an extent.
“Precision irrigation can improve the average crop’s productivity by as much as 50%. It can improve fertiliser use efficiency by as much as 30% and it could even improve energy consumption by as much as 35%.
“If the necessary calculations and scheduling are done, there’s no over or under irrigation with precision irrigation. Under irrigation puts the crop under stress. Over irrigation causes leaching of nutrients and water to the sub soil, which leads to nutrient wastage and pollution.
“We must aim to feed the plant, not the soil. You should give only as much as the plant can use, and nothing more. It must be calculated.”
He believes that farmers can no longer afford to guess. By reducing costs through efficient irrigation and nutrigation, and other sustainable farming practices, food producers can limit the impact of climate and price-related threats on their bottom line.
Where to start making changes
To farmers who want to take the leap to more efficient water use, Van Reenen’s immediate suggestion is to call in expert help.
“Get irrigation specialists and agriculture professionals involved. A variety of irrigation methods exist, each with a different level of efficiency and different advantages and disadvantages. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here and every scenario needs to be investigated holistically.”
He explains that farmers work in an extremely complex context, and it is crucial to consider the full picture in every irrigation decision and recommendation: from planning, preparation and deciding on quality products, to day-to-day operation, maintenance and scheduling that is right on the money.
The irrigation system that the farmer decides to install, needs to be fit for the specific environment, challenges, and goals of the farm, otherwise it might not be as successful and sustainable as the farmer would hope, he warns.
The only choice to make
In the end, Van Reenen says, it is all about making decisions that will benefit the farmer, the environment and everyone who depends on the farmer for food – now and sustainably into the future.
“If we are not proactive now to manage our water resources sustainably, dire consequences will follow. Water scarcity poses a risk to our social order, food and economic security and, ultimately, our human existence.”
To hear more from Van Reenen on the importance of irrigation efficiency, listen to the latest episode of Farmer’s Inside Track. For more information on Netafim South Africa, click here.
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