Agriculture without water is not possible and most of the world’s freshwater is used for agricultural purposes. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global withdrawals. However, agriculture also needs to ensure that water quality is protected.
Interview with Dr. Volker Laabs
Dr. Volker Laabs, geo-ecologist, works in the department for Global Sustainability and Product Stewardship at BASF, and is focused on the management of impacts of agriculture on water resources.
The reality is that nature, and humans as part of nature, cannot survive without an adequate water supply. Water regulates the climate, creates landscapes, sustains ecosystems, connects continents and is fundamental to all our activities - from daily living to agricultural and industrial production. Yet, according to estimates in the 2009 United Nations World Water Development Report, by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. This dramatic situation leads to this new megatrend.
Globally, some 300 million hectares of farmland are irrigated, accounting for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawal. Although only 20 percent of the world's cultivated land is irrigated, it accounts for 40 percent of all agricultural production and even 60 percent of the global cereal production (FAO). This figure highlights the huge contribution that these highly productive irrigated cropping systems make to our global food production. It is also a reminder of the problems that farmers face in rain-fed agriculture in times of drought, or when water becomes too scarce to be used for irrigation.
As the world’s population expands, farmers will have to produce more food. In all probability, this means that they will have to use more water, as the percentage of irrigated farmland will also need to increase to achieve higher productivity.
Water availability has to be considered in terms of both quantity and quality. On the one hand, we have to ensure the use of local water resources in a sustainable way to meet daily demand. If there is insufficient quantity, water scarcity is usually the overriding issue on the agenda. On the other hand, in areas where the water supply is adequate, water quality automatically becomes the top priority. Is the water clean? Can I drink it? How does it taste? Can I swim in it? Can I use it for irrigation? Though important, water quality is often forgotten when people face more pressing issues like absolute water scarcity.
When crop protection products are carefully and correctly used, they do not impact water quality except in extreme situations. For example, extreme weather conditions can occasionally cause elevated concentrations in water bodies. But even these extreme cases were shown to not pose a significant risk to consumers or aquatic life because they are short-term and localized phenomena.
The more problematic cases are often those involving accidents or bad management practices, such as spillage, that lead to so-called “point pollution sources”. These incidents are completely avoidable. All stakeholders in agriculture need to work together to eliminate the potential for accidents and bad management practices.
To sum it up: if crop protection products are used in a correct and responsible way, they do not pose a threat to water quality.
BASF is committed to the protection of water resources and the responsible and sustainable use of crop protection products. For example, we provide detailed product use recommendations (label restrictions as well as voluntary recommendations) to minimize risks for water pollution with our products. Recently, we launched an EU-wide product stewardship program for water protection with the aim to better educate advisors, distributors, and farmers about this issue. We also support a range of national and international initiatives, aimed at increasing awareness and knowledge about water quality problems and water conservation in agriculture. For example, the UK Voluntary Initiative trains advisors, farmers and operators on best practice, especially in relation to handling and application of crop protection products. Another example is the European Crop Protection Association’s TOPPS-prowadis project, which aims to develop and demonstrate risk diagnosis tools and best management practices for water protection in agricultural catchments on an EU-wide scale.
We aim to lower the quantity of water used at our production sites while simultaneously safeguarding drinking water resources and the integrity of local ecosystems within the vicinity of the site. To this aim we support the water stewardship approach, which aims at assessing the impacts of local water use and continuously improving the water management at each site. We are proud that BASF is the first chemical company which achieved gold-level certification according to the European Water Stewardship (EWS) standard for its production site in Tarragona, Spain. The European standard was developed by governments, businesses and NGOs under the leadership of the independent organization European Water Partnership (EWP). By the year 2020, BASF wants to introduce a water management following the EWS standard at all sites where water is scarce.
We believe that the popular water footprint of products is not a useful tool to improve their sustainability, as it disregards the local aspect of water availability and ecosystem sensitivity, as well as it relies on the controversial concepts of green (rain water) and grey (polluted) water use.
For BASF, water has become a strategic research area also in our division of Agricultural Solutions. We are working on different projects and products, designed to optimize water use in the field. For example, our AgCelence® fungicide promotes overall plant health, but also leads to higher plant yields especially under water-stress conditions. With AgCelence®, farmers therefore benefit from improved water use efficiency and their crops have a better chance of withstanding any prolonged dry spells. All of our efforts to increase yields, e.g. with crop protection products and new plant varieties, ultimately lead to a higher water use efficiency in agriculture, the so-called “more crop per drop” effect.
There are many challenges for farmers to ensure a stable water supply to growing crops and their importance varies from place to place. Investing in modern irrigation practices, increasing yields by embracing new technologies through crop protection products and new plant varieties, and adopting water-smart farming practices will all help farmers to meet the goal of sustainable water use in agriculture.