The Future of Farming: Agriculture and Water Conservation
The agricultural industry is the United States’ largest consumer of water, accounting for 80% of the nation’s consumptive water usage. Today, that number is more relevant than ever, as 18.8% of the lower 48 U.S. states are currently experiencing drought conditions. Water is an incredibly valuable national resource, and should be given the attention that it deserves.
Research has shown that conventional field agriculture is an inefficient and polluting means of using water to grow our food. Therefore, when we think about how we can address issues surrounding crop cultivation and water conservation, we should be looking towards solutions like Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) and hydroponics, which can use less than 1% of the water that conventional farming methods do.
The Problems with Conventional Agriculture and Water Conservation
To explain why CEA and its component technologies (vertical farming, hydroponics, aeroponics) are viable solutions to our water usage problems, it is important to understand the issues found within conventional farming systems. At the foundation, this inefficiency stems from poor management of irrigation systems and ground soil, as well as from the crops’ exposure to unregulated environmental conditions. These issues are broken down in greater detail below.
Inefficient Irrigation Systems
Irrigation systems within conventional agriculture are often not set up or optimized in order to ensure that crops actually uptake the majority of water that is used. Conventional farms flood their fields and spray or drip water onto plants, but they do not guarantee that water being used makes its way to the root systems that utilize the resource.
As a result, much of this water never makes it to the plant, and evaporates before ever serving its intended purpose. Additionally, there are minimal resource recycling initiatives being implemented to recapture that water waste, meaning that, despite the incredibly high usage of water within the industry, only a small percentage is effectively being moved through our conventional irrigation systems and used to grow our crops.
Healthy soil systems are crucial to sustainable water usage practices. When farming in-ground, a healthy, well-maintained soil system will be able to absorb and hold water much better and for significantly longer than an overworked, undernourished soil plot. Because of this, when soil is adequately monitored and managed, the capacity of irrigation systems to efficiently move water into root systems is dramatically increased. Unfortunately, conventional agriculture often uses widespread application of artificial fertilizers, and repeatedly farms the same plots with a monocrop planting scheme. All of these practices are, over the long-term, unsustainable, and contribute to massive soil erosion and the degradation of balanced soil ecosystems. Ultimately, this results in compounded problems regarding water waste, which occur from poor irrigation usage and poor water-holding capacity for soil.
Unregulated Environmental Conditions
When growing food in different environments, the most prohibitive barrier to water sustainability is likely the exposure of crops to uncontrollable environmental conditions. Wind, rain, sunlight, and other influential factors are often far beyond the control of farmers. However, these conditions all have the ability to lead to large increases in farms’ water requirements. During seasons of drought and water scarcity, the other inefficiencies of irrigation and soil management make already difficult times for farmers even worse.
Controlled Environment Agriculture and Water Sustainability
When CEA methods of food production are compared to those used in conventional agriculture, it’s easy to see some clear-cut differences in water usage.
CEA is a regulated, engineered manner of optimizing growing conditions for plants, and therefore it utilizes much less water overall. This reduction in resource requirements is attributable to environmentally-friendly technology solutions, which function cooperatively to revolutionize the ways that we grow our food. These solutions are:
Hydroponics as a Water Conservation and Recycling Technology
CEA operations implement highly monitored hydroponic farming techniques, which often work by circulating a small amount of nutrient dense water directly through the root systems of plants. These growing methods are designed to ensure that water is delivered specifically to the regions of the plant that best uptake water. Additionally, because the water requirements of the plants being grown and the properties of the nutrient solution being used have been studied and calculated by CEA engineers and scientists, water is able to be used in very specific quantities, which prevents excess.
Soil-less Growth Mediums
Hydroponic cultivation methods enable a plant’s roots to be placed in contact with nutrient solutions and growth mediums, which transmit water more efficiently than in-ground methods of farming do. Subsequently, water placed into the hydroponic growing system nourishes the plant in a more direct manner, resulting in significantly less water being wasted due to evaporation and absorption than in indirect transmission, in-ground soil systems.
Regulated Growing Climates
CEA operations use enclosed and monitored growing areas to ensure that environmental factors, such as sun, wind, humidity, and temperature, can always be held at their peak conditions for plant growth. Computer sensors and machines within CEA systems have the ability to regulate how such conditions fluctuate, and the enclosures that move water throughout the growing system are engineered in ways that minimize evaporation rates and prevent leakages.
Ultimately, CEA is designed to control and address the environmental and resource problems that are often present and compounded within conventional agriculture. Therefore, when compared, a well operated CEA system will utilize water much more efficiently than a conventional farm will.
Water Conservation vs. Water Pollution
When discussing sustainable agriculture practices, water conservation should mean more than just reducing consumption and preventing waste. It should also include protecting the resources that we do have from being polluted. This aspect of conservation is another key area in which CEA differentiates itself from conventional farming.
Due to uncontrolled environments within field farming, crops are often exposed to the negative impact that weeds, pests, blights, and under-nourished soil can have on their well-being. Therefore, conventional farmers have made it common practice to apply chemicals, like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, onto fields in order to prevent these damages.
Unfortunately, as run-off from farms flows off-site, dangerous chemicals have the capacity to move into our waterways. This contamination is a widespread and regular occurrence, and should subsequently be a major public concern because of its health and economic impacts.
To offer an example of the health issues caused by water contamination, 250,000 people in California’s Central Valley face risks of nitrate poisoning, which arise from the spread of these farming chemicals. Nitrates from agricultural fertilizers are making their way into family wells and public water sources in this area, having already been found at concentration levels that are twice the standard deemed acceptable by the state.
Nitrates have been linked to kidney and thyroid problems, certain cancers, and “blue-baby” syndrome. When it is considered that nitrates are just one of numerous toxic chemicals that lead to health and environmental issues, the scope of this unaddressed problem is massive.
Beyond the health impacts of water pollution, the economic price tag that accompanies such pollution is also huge. In the United States, managing the effects of water pollution that are attributable to fertilizer run-off amounts to a cost of $157 billion a year. This sum includes the cost of treating private drinking wells and public water systems, taking care of affected fishing and tourism industries, and resolving national health problems caused by fertilizers. And, in many ways, such practices are encouraged by government subsidies for industrial agriculture. This means that tax-payers are effectively paying double to enable these environmental issues and to also solve the problems caused by them.
Why Choose CEA Farming for Water Conservation?
Fundamentally, responsible CEA operations have the ability to prevent the health and environmental issues attributable to conventional farming’s water pollution. CEA growers can regulate the factors that would normally promote pest, weed, and blight growth, which nullifies the need to apply harsh chemicals in order to ensure high yields. Therefore, CEA systems are some of our best current methods for growing food that are also beneficial for overall water sustainability.
FreshBox Farms is glad to say that it grows all of its produce in its Controlled Environment Agriculture facility, which uses 99% less water than traditional agriculture. Our growing operations use no harmful, dangerous chemicals, and emit no polluting waste or runoff, meaning that you can feel comfortable with your water-footprint when purchasing your lettuce products from us. Sustainable, pure, and healthy agriculture. FreshBox Farms is changing the way we farm: reducing our ecological footprint; shortening distances from production to consumption — providing people with fresher, healthier, tastier produce.