Better water technology can increase yields, but it can lead to more water use overall

Increasing food production without using additional water and land resources may be possible through further development of irrigation and water engineering, plant breeding and gene editing, and innovative management of things like heat and sunlight.

These were some of the strategies outlined during a panel discussion called “New Innovations, Incentives for Growing Fruits, Vegetables and Other Crops with Less Water” in Agri-Pulse Food and Agriculture Summit in Sacramento on Monday.

Jonathan Destler, CEO of Opti-Harvest, said his company applies to outdoor crops the science of how light is used to grow indoors or in greenhouses. The company works with grapes, nuts, citrus and stone fruits, and is targeting blueberries and avocados with technologies that “bring light into the shadier areas of the canopy or trellis” — or protect the fruit during extreme heat, for example.

In 60 trials over six years, he said yields increased and labor costs decreased.

The goal, he said, is to create stronger, healthier plants by viewing sunlight as one of many inputs available to the farmer to select and maximize. He said the company was initially able to measure above-ground benefits, but now they can document improved root systems and corresponding improvements in water use efficiency.

Opti-Panel of Opti-Harvest“We believe we’re excited to offer part of a solution that can help as an integrated approach,” he said, “along with other genetics and chemicals and soil improvements.”

Bayer also hopes to improve plant health and success even as conditions change. Stephanie Pedroni, new technology coordinator for global vegetable research and development at Bayer, said that while the company is best known for its main row crops, it also has a strong specialty crop program and the work is complementary.

“The trials we’re doing with cotton, we can gather knowledge and apply that to processing tomatoes and vice versa,” she said.

For her, the bright spot for crop innovation right now is gene editing, a process she said will shave years off the process of developing a plant that takes advantage of some useful genetics. The cost of sequencing genetic material has plummeted, making it a readily available tool, Pedroni said. In the past, once the desired genetics were identified, that bit had to be isolated and then tested to see if it could be added or removed without causing other unwanted results. It took months or years for successive generations of plants to grow.

With gene editing, however, Pedroni said, “we can effect a precise change where nothing else in the genome of that plant is affected.” This means faster and more precise changes that get seeds to farmers sooner.

She said the drought in California and the West, along with other climate change challenges, underscores the need to “use all the tools at our disposal if we’re going to succeed.” In addition to improving genetics, she pointed to soil health to create better roots and different pest management strategies.

Water remains one of the most scarce resources for many fruit, nut and vegetable growers, especially in California and the Southwest. Common Good Water is developing a paradigm that pays farmers for water they don’t use. It’s part of an incentive structure that chief development officer Val Fishman says is built into the company’s business model. Using existing technology from Netafim, she says the company has helped alfalfa farmers cut applied water by about half compared to the state average. Because California is a leading dairy state, alfalfa is a critical crop.

The underground drip technology is combined with best agronomic practices, she said, and other benefits follow, such as carbon sequestration, improved soil health and increased profit. The devices measure and a third party verifies how much water farmers have used.

“Our model is to actually pay them based on the amount of water they save,” Fishman said.

Micro-irrigation and other control measures prevent precious drops of water from escaping from the plants for which they are intended. And while Common Good Water accounts for actual water used, Daniele Zaccaria, an agricultural water management specialist at the University of California, Davis, said not all innovations do.

He said water use is now approaching 96 percent efficiency in California, meaning very little is wasted. But he cautions that this also does not mean water use is sustainable.

Summit_water_panel_71122.jpgLeft to right: Spencer Chase, Agri-Pulse; Jonathan Destler, Opti-Harvest; Daniele Zaccaria, UC Davis; Val Fishman, Common Good; Stephanie Pedroni, Bayer

“Still, (we’re) overdrawing the aquifers and (we’re) overdistributing the rivers,” he said, so efficiency and sustainability are really separate issues. He said engineering can improve how and when water is moved, and while that often translates into higher yields, it also means there’s often a net increase in overall water use as more acres are irrigated.

“Unless we create a framework for better water accounting and somehow put in place a way to maximize the amount of water allocated and the net benefit of that water allocation per acre, we will not achieve the community’s goal of reducing (water use) “, he said.

If the goal of sustainable water use is to conserve groundwater, he explained, then water management practices that increase crop yield per acre and therefore encourage more acres to be irrigated are not the tools to achieve it.

Common Good Water, Fishman said, hopes to achieve actual conservation in addition to providing a new source of income for farmers. She said that’s why they commit to working with a farm for seven years.

“The reason we stay on the farm is to make sure that those water savings are achieved, that they get the yield that they want, that they apply the right amount of water, that they have a very strong pest management system and all of those things,” she said. The company hopes to expand into other cultures as well.

The requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the ongoing drought will no doubt cause many farms to continue to look for water solutions.

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