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Sustainable Agriculture Amidst Water Stress: How Can We Consume Less While Growing More
July 18, 2023
13 min read
From increasing temperatures to shifting precipitation patterns, climate change is unraveling the many vulnerabilities of our food system. While a farmer's job has never been easy, more frequent droughts and heat waves, growing flooding risks and tightening policies have all added to the struggle. We talked with farmers and Pipelife's agricultural experts on what can be done to adapt Europe's farming systems to today's challenges.
Is Our Food Supply Under Risk?
By 2050, the global food demand is expected to increase between 59% to 98%, posing the question of how we can scale crop production and improve the resilience of agricultural production systems. While the EU is seen as one of the world's major food producers, the sustainability of the bloc's current agricultural production practices has become a heated topic.
"What we currently see in Europe is that the demand for agri-food products has increased while the local resources, such as water, are dwindling," says Dusan Jankovic, Irrigation Systems Business Development Manager at Pipelife. "And this means we need solutions that are more efficient and more sustainable than the current ones."
Across the world, crop failures have become more common in recent years, and Europe is no exception. The summer of 2022 was particularly worrying as unprecedented droughts hit the continent's central and southern regions, resulting in substantially lower yields and making many farmers worry about their future.
Protecting Crops Against Droughts
In arid and semi-arid areas, irrigation is widely seen as a way to increase the resilience of agricultural production. Meeting the water needs of each crop type means healthier plant growth, higher resistance to diseases and better protection from heat.
"For years, there has been this feeling that water is free and that there is plenty of it," says Konstantinos Akritanakis, R&D International Project Manager at Pipelife. "Unfortunately, this is far from the truth, and the legislation is starting to reflect that. We already see some countries raising the price of irrigation water, and we also see countries taking action to shut down illegal wells."
Economical Water Use in Agriculture
Different irrigation technologies vary in application efficiency, which is calculated by dividing the water stored in the root zone by the amount of irrigation water supplied. The figure can range from ~50% to 99%. With water abstraction limits for agriculture expected to become more stringent, the differences between various irrigation technologies have caught increased attention from agricultural associations and farmers.
The so-called drip- or micro irrigation is currently considered the most economical technology available due to water being delivered slowly and directly to the root zone.
"Each type of crop has certain water needs for optimal growth, and we cannot change that," explains Jankovic. "However, with precision irrigation, we can nearly eliminate water losses through evaporation, runoff or deep percolation."
Lower Water Consumption, Higher Yields
While the costs of setting up a precision irrigation system might seem steep, more and more farmers realize that the investment pays off. Modernizing existing irrigation infrastructures and improving irrigation efficiency allows for considerable water savings while preserving and even increasing farmers' competitiveness.
Craciun Nicolae Claudiu, a landowner in Dumbrava, Romania, decided to install a drip irrigation system in one of his corn fields last year, and the results speak for themselves. While his country registered its lowest corn production in 15 years due to unprecedented droughts, Claudiu's irrigated field still brought yields of 12–14 tons/ha. To compare, the nearby non-irrigated corn field produced only 2–3 tons/ha.
"After harvesting, not only me but my neighbors too were impressed," Claudiu recalls the 4 to 6 times higher yields on the irrigated field. "Throughout the season, the irrigation system worked as expected, and its maintenance was simple and hassle-free."
This year, Claudiu has already doubled the irrigated area at his farm. Ionut Mocanu, Pipelife Irrigation Manager, who worked with Claudiu to find the optimal drip irrigation setup, is equally pleased with the results.
"These are impressive yields, especially considering the extreme heatwaves we witnessed last summer," Mocanu admits. "With awareness among farmers about precision irrigation growing and increased EU funding becoming available, we expect more and more clients opening up to this technology."
Earning the Farmers' Trust
The benefits of precision irrigation are evident on paper; however, not all farmers have had positive experiences. Complicated and time-consuming maintenance is a common complaint and widely cited weakness of drip irrigation systems.
Mihalis Klonizakis, a vegetable farmer in Palaiohora, Crete, knows firsthand that not all drip irrigation systems are of equal quality. Klonizakis has been using precision irrigation in his tomato greenhouses for ten years — farming in one of Europe's southernmost areas where irrigation already accounts for nearly 85% of total water withdrawals leaves no other option. However, his previous setup was prone to frequent clogging.
"I regularly had to unblock the pipes mechanically or flush them, but such treatments offered only a temporary solution," the farmer recalls.
Three years ago, Klonizakis' frustration with the time-consuming maintenance peaked, and he decided to contact Pipelife about alternatives to his current setup. Konstantinos Akritanakis, who consulted the farmer, admits that clogging complaints are not unheard of.
He explains that the design- and material quality of drip lines and drippers can significantly affect the whole system's performance. Higher-quality drip irrigation solutions offer better precision and are more resistant to wear and soil particles congesting the system.
"Clogging often happens with simpler drip lines," says Akritanakis. "It is caused by the turbulence inside the drip line and a subpar dripper design. It is not the size or form of the dripper but how the water flows through it that causes or prevents clogging."
Three seasons after replacing the old irrigation system, Mihalis Klonizakis admits that the results have exceeded his expectations. He hasn't observed any pressure variation or runoff, and the growth of all plants has been uniform, with yields reaching 18-20 tons of tomatoes per acre. But the biggest relief to the farmer is that the new pipes don't clog.
"This system requires so little maintenance that I sometimes forget about it completely. I now focus on my production instead of the drip pipes," he sums up.
Fully Tailored Solution to Each Farmer
As no two farms are the same, finding the best-suited irrigation setup that ensures high yields and is also simple to maintain requires an individual approach and expertise. Multiple factors, such as soil conditions, nearby water sources, field size and topography, crop types and production methods, all have to be taken into account.
"We have developed a unique one-stop-shop approach to irrigation services — it covers everything from consulting and tailored system design to delivery, installation, and comprehensive after-sales support," explains Dusan Jankovic. "After the system has been set up, our representatives stay in touch with the customers, ready to address any questions or concerns."
One such customer is Andrija Becin — a blueberry farmer living in Obrenovac, Serbia. Just five years ago, Becin was working at a nearby power plant, but his dream always had been to start a family farm. The growing export demand for blueberries inspired him to specialize in this crop, yet, blueberry farming turned out to be far from simple. Countless conditions have to be met for plants to thrive, including soil pH values between 4 and 5.5 and the optimal electrical conductivity of irrigation water of ~1mS/cm.
"Water regime is everything when it comes to blueberry production," Becin admits. "Too much or too little water or the wrong PH — it all results in poor yields."
The Becin family currently owns 3.8 hectares of land, but their fields are located on a slope with a 17% inclination. In such areas, achieving uniform irrigation and fertigation regime is particularly difficult. Aware of the complex field conditions, the family looked for a tailored drip irrigation solution that would entail comprehensive technical support.
Working closely with Dusan Jankovic, a pressure-compensated no-drain drip irrigation system was selected as the best solution for the Becin orchard. The setup ensures that the same amount of water is supplied to each plant, while a semi-automatic control unit allows the operator to quickly adjust the irrigation or fertigation regime as needed.
"Since blueberry farming is so intricate, a semi-automatic control system made it easier for me to experiment and learn what works best for my fields," Becin says. "What I particularly appreciate is that Dusan always has been one call away. Especially while I was learning to operate the irrigation system, I could always reach out to him, and together, we resolved any issues. With the knowledge I have acquired now, I feel confident to modernize my farm further and move to a fully automatic setup."
The Future of Agriculture Starts Today
As more and more areas in Europe are affected by water stress, the adoption of precision farming technologies has been on the rise. State-of-the-art precision irrigation solutions help address environmental and food security issues in arid regions while enabling farms to reduce their dependence on weather conditions and gain a competitive edge in a demanding market.
With more EU funding for sustainable water use in agriculture expected, informing farmers and supporting them in adapting the technologies available becomes crucial.
"In the next years, the interest in precision irrigation will grow even further, especially in smart irrigation solutions," says Jankovic. "We have worked hard not only to prepare a complete range of premium-quality solutions but also to offer experienced client support to guide farmers throughout the adaptation and learning process. Our shared goal is to maximize yields from every field and plant — while saving precious resources."