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Tech by VICE

Agricultural Overuse Is Earth's Hidden Water Crisis, But Help May Be Coming

Can an app save nearly a quarter of the planet's wasted water?

by Michael Byrne
Jul 13 2013, 7:18pm

The general forward-thinking hatred of industrial farming exists for plenty of reasons, some of them pretty good (the destroying of small farms, runoff pollution, inorganic pesticide and fertilizer overreliance, kidnapping markets through genetic technology) and some that should go away (“GMOs are evil”). The general issue of water use is seldom at the top of the list, probably in part because it’s not necessarily confined to industrial agriculture; even the most local, organic farm can overuse water and, quite likely, does so regularly.

This is a much larger problem than it gets credit for. Agriculture sucks up about 70 percent of all water withdrawn from rivers and groundwater sources, according to plant scientist Andrew Thompson. And, of that 70 percent, 60 percent of water used in agriculture is straight-up wasted, mostly through overwatering. Imagine this problem with another six billion people on Earth, all demanding both water and food that needs water to be produced. The problem—which is racing towards us faster than even global warming—is almost incomprehensible.

Thompson is part of a team working on an EU-funded project called WaterBee. It’s an irrigation app that allows farmers to adjust precisely how much water crops are getting remotely, but is actually much more exciting than that. It’s based on loads of data input, including soil moisture and weather information, that’s collected and sent through mathematical models and back out to the app. The goal is a 40 percent gain in water savings while improving crop quality. (Too much water can mean lower plant yields/stunted growth and even blander produce.)

“The model divides up the soil into layers and then uses calculations for the transfer of water between layers,” Thompson says in an AlphaGalileo release. In addition to soil conditions and weather, the app uses information such as irrigation system, crop types, roots, and likely yields. Everything together comes up with a pretty good simulation of a particular real-life field, which can then be crunched as numerical data: this much water will give outcome x. The result comes with a very high degree of precision.

As with most neat-o smart-phone solutions to very huge problems, the catch is that people have to use it. That might not be so easy; farmers can be kinda stubborn and the installation of a great many high-tech monitoring devices-qua-obstructions in fields that are doing just fine, thanks, might not be all that appealing on its face. So, it’s probably a matter of incentivizing WaterBee’s use.

In the U.S., we already incentivize farming itself (mostly large-scale farming, unfortunately) so it would seem a small step to make subsidies conditional based on water use, but the Farm Bill is effectively “Republican welfare.” And, besides, the left already gets the food stamp program from it (though not in the House bill passed yesterday, which totally stripped food stamp funding from the bill). That’s the deal: we get money to grow crops unsustainably, you get to help people not starve. Awesome, eh? Good luck getting anything green or forward-thinking out of it too.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.