St. Louis on the Air
8:34 pm
Mon March 18, 2013

Water Availability and Global Agriculture

Last summer’s drought in the United States, and particularly here in the Midwest, would lead one to ask if there is enough water to meet the world’s needs.  According to Dr. Roberto Lenton, Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and Executive Director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the answer is “yes.”

But it is a qualified “yes.”  “If you take it on aggregate, the amount of water that is available is certainly sufficient to meet our needs,” says Lenton.  “But the availability of water is highly variable, both in time and space, so some parts of the world are very, very dry and other parts of the world have extreme rainfall at the other end of the spectrum.  And we certainly see huge amounts of variability over time as well.” So what it comes down to is whether there is enough water at the right place and at the right time to meet the region’s needs.

The definition of drought is relative as well.  Lenton defines it as a significant deficit in average rainfall of a given location, but relative to the water needs of that location.  He acknowledges that last Summer, this part of the world experienced the worst drought in the last 50 years.  If the lack of rainfall continues through this year and next, it could make it comparable to earlier droughts such as that during the dust bowl of the 1930’s. 

Since the largest use of water is in agriculture, one solution to the water availability issue, is to find new ways to make plants less water dependent.  That is the goal of Dr. Thomas Brutnell’s work as the Director of the Enterprise Rent-a-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.  “We need to figure out how plants deal with drought, how they respond to lack of water and how to protect the plants from those dry periods and still be productive.” While no plant can grow with no water, increasing plants’ plasticity will help them survive during parts of the growing cycle when there is less water than is usually needed. 

Both scientists agree that climate change is having an effect on the world’s water supply.  A majority of scientists believe that the global temperature is increasing due to man-made causes.  Therefore, the major agricultural organizations are working on developing plants that grow with less water.

When lack of water causes a decrease in yields in the United States, it not only affects the quantity of the food supply, but also the global price of food. An increase in price affects those in the developing countries even more than in the United States.  

Another issue is the increased use of bio-fuels.  Crops such as corn are being used for competing purposes - as both a food and a fuel source.

Therefore, Lenton and Brunell feel that it is essential to continue the quest to engineer plants that can survive with less water and explore new ways to provide both sufficient food and fuel so the two purposes don’t compete with each other.

Roberto Lenton and Thomas Brutnell were Don Marsh’s guests on St. Louis on the Air. In addition to the development of plants that are less water dependent, the discussion included the prospect of using sources other than corn in bio-fuel production and the possibility of developing plants that are saline resistant and could grow with sea water.

Related Event

The Danforth Plant Science Center’s Conversations Series hosts a discussion on Water Availability and the Impact on Global Agriculture on Thursday, March 21 at the Center’s AT&T Auditorium, located at 975 North Warson Road.  A networking reception begins at 5:15 p.m. and the conversation begins at 7:00 p.m. The complimentary event is open to the public, but reservations are required.  Call (314) 587-1070, e-mail conversations@danforthcenter.org or reserve online.

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