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Are the current methods of water sustainable in the agricultural industry?
When you think of water, what do you envision? What does it taste like? What does it look like? What does it smell like? Water is a resource that is, tasteless, odorless, and transparent. It is responsible for making the streams, lakes, oceans, and the fluids of most living organisms on Earth. It is essential to all different known forms of life and organisms, even though it stores and posses no calories or nutritional value. Freshwater makes up a tiny fraction of all water on the planet. While water nearly covers 70 percent of the world, only a meager 2.5 percent of it is fresh. While the rest contains salt, such as the oceans, or cannot be safely consumed. To further, just 1 percent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with a majority of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. “In reality, only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to hydrate and be utilized by its 7 billion people. “(Nat Geo n.d) No matter the location as humans, as people, we need water to survive. Not only is the human body composed of 60 percent water, but this seemingly identityless resource is essential for producing food, clothing, moving our waste stream, and keeping us and the environment healthy. Canada and other developed nations, such as the US, have turned a blind eye to the highly wasteful and unsustainable culture we have developed of water use. As I stated before, water, although seemingly identityless, is essential and a crucial part of the existence of human civilization. Water is present and needed in essentially everything we do. However, because of its availability, water has become very much taken for granted in the last 100 years, by, most if not, all of the first world countries. Unfortunately, humans have proved to be inefficient water users. In the article “The Freshwater Crisis,” National Geographic commented on how insufficient water users humans were and even gave an example of how. The organization said, “humans have proved to be inefficient water users. A shower may need 25 gallons of water, almonds 1 gallon per seed, a load of a washing machine 35 gallons, while a single beef patty requires 450 gallons of water. Animal products require a large amount of water due to the inefficiency of plant material into animal protein. Further examples include a single egg taking 53 gallons of water to produce. A pound of chicken, 468 gallons. A gallon of milk, 880 gallons. Furthermore, a pound of beef, 1,800 gallons of water. (Laursen L. 2016) The average hamburger takes 2,400 liters, or 630 gallons of water to produce… “. Imagine Two thousand four hundred liters of water per 1 burger, with that much water it’s enough to fill your bathtub three times over.
The first topic we have to discuss pertaining to the security of freshwater is finding ways to reduce the world’s water footprint.
The amount of water waste in beef is surprising. We can see from the previous statistics alone that there needs to be a change in our current usage of water. 1.2 billion people suffer from water scarcity worldwide (Groasis n.d). The problem of water misuse is one that impacts the entire world. Only 1% of the Earth’s drinkable water is accessible for industry and agriculture (Huffington Post, 2017). The US recklessly depletes this resource. Currently, the average American uses 100 gallons or 378.5 liters of water per day, that’s over 138,167 liters a year (USGS n.d) A much more significant amount is lost in industries such as agriculture, especially in meat production. Americans eat over 122 kilograms of meat per year. Depending on the type of meat, up to 15,500 liters of water can be used per kilogram of finished meat produced, as water is used to grow animal feed and for the animals’ consumption (IME32, 2013). The sheer amount of water required to create such a little amount of this foodstuff is a sustainability issue which we must address. The unsustainable practices are why there must be a change in the current state of the agricultural industry. There are a surprising amount of solutions to counteract the current inefficiencies in water usage; however, there no incentives. A replacement with the current feed, or researching plant technology to modify the plant’s usage of water, improving the technology to water the plants, and even switching over to entomophagy are just four examples. Technology such as drip irrigation which significantly improves water efficiency in agriculture should be subsidized and implemented as soon as possible. Although the initial cost of its installation is high, this method will pay off in the long run. Another approach, which would be relatively large scale, is to completely replace the usage of corn, or soy as the feed for cattle to that of Cassava. The reasons for suggesting Cassava is that first, it uses much less water than corn. Once established, Cassava can grow in areas that receive just 400 mm of average annual rainfall. (Water for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.” 2017.) While on the other hand corn uses about 108 gallons of water for the production of one pound. (Foodtank, 2018) Secondly, its price is relatively less than that of corn, corn being 170$ per 1 ton/1000 kg of corn (Index Mundi, n.d) and Cassava being 65$ per 1 ton of Cassava. (Agricdemy, 2018). The next solution is looking into the possibility of turning to insects for protein. According to the United Nations, by the year 2050, the world’s population will be 9.7 billion. (Interesting Engineering 2019) By 2050 more countries will have developed, which will, in turn, lead to that many more people being needing the availability of food. There will be a need to produce twice as much food as we currently provide; which isn’t possible because there isn’t enough available land to do it. In 2013, the UN produced a report on eating edible insects. One-third of the Earth’s arable land has already been used for livestock, and this has led to continuing deforestation and put a strain on water resources. (Interesting Engineering 2019). However, there is a solution. The solution is to turn to entomophagy. In the world of insects, there are over 2,000 types of edible insects, including beetles, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. The reason as to why Insects is a good alternative is because they have a high feed-conversion, which means the animal’s capacity to convert feed into increased body mass. Because of their high feed-conversion ratio, insects require far less water than cattle, sheep, goats, or poultry. One hundred gallons of water creates 6g of beef protein, 18g of chicken protein, and 238g of cricket protein. A family of four eating food made with crickets just once a week for a year would theoretically save 650,000 liters of water. (Interesting Engineering 2019) The final solution is to delve into the gene structure of the plant. An example of this is the ability of resurrection plants. These plants are found in deserts around the world. They were discovered to have adapted to endure under severe and harsh conditions. Unlike most plants in which they store reserves of water, or send their roots to subsurface water supplies, resurrection plants shrivel up and contract during months without water under the harsh sun. Rather than storing water, they maximize their water efficiency by entering the status of ‘hibernation’ because of their ability to slow down their metabolism till the next rainfall comes. Resurrection plants are capable of recovering from holding less than 0.1 grams of water per gram of dry mass. ( Ideas. Ted 2016). Scientists have been researching the possibility of extracting and utilizing this particular gene into the crops we use in agriculture. If the method is found, a future where water waste in agriculture will substantially decrease will become a possibility.
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The second big point is to focus on the lack of regulation of water usage. Let’s choose California as an example state, mainly because California often suffers drought and water insecurity owing to the misuse of water in industries such as agriculture. The main reason why water efficiency in livestock is so low is due to the price of water being cheap. The cause of the low price is because of the former state of California’s groundwater regulations. According to an article regarding this issue written by GW Sawyers.
“There is no comprehensive, statewide regulatory scheme governing the extraction.” (G. W., Sawyers. n.d.)
“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, adopted in 2014, was a Herculean achievement for California. Until that time, it was the only Western state with virtually no regulations on groundwater use.” (New Deeply, 2018)
With water being cheap, there was no incentive for farmers to invest in reducing their water waste as changing would cost more than keeping their methods in the short run.
There is practically no incentive for companies to increase their efficiency in their production, rendering our previous statements useless. The current state of the United States groundwater law states that The Rule of Capture provides each landowner the ability to capture as much groundwater as they can put to beneficial use, but they are not guaranteed any set amount of water. (United States Groundwater Law 2018). Because water can be a rechargeable resource, the leeway for water rights may be more flexible. The conveniences and benefits of the use of water on the land make it challenging to enforce water rights. Because no landowner is given a quantifiable or set amount of production capacity, all landowners are encouraged to capture as much water as they can as quickly as they can. (United States Groundwater Law 2018)
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In contrast to surface water, groundwater use has primarily been unregulated under California law until recently. Many basins have experienced long-term overdraft, and 21 of the state’s 515 basins are now considered “critically overdrafted.” (PPIC n.d)
Lastly, there are the impacts of climate change. If we were to continue with our current state of luxurious use of resources, not only will we see an increase in water scarcity but the crops or any products from the agricultural industry will suffer adverse impacts from climate change. Climate change is highly likely to have a significant effect on the water cycle which includes the altering of rainfall patterns, impacting the availability and quality of groundwater and surface water, and agricultural production and along with with with each regions individual ecosystems. Rainfed agricultural production, which accounts for 80 percent of global cropland and 60 percent of global food output, could be markedly affected by climate change, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas. (Climate Change and Agriculture 2019). Although some regions are likely to suffer from droughts in the future, conversely other regions are expected to face opposing issues such as torrential rains and increased flooding. Coastal areas may face the problems of rising sea levels, which can result in the complete loss of agricultural land. Productivity and agrarian practices will take a hit and become more difficult to continue as we continue to follow through with our current practices. However, it’s not all over yet.
Agronomists, who are experts in the science of soil management and crop production, believe that the output of agricultural produce will be only really affected if the climate change is sever, and will not be so affected if it has a gradual trend. (Climate Change and Agriculture 2019). If the change is gradual, there may be enough time for the plants to adjust. This gradual trend can only be applicable if we find sustainable solutions and begin its implementation as soon as possible.
In conclusion, the current usage of water in agriculture, or anything in general, is definitely not sustainable in the long run. Water is the most valuable resource available to us and it should be taken seriously with a focus on its future health and longevity so we can avoid catastrophes of hydration, irrigation, agriculture, and energy needs. When we mismanage or misuse water because of its previous or current conveniences, us, the general population suffers, and the quick fixes are often temporary and extremely expensive. We should start educating more children and adults on ways to better use, conserve, and waste less water while working to change the public’s view of recycled wastewater. We can learn from the mistakes made by local, state, and national municipalities by making the security and sustainability of freshwater more of a top priority. Our culture’s success and health are all built upon the availability and consistency of clean water. It’s time we started to acknowledge and care for it that way and treat it as an irreplaceable resource. Because if we don’t treat it as a valuable resource, the possibility of a future will be non-existent. In the future, it may become more of an issue as freshwater withdrawals worldwide have tripled over the past 50 years. As rapid urbanization occurs, cities will eventually outbid agriculture in water use. Demand for fresh water is increasing at a rate of 64 billion cubic meters per year. (Population Institute, 2010).
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