Impact of Traditional Farming on Water

In 2016, U.S. farms consumed enough water to account for nearly 80% of the country’s water consumption.[1] While it may seem obvious that the agricultural sector would be the number one water consumer, our resource may not have stretched as far as we once imagined.

A 2015 study showed that traditional farming’s water usage is “an inefficient and polluting means of using water to grow our food.”[2] Poor irrigation system and soil management and crops’ exposure to uncontrolled environmental conditions are factors that play a part in this inefficiency, which innovative farming techniques like hydroponics and greenhouses could resolve.[3]

Irrigation systems in traditional farming aren’t set up or optimized to absorb most of the water used. Throughout the growing season, farms may flood the fields or use central pivot irrigation systems to water crops, but that doesn’t mean the water will make it through the soil and to the roots. More often than not, the water will evaporate before reaching the root systems.[4]

Additionally, few water recycling initiatives within the agricultural sector recapture water waste. So, despite consuming a massive quantity of water, only a small amount is serving its intended purpose and helping plants grow.[5]

One way to ensure water reaches plant roots is by planting crops in healthy soil. Nutrient-rich soil plays a vital role in practicing sustainable water use. If the ground is overworked or lacks microorganisms that aid in the fertility of the earth, the water will absorb into the soil rather than the roots. Properly managing the land and monitoring its health can help to increase the efficiency of water’s absorption by crops dramatically.[6]

Unfortunately, traditional farming gravitates towards heavy fertilizer use, which saps the soil of its nutrients. Monocropping, when the same plot of land is farmed continuously over several seasons without it recovering, is another major issue. These and other unsustainable farming practices lead to the breakdown in soil health, which leads to further water waste.[7]

Overfertilizing and plowing have the potential to cause the eutrophication of water and transports chemicals into surface water. If fertilizers aren’t applied efficiently to crops, the majority of the substances will either drain into surface or ground waters or as gaseous emissions in the atmosphere. Chemicals that are highly soluble can quickly dissolve in water and soil, killing the microorganisms within the earth.[8]

However, besides things like over-fertilization, monocropping, and poor irrigation that cause poor soil quality, the leading factor in water waste is uncontrollable environmental conditions. These include wind, rain, sunlight, and other things that farmers cannot control. Factors such as drought and water scarcity, combined with inefficient irrigation and soil management will only exasperate poor water distribution.[9]

By switching to more innovative methods in farming, U.S. farms will consume less water, and the used water will be distributed more effectively in controlled environments. It will produce crops that are tastier and free from chemicals, making them healthier for consumption. Overall, the trend towards innovative farming will help agriculture become a more eco-friendly, sustainable market that will continue to profit while fulfilling the ever-growing demand for food.