Water scarcity affects over 700 million people globally, and that number is only expected to rise due to a warming climate. Without clean water, communities cannot thrive. Certain industries, like fossil fuels and manufacturing, are significant water polluters, and their impact on the environment is easy to see. But what about how we grow our food?
Agriculture has a water problem as well. Over 70% of the global freshwater supply is used for agricultural operations. With the threat of climate change and more areas experiencing water scarcity, agriculture plays an essential role in improving water access. As a type of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture is key to increasing access to clean water.
Regenerative agriculture works to rebuild the soil, regenerating ecosystems so that more water can be stored, more carbon can be sequestered and pests can be managed naturally. Soil health is directly linked to water health. With many farms relying on groundwater for irrigation, regenerative agriculture can help store water in the soil without the need for expensive equipment or complicated technology.
Agriculture and Water Pollution
Water scarcity is directly linked to food insecurity, making agriculture a key player in access to clean water. Agriculture is a major contributor to water pollution, but it is also one of the least environmentally regulated industries.
Most agricultural water pollution is known as nonpoint source pollution, making it more difficult to identify. Nonpoint source pollution can include herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, and excess fertilizer that run off the soil, into waterways, and into drinking water.
Globally, most farms are still small and family-run. However, a handful of large corporate farms are responsible for the majority of water use and are often not held accountable for their impact.
For example, less than 3% of farms in the United States have an annual income above $1 million but are responsible for 42% of production, and the majority of water usage. In less developed countries, small farmers often lack the proper infrastructure for irrigation, relying on waterways rather than groundwater. In areas with intense dry periods, this system is subject to serious fluctuation.
Soil runoff and erosion is a key player in water pollution and groundwater depletion. This is where incorporating regenerative agriculture principles can be transformative.
Regenerative agriculture utilizes various techniques, such as cover cropping, that help rebuild healthy soil structure so that it is more resilient to varying weather patterns. Regenerative agriculture methods can be applied to large commercial farms or small family farms without infrastructure.
Strategies such as managed livestock grazing and reduced tillage are inexpensive solutions that not only help farmers increase their yields and reduce the need for irrigation, but also impact the global clean water supply.
So why don’t all farms practice regenerative agriculture? Unfortunately, the lack of adoption is purely economic.
For most farmers, especially farmers who grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans, crop insurance is a necessity to protect against losses throughout the season. In the United States especially, many farmers have not turned a profit in years, and have more debt than ever before.
The ability to leverage subsidies and crop insurance is the only way many farmers are getting by, at least for now. Regenerative agriculture practices, like cover crops, can threaten a farmer’s ability to qualify for insurance, even if the growing practice could save their crop.
The issue here is that many sustainable farming practices like cover crops and reduced tillage are seen simply as conservation practices, not standard farming practices. Farmers may receive a nice pat on the back for utilizing conservation practices, but they are not seen as responsible or effective growing methods, at least generally.
Most of the agricultural industry relies heavily on pesticides, which contribute significantly to water pollution. But as long as the economic drive for using chemicals is there, it will be difficult to sway the market towards a more regenerative system.
Regeneration and Climate Change
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture will be a key player in improving not only food security for a warming planet but also sustainability. Sustainability efforts must include agriculture as a key player if we are going to improve access to clean water.
Regenerative agriculture can improve soil fertility, store carbon and help restore groundwater reserves for irrigation. Utilizing regenerative agriculture practices such as cover crops, managed grazing, and reduced tillage are directly linked with healthier soil, which results in a healthy water supply.
Clean water will be increasingly harder to find in the coming years, and regenerative agriculture is key to increasing access to it.