The whole world has come together to fight the challenging threat called COVID-19; but at the same time, there is also a growing concern rippling through the world regarding the current and future availability of food. When countries sealed their borders, the transportation of goods, including food, became a tremendous challenge.
How do we ensure food security?
Local food production is not a new concept but is a vital component in food security. In fact, the trend of ‘eating local’ has been on the rise for quite some time now. Many have voted in favor of local production as a means to support local farmers, improve local economy, secure the health of the population and the environment, and develop more resilient food networks. However, during the pandemic, an all-new dimension has been added to this debate, making local food production a practical solution to ensuring food security. The need to grow local is not just a trend anymore, but an existential necessity.
Local is the answer - what’s the question?
How can we promote local food production? The question involves the most basic natural resource, water. Due to several reasons such as the cost of land and expensive labor, and due to focusing resources on other challenges, the development of local food production gained a slow momentum in many countries. One of the biggest obstacles by far has been the availability, usage and distribution of water for irrigation. Growing food locally requires having enough water with an efficient distribution infrastructure. Effective management of water is a critical factor in a country’s ability to sustain food security through challenging times.
Compounding this challenge are the impacts of climate change on our planet’s water resources. Thailand, for example, is facing its worst water shortage in 40 years, causing huge damage to the agricultural sector, particularly impacting Thailand’s main crops of sugar, rubber and rice. According to the Bank of Ayudhya’s Krungsri Research, the country may suffer a further loss of 46 billion Thai Baht ($1.5 billion) due to the 2020 drought.
This season, droughts in Brazil reduced their overall soybean production to under 3 million metric tons, the lowest yield in eight years and 40% less than last year.
Sometimes it’s more about water allocation priorities rather than water shortage. In the last couple of years, Australia has been shifting its irrigation water from staples such as grain and rice to orchards, causing a dramatic reduction in national rice production. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the risk to food security this approach may bring.
Precision irrigation can facilitate local food production and ensure food security in three ways:
1. Reducing rain dependency and adding crop growing cycles - with increasing extreme weather events, rain-fed crops are at stake. No rain means less available water for the plants and therefore a lower yield or in extreme cases, devastated yields. In addition, rain-fed crops depend on the rainy season, while irrigated cropping methods allow in many cases year-round production or at least two crop cycles per year.
2. Increasing yield - precision irrigation is an innovative technology in which plants get a constant supply of water and nutrients directly to the root zone in small doses. This eliminates water or nutrient shortage and optimizes plant productivity.
3. Increasing the cultivated area with the same water resources - water use efficiency (WUE) is an index relating to the amount of yield produced per unit of water. Using precise, water saving practices, will result in the ability to grow crops with less water, allowing the surplus to serve more cultivated areas. Simply, 15,000m3 can allow cultivation of 1 hectare of corn when irrigated by flood irrigation but can allow cultivation of 2 hectares of corn when using drip.
The rice case study
Drip irrigation has long been proven to be successful with a wide range of agricultural crops, including rice. Rice is considered a staple in most countries; one fifth of the world’s population depends on rice as food for its basic existence. Rice also consumes a great deal of water when grown using traditional farming techniques, accounting for 3443% of the world’s irrigation water.
Over the last decade, Netafim and several research institutes have thoroughly invested in research and development (R&D) to find the best solution for growing rice with drip irrigation instead of traditional paddy fields. Fifteen years of trials in India, Turkey, China, Italy and Spain have shown encouraging results. Drip irrigation has resulted in a 60% reduction of water consumption and 30% of fertilizer for equivalent or higher yield levels. By precisely targeted irrigation there is far less evaporation, run-off
and leaching. Finally, drip is a much less polluting way of growing rice with a drastic reduction in methane emissions and groundwater contamination.
Drip offers an innovative solution for growing rice on slopes, a challenge that the traditional cultivation methods have been struggling with. Netafim has recently implemented 1000Ha in Turkey and India, many of which on slopes. While the benefit is clear, there is still a huge challenge to overcome since 90% of the rice in the world is grown by smallholders. These farmers are rooted in traditional ways of farming and lack resources to invest in drip irrigation.
As countries begin to shift toward sustainable agricultural practices, the public sector will have a crucial role to play. The Cambodian government, for example, has recently announced its plan to invest further in developing irrigation systems and water storage infrastructure in order to improve water management, and mitigate the effects of droughts and floods. Other governments are also making this transition by offering subsidies and leading community irrigation projects that will make it economically feasible to carry out comprehensive and large-scale infrastructure projects.
Local production made possible through precision irrigation - what’s next?
Not every crop will be able to be grown anywhere. We will not be able to create complete self-sufficiency for all food types and for all of the world’s countries, nor is that the goal. Going local is about creating reasonable self-sufficiency for the basic food basket. Many of our staple foods can grow in a large variety of places and climates and in many cases, what prevents local production is the lack of water infrastructure or the misuse of water. Corn, soybean, rice, wheat and most vegetables can be grown in most of the populated parts of our planet and deliver super high yields, if we just change the mindset and invest in the infrastructure and technology needed.
In a recent interview with EURACTIV, lawmakers and stakeholders at the EU all agreed that the current crisis demonstrates the need to focus on building the resilience of food systems within Europe. Local food production made possible through an efficient crop’s economy and precision irrigation is a good place to start ensuring food security.
Crisis can lead to breakthroughs and accelerate change. COVID-19 has led countries to examine and change the way they source food. They have learnt that they must be self-sufficient and address the issues that make growing food locally more sustainable. Hopefully the pandemic will also have a positive effect on the way we maintain sustainable local food production to ensure food security for all.
By Roei Yonai
Head of strategic crops
GOING LOCAL - THE IMPACT OF COVID19 ON FOOD SECURITY