Part IV – Water, Water, Everywhere
Continuing from Parts I, II, and III of our series…You’ve made it to the fourth and final installment of our series on regenerative agriculture. We would be remiss in dropping the shoe example at this point, so let’s dive in and discuss the impact of regenerative agriculture on water quality and availability.
We will need to use our imaginations to aid in our final example. Let us imagine for a moment that you’ve implemented all of the environmentally conscious tactics from our previous articles (Part I, Part II, and Part III) and are well on your way to maintaining clean shoes with a sustainable approach. From Part II, you’ve given up the approach of attacking occasional stains with a litany of chemicals in the kitchen sink, but you recognize that routine washing of your shoes is still a necessary task.
For this, you find yourself getting creative. “Instead of wasting water and washing chemicals down the drain,” you think to yourself, “I’ll just fill a plastic container with soap and water, giving my shoes a quick dip and scrub whenever needed”. You smirk at your ingenious approach to outsmarting your innate drive to maintain your shoes without regard to the environment.
A short-lived rummage through the closet of forgotten welcome mats and you’ve found a clear molded plastic container that would be perfect for your needs. You fill the container with soap and water until the suds are teasing the uppermost edge, as if they’re begging to be recklessly splashed on the floors of your home. You don’t even hesitate at the sides of the container that are bowing ever so slightly under the pressure of the crystal-clear water that they hold. “Perhaps my shoes could use a quick scrub now,” you think to yourself as you scan the room for the presence of anything else that could be cleaned. You almost feel as if you’ve unlocked a cheat code for unlimited guilt-free cleaning sessions.
As time progresses, you continue giving your shoes a quick dunk and light scrub in the container. It doesn’t take long before you notice that what was once crystal-clear water has now become murky with a layer of sediment and debris forming at the bottom. You scratch your chin, perplexed that your perfect plan may not be so perfect after all. The water supply that was dedicated to solely cleaning your shoes requires a degree of maintenance itself in order to be of use for more than a couple of days.
It is around this point that you begin to understand the complexities of trying to preserve a very small body of water and how quickly it can become useless if not cared for and conditioned properly. You falter in your attempt to approach a resource like water as though it were anything other than finite in nature.
Nor Any Drop to Drink
This example may feel a bit extreme to those of us who aren’t sneaker connoisseurs, but it puts into perspective a global issue that has become very real for conservationists, environmentalists, and agricultural operators — the importance of maintaining water quality and supply.
Think about it like this: based on estimates by the United Nations, the global population is now growing at an average rate of 83 million people per year. This translates to 83 million additional mouths to feed annually, a burden that oftentimes falls upon the shoulders of commercial agricultural operations. Sure, some may argue that this rate of growth could be attributed to advances in agriculture over the past generations, but pointing fingers rarely solves problems of this magnitude.
As populations rise, so does the demand for food. Considering that we all know how water-intensive large-scale agricultural operations can be, it should come as no surprise that, according to World Bank Data, around 70% of the world’s supply of freshwater annual use is attributed to agriculture. Even more concerning is that this number is projected to rise to over 85% over the next 28 years.
Although water use is certainly a topic that we should all be keeping a very close eye on, let’s focus on water quality and conservation. It would seem that we are at a pivotal point in global growth. We can’t easily or reasonably utilize saltwater in agriculture — yet — so the next best option is to better maintain the freshwater that we do have access to now. This may sound like a shot in the dark approach, but if regenerative agriculture has taught us anything, it is that we still have time to reverse some of the environmental harm that we’ve caused along the way.
How Can Regenerative Agriculture Improve Water Quality and Quantity?
Much like Biosequestration, improving water quality and quantity is a large-scale undertaking that won’t happen overnight or based solely on the actions of one or two individuals — this is one that requires the majority of farmers to be on board in order to be successful. So, how does a farming technique aid our water supply and quality?
- Water Quantity – Agriculture, like most things, is reliant on water. Considering that groundwater can serve as an excellent means of irrigation for farmers (it is estimated that “soil can hold around eight times the amount of water than all rivers combined” ), you may ask why more farmers aren’t utilizing groundwater reserves. The hurdle is one that we discussed in Part I of our series, soil conditioning.
You see, soil is completely capable of maintaining a reliable water source for many farmers, but not at the rate in which it [soil] is being damaged by modern agriculture practices like monoculture planting and over-tilling. These things disrupt the layers of organic matter and eventually lead to detrimental erosion — not exactly the type of soil that is going to be capable of holding vast amounts of water. By implementing even some of the soil-friendly techniques described in Part I, farmers will likely find that, as the condition of their soil improves, so does its ability to maintain those readily available groundwater reserves.
- Water Quality – Just as you experienced in your clever idea to maintain a single body of water for the repeated cleaning of your shoes, as time progressed and you had no way of filtering or conditioning your plastic container of dirty shoe cleaning water, you eventually reached a tipping point when the water in the container actually got your shoes dirtier than cleaner. That’s because the runoff from your shoes had no way of being filtered before subsequent uses.
Farmers are experiencing a similar situation on a much larger scale. We know that soil is capable of maintaining groundwater reserves, but it also acts, in many ways, as a filter for groundwater before storing it. If your soil condition is lacking, then your natural water filter is lacking as well. As the soil becomes less capable of filtering agricultural inputs like pesticides and herbicides, these products can end up in groundwater reserves, leaving them contaminated with chemicals that may very well render the water unusable. Outside of practicing the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture, soil conditioning, farmers can further reduce the chemicals leaching into their soil by optimizing their input application.
The Future of Regenerative Agriculture
It’s common for most of us to ponder large-scale topics like regenerative agriculture and experience a sense of existential dread. You may find thoughts swirling around your head like, “this is too big to do anything at this point” or “we’re too late to the battle to make a difference”, but this isn’t the case.
Right now, more than ever before, we are armed with the data and technological advances needed to save a sinking ship, but we must act fast and work together. While this may sound like a cliche doomsday mentality, it is a safe bet that most humans probably don’t want to test those waters — no pun intended.
Fortunately, more large-scale ag operators are getting on-board with the regenerative agriculture movement as they recognize the unsustainable nature of staying on our current path. As we continue to spread awareness of our impact on the environment and develop new technology like FarmSense’s FlightSensor technology, which monitors fields for insects in real-time, allowing more appropriate use of pesticides and herbicides, we are better prepared than ever to create a sustainable future and alleviate many of the subsidiary aggravating factors that got us into this situation in the first place.
Regenerative agriculture may or may not be the golden ticket that we’re all looking for, but it certainly seems to be the best ticket that we have at the moment. If you want to learn more about incorporating regenerative agriculture best practices into your farm, no matter the size, check out our other articles on the subject or reach out to your local agricultural extension office.