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Water for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security

Water is essential for every form of life, for all aspects of socio-economic development, and for the maintenance of healthy ecosystems. While there are enough freshwater resources available on a worldwide scale to support continuing industrial and agricultural expansion, concerns about the long-term sustainable use of water resources are developing. This is especially true when taking regional differences in the availability and quality of water into account. Farmers would not be able to raise crops and provide food for their animals without water, a necessary component of agricultural production. Food insecurity is a direct result of water scarcity. So, how can we gain access to water for sustainable agriculture and food security?

Fortunately, the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs) offer framework and objectives that should direct global efforts toward more inclusive growth and sustainable livelihoods. Consequently, agriculture is a key factor in achieving these goals, due to its connections to food security, nutrition, health, rural development and growth, and the environment.

Water is essential for sustainable agriculture and food production.
Water is essential for sustainable agriculture and food production.

What is sustainable agriculture?

Over the past fourty years, there was a growing movement to challenge the need for exorbitant prices and to propose creative solutions (Röling, N., Pretty, J., 1997). Today, the movement for sustainable agriculture is gaining acceptance and support within the systems we use to produce food.

Sustainable Agriculture is:

Interestingly, these objectives have been influenced by various ideologies, laws, and practices. Most definitions of sustainable agriculture have a few fundamental themes and tenets. Sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fibre, plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, and human and animal welfare. Sustainable farming systems are those that are least toxic and least energy intensive, and yet, maintain productivity and profitability. Organic farming is a great example of this.

The foundation of agricultural sustainability is the idea that we must satisfy our needs today without affecting the ability of future generations to satisfy needs. Therefore, short-term economic gain is just as important as long-term stewardship of both natural and human resources.

How can we push for sustainable agriculture?

There is no single method for quickening the switch to sustainable agriculture due to the scale and complexity of the problem. Collaboration is essential, and there are a number of strategies that may be used to improve the sustainability of farming. The following 5 important strategies will help quicken the shift to sustainable agriculture:

Unfortunately, agriculture faces a significant problem as a result of the world’s chronically high rates of hunger and malnutrition from 2015 onwards. By 2050, there will be nine billion people on the planet, so we need to begin advocating for and endorsing sustainable agriculture if we want to feed the growing population. Importantly, a necessary adaptation to anticipated dietary changes is needed. At any rate, coping with growing demand means agricultural practices would need to produce 60 per cent more food than they do now, globally. Significantly, a third of the food produced, or around 1.3 billion tonnes annually, is lost or wasted across the supply chain, creating significant financial and environmental impacts.

Indeed, growth in agriculture and the abolition of poverty and world hunger are strikingly related. Subsequently, the majority of people who are currently living in poverty rely on broadly defined agriculture. This includes crop and animal production, fisheries and forestry for income, employment, food, and other commodities and global entities. Unquestionably, this is a result of low-income nations with limited resources. Overall, GDP growth that comes from the agricultural sector is, on average, up to five times more effective than growth from other sectors in eliminating poverty.

sustainable agriculture and Food Security

Sustainable agriculture incorporates many environmentally safe agricultural practices, offering innovative and economically viable opportunities for farmers, labourers, consumers, and policymakers. Currently, the trajectory of agricultural production and development is unsustainable due to its detrimental effects on the environment and natural resources. Up to 75% of crop genetic variety has been lost. Unfortunately, one-third of farmland has been destroyed, and 22% of animal breeds are in danger.

Sustainable agriculture by 2030 is the goal.
Sustainable agriculture by 2030 is the ultimate goal.
Source: AGRIVI

Over the previous ten years, almost 13 million hectares of forests were converted into land for human development. Frustratingly, we’re at a time when there is a rising demand for food, feed, fibre, and commodities and services from agriculture (including crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture). Unfortunately, there is also a rising scarcity of natural resources and a rapid deterioration of those resources. Some of the biggest population increases are anticipated in regions with a high rate of food insecurity and a heavy dependence on agriculture. Obviously, sustainable agriculture and food security are an unequivocal must.

strategic development of new approaches and the transition to sustainability

These challenges give rise to five fundamental principles

that should direct the strategic creation of fresh ideas and the move toward sustainability:

  • Improving resource utilisation efficiency
  • Proactive measures to preserve, protect, and improve natural resources
  • Safeguards and the enhancement of rural lives and social well-being
  • Environmental, community, and human resilience, particularly in the face of climate change and market instability
  • Good governance of both natural and human systems

Significantly, in order to cope with the rapid pace of change and increased uncertainty, sustainability must be seen as a process, rather than a singularly defined endpoint to be achieved.

the development of technical, policy, governance and financing frameworks that support agricultural producers 

Technical, policy, governance and financing frameworks can be supported by resource managers and agricultural producers. They can actively engage in a dynamic innovation process.

  • Policies and institutions are required to encourage the use of sustainable practices. We should be establishing rules and penalties for behaviour that depletes or degrades natural resources. In turn, this will make it easier for people to obtain the information and resources they need.
  • Utilising technology, research, and development to its fullest extent is necessary for sustainable agricultural practices. Far better integration of local knowledge would be ideal, calling for fresh, stronger collaborations between technical and investment-focused groups.
  • Appropriate statistics, geographical data and maps, as well as qualitative data and knowledge are necessary for the planning and management of agricultural sectors. Production systems and the underlying natural and socioeconomic resources should be the focus of analysis.

sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems

Indeed, there are many practices commonly used by people working in sustainable agriculture and food security systems. Growers may use methods to promote soil health, minimise water use, and lower pollution levels on farms. Understandably, consumers and retailers concerned with sustainability can look for “values-based” foods that are grown using methods promoting farmworker well-being. These are environmentally friendly and strengthen the local economy.

In this case, researchers in sustainable agriculture often cross-disciplinary lines with their work. Many combine biology, economics, engineering, chemistry, and community development. However, sustainable agriculture is more than a collection of practices. It is also a process of negotiation. There’s a push and pull between the competing interests of individual farmers and people in communities. They work hard to solve complex problems involving the ways in which we produce, grow and nourish food sources.

Practices that support Sustainable agriculture and Food security

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit science advocacy organisation based in the United States. Following agricultural practices, they’ve demonstrated successful initiatives, achieving sustainability over decades of science and practice, particularly when used in combination with several methods.

Rotating Crops and Embracing Diversity

Numerous advantages, such as healthier soil and better pest control can result from planting a diverse line of crops. Significantly, intercropping (growing a variety of crops in the same place) and intricate multiyear crop rotations are examples of crop diversity methods.

Planting Cover Crops and Perennials 

Cover crops such as clover, rye, or hairy vetch are planted during off-seasons. When soils might otherwise be left bare, perennial crops keep the soil covered. This maintains living roots in the ground year-round, preventing erosion, replenishing soil’s nutrients, and controlling weeds. These crops safeguard and improve soil health, lowering the need for fertilisers and herbicides.  

Reducing or Eliminating Tillage

Traditional tillage, or ploughing, prepares fields for planting and eliminates weed issues, although it can, sometimes, result in soil loss. Directly planting seeds into undisturbed soil using no-till or reduced-till techniques can lessen soil erosion and enhance soil health.

Applying Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

The regular application of a variety of techniques such as mechanical and biological controls can keep pest populations under control, reducing the need for chemical pesticides.

Integrating Livestock and Crops

Industrial agriculture tends to keep plant and animal production separate. Animals commonly live far from where their feed is produced and crops grow far away from abundant manure fertilisers. An increasing body of research demonstrates that effective integration of crop and livestock production can increase farm productivity and profitability.

Adopting Agroforestry Practices

Farmers can conserve plants, wildlife, and water resources by incorporating trees and shrubs into their operations. They may also be able to generate additional income from fruit or nut crops.

Managing Whole Systems and Landscapes

Uncultivated or less intensively farmed lands are as essential to the farm in sustainable farming practices. For instance, strips of prairie plants inside or surrounding crops or natural vegetation alongside streams can help limit erosion, reduce nutrient runoff, and sustain bees and other pollinators as well as biodiversity more generally.

Interestingly, these techniques share an emphasis on soil. Many of the issues connected to industrial agriculture can be resolved by maintaining farms as protected environments, teeming with life. Healthy, active soil supports strong crops, absorbs water like a sponge, reduces pollution, and ensures the prosperity of farmers and their communities.

Sustainable agricultural farming.
Sustainable agricultural farming.
Source: PMF IAS

Everyone plays a role in creating a sustainable food system

Concurrently, interdisciplinary activities in research and teaching are also implied by a systems perspective. Researchers from a variety of fields must contribute to this, but so must farmers, farmworkers, consumers, policymakers, and other stakeholders. Sustainable agriculture and food security transitioning take time. Importantly, the move to sustainable agriculture typically necessitates a series of modest actions from farmers. How quickly and how far participants can progress in the transition depends on family economics and personal objectives. It is crucial to understand that every minor choice counts and helps move the system along. Obviously, we must advocate for a ‘sustainable agriculture continuum’, as the key to progress.

Finally, it is crucial to emphasise that every stakeholder, including farmers, workers, legislators, academics, retailers, and customers, must work toward the objective of sustainable agriculture. Each entity can further extend the sustainable agricultural community by contributing individually.

Why must we focus on water for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security?

Water for agriculture is in short supply and this factor is worsening in numerous regions globally. Overdraft of groundwater supplies jeopardises future irrigation capacity, while overdraft of surface waters disturbs important riparian zones. Seemingly, water quality problems such as salinisation, nutrient overload, and pesticide pollution are very common. Efficiently utilising reduced-volume irrigation methods, choosing and developing more salt and drought-tolerant crop species, and managing soils and crops to minimise water loss are all strategies to use water more effectively in sustainable agroecosystems.

Conversely, modern agriculture is heavily dependent on non-renewable energy sources, especially petroleum. Unfortunately, the usage of non-renewable resources cannot be sustained continuously. A sudden end to our reliance on them would have disastrous economic effects. In order to practice sustainable agriculture, less external energy must be used. Undoubtedly, non-renewable energy sources must be replaced with renewables such as solar and wind energy, including biofuels made from agricultural waste.

Barilla Center Call-to-Action Focuses on Change, Now.
Source: Foodtank

achieving the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs)

Unfortunately, sustainable agriculture does not have a single, clear endpoint. It is hard to mitigate the future without an understanding of what defines sustainability in terms of the environment, society, and the economy. Earth is constantly changing and is influenced by a myriad of different concerns, viewpoints, and beliefs. Conversely, sustainable agriculture and food security weren’t regarded as pressing issues 20 years ago. The environmental capacity to adapt to climate change is now receiving more attention.

Furthermore, the specifics that make up a sustainable system vary depending on a variety of factors (such as soil types, climate, and labour expenses). Additionally, from one cultural and ideological standpoint to another, making the term “sustainable” itself a contentious one. There is much more to learn about sustainable water management, water purification, recycled water, sustainable agriculture, food insecurity, and poverty.

A thrivable framework

THRIVE examines issues and evaluates potential solutions in relation to this overarching goal of thrivability. It is about making predictive analyses using modern technology that supports environmental and social sustainability transformations.

To learn more about how The THRIVE Project is researching, educating and advocating for a future beyond sustainability, visit our website. Discover our interesting and informative blog and podcast series and learn about our regular live webinars featuring expert guests in a diverse range of fields. Why not sign up for our newsletter for regular updates!


  • Agilandeswari Pandiyarajan

    Research Scholar in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, currently focusing on endocrine-disrupting pollutant removal applications. She is a highly driven, ambitious, self-starter with ten years of experience in various roles in academia and industry. She is always enthusiastic about new research breakthroughs, concerned with sustainability, and strives for ongoing improvement.