Navigating the Future: Water and Energy Challenges for Conventional Farms

As the global population burgeons and climate change intensifies, the agricultural sector is poised to face unprecedented challenges in the coming decades. Two critical pillars sustaining conventional farms, water, and energy, are under increasing pressure. In this article, we explore the looming water and energy challenges that farms are expected to encounter over the next ten to fifty years and discuss potential strategies to navigate this complex terrain.



Escalating Water Scarcity
The United Nations predicts that by 2050, nearly half of the world's population will be living in areas of high water stress. In the United States, for example, persistent drought is projected to take an even larger toll on water security in the West. But the Great Lakes region will see relatively high water security due to the region’s proximity to five of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Other regions projected to have above-average water storage capacity in 2050 include the Niger basin in West Africa, the East African Rift and the northern Amazon basin, scientists said. Conversely, the report identified several global “hotspots with negative trends” on water storage, including Brazil’s Rio São Francisco basin, Patagonia in the southern reaches of South America, the Ganges River headwaters in the Himalaya Mountains of northern India and the Indus River flowing from Tibet to the Arabian Sea. Conventional farms, relying heavily on irrigation, will bear the brunt of this water scarcity. Sustainable water management practices for conventional farms, such as drip irrigation and soil moisture monitoring, will be crucial to optimize water usage. Incorporating resource reuse through closed-loop agriculture practices and inputs could also save farms the headache of being dependent on these various challenges. 

Depletion of Groundwater
Groundwater, a lifeline for many farms, is being over-extracted at an alarming rate. Agriculture accounts for over 70% of global groundwater extraction. Furthermore, groundwater is increasingly being used to irrigate a growing portion of the planet's irrigated surface area (now around 40%, or more than 100 million hectares).To counter this, there is a pressing need for aquifer recharge programs, alongside the adoption of drought-resistant crops that require less water. Long-term strategies must focus on replenishing aquifers to ensure their viability for future generations. In most arid and semiarid countries, a large increase in groundwater resources for irrigation has occurred over the last half-century, driven primarily by the individual effort of millions of small farmers seeking the significant short-term benefits that groundwater tends to bring. Around the world, governmental water agencies have traditionally focused on the planning, management, administration, and regulation of surface-water irrigation systems, but with little emphasis made on groundwater management. Often times, the responsibility is then indirectly placed on farms and its industry counterparts to come up with solutions.


Fossil Fuel Dependency
Conventional farming practices, from machinery operation to transportation and fertilizer production, heavily rely on fossil fuels. Volatile fuel prices and environmental concerns necessitate a transition towards renewable energy sources. The polarity of opinions on fossil fuels threatens farms every day, with events such as the president of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, claiming that there is “no science” indicating that a phase-out of fossil fuels is needed to restrict global heating to 1.5C - a response to many who are pushing for the end of fossil fuel usage. Depending on the political movements means they need to balance out usage of fossil fuels on-site while also exploring solar and wind power options to reduce their carbon footprint and enhance long-term sustainability. For example, irrigation, a cornerstone of agriculture, is energy-intensive. Knowing this, farms need to embrace precision agriculture technologies that are ideally not dependent on fossil fuels, including smart irrigation systems and sensor-based monitoring, to optimize energy use. Additionally, investing in energy-efficient machinery and equipment can contribute to overall energy conservation.

The challenges awaiting conventional farms in the next ten to fifty years are formidable, but with proactive measures, innovative technologies, and collaborative efforts, the agricultural sector can build resilience. Innovative approaches that take into consideration the reuse of resources could relieve the burden of water and energy limitations for farms. By addressing water and energy challenges head-on, farms can not only ensure their own sustainability but also contribute to a more secure and resilient global food supply for the future.