How The Agricultural World Is Facing The Water Challenge
With July recorded as the driest month since 1959 in France, farmers — who make up half of water consumption in the country — face a problematic water shortage. The agricultural world is now working on solutions to better manage this precious resource.
Frank Laborde says he needs water right now. "If we don't have it, we risk reliving the drought of 2003," he says, referring to the violent, record-breaking heatwave that gripped France in the summer of that year, causing 14,802 deaths. "My farm has been feeling the economic effects of the drought for about 10 years."
Laborde is an unlikely victim of insufficient rainfall. His corn-producing farm is located at the foot of the Pyrenees, the wettest department of France in 2019. He should have little to complain about. "It rains twice as much as in Brittany," he admits.
Yet summer droughts have hit farms here too, as elsewhere in France. Since the start of the summer, a whopping 72 of the country's 96 departments in Europe introduced water restriction measures. Authorities issued a total of 146 decrees, ranging from incentives to save water to bans on non-priority uses, including agriculture. This poses a difficult challenge for the industry, given that both plants and livestock suffer badly from the heat.
"The northern half of France, for example, faces a climate deficit of 300-380 millimeters," says Patrick Bertuzzi, the director of Agroclim, a unit of the National Institute of Agronomic Research. "That means that these regions lack 300-to-380 meters of water per square meter of soil since the beginning of April. It's a record-low," he says.
Droughts and heatwaves affect crop yields, in the summer as in other seasons: while autumn or spring droughts used to be rare in the past, they are becoming increasingly common. Water has been a problem for farmers for years now and with global warming, it's likely to only get worse.
"The problem is not so much a decrease in rainfall, but its distribution during the year," says Joël Limouzin, head of climate issues at the National Federation of Farmers' Unions. Limouzin points to the heavy winter rains that usually replenish water tables. Even during droughts, the Geological and Mining Research Office observes that the level of water refilling usually remains satisfactory in the area. Scientists say that the shortage mostly concerns surface soils.
Limouzin is also a farmer in the Vendée, a department of central Western France. He too faces water shortages during droughts, and is a strong advocate of a structural solution: hillside reservoirs. These are open-air basins dug into the ground to store water during heavy rainfall. For Limouzin, they would be the primary solution for periods of water shortage. On his farm, where he works with five other partners, two reservoirs have been set up. This year, they are saving him from the drought.
But environmental associations and hydrogeologists criticise this solution, saying it can change the water cycle, the open-surface reservoirs that favor the evaporation of stored water, as well as areas where the reservoirs are installed.
My farm has been feeling the economic effects of the drought for about 10 years.
Despite these negative aspects, Agroclim director Bertuzzi says that hill dams are acceptable transitional solutions, "provided that there is a consultation with the various water management partners." Limouzin is open to this conversation. "Dialogue between different territorial actors is necessary," he says, "and we are ready to integrate the environmental associations if they are also part of the dialogue."
"However, hillside reservoirs should not prevent farmers from reducing their water consumption anyway," says Bertuzzi. Agriculture is a significant water consumer, especially in the summer. And it's the sector most affected by the increasingly recurring droughts. Facing more difficult and uncertain conditions, "farmers suffer more than they adapt," Bertuzzi says.
More sustainable practices already exist. Scientists are experimenting with plant genetics to select more resistant varieties. Bertuzzi says that crop diversification can also be important, and promotes a shift in the agricultural calendar. Laborde is already applying this strategy: "At home, we rarely run out of water until about July 10. So, today we sow much earlier, around April 1, so that pollination can take place at the end of June, when, statistically, there is still water in the soil."
Technology too can help farmers reduce their water consumption. To avoid waste, drip and in-ground irrigation systems can be developed for specific crops. Water probes can indicate the best times to irrigate. "Some 15 or 20 years ago, we used 3,500 cubic meters of water per hectare of corn," Limouzin says. "Today, we use about 1,800 cubic meters for the same yields."
Corn is one of the most criticized crops for its high water consumption and there is a growing movement to promote less water-consuming cereals. Laborde says this is a misconception: "Corn is the plant that makes the best use of water," he says. "It consumes more water than, for example, rapeseed, but rapeseed produces three tons per hectare and corn produces 10 tons." Bertuzzi says, "The problem with maize is that it needs water when there is the least water." However, he does not rule out the possibility that future droughts and heatwaves will raise the question of maintenance: "It will all depend on how the situation develops."
These new practices are not enough for Bertuzzi, who says repeated droughts will eventually lead to a reduction in river water levels and water tables. To establish more resilient agriculture in a context of water reduction, he calls on farmers to make better use of biodiversity and soil life. He believes in following the principles of conservation agriculture, agroecology and agroforestry. "Soils must be regenerated and their organic status improved to promote carbon storage," he says.
Water has been a problem for farmers for years now and with global warming, it's likely to only get worse.
To preserve the soil, Limouzin has stopped ploughing his farm, a technique that he believes will continue on nearly 60% of farms. Corn producer Franck Laborde agrees with this assessment but is more hesitant in practice. "We're working on it, but adding organic matter to the soil, for example, is a long-term project," he says. "My cash flow doesn't allow me to plan ahead so much." Bertuzzi regrets this lack of a long-term vision: "The adoption of a few practices does not yet lead to questioning the whole system. But at some point it will, necessarily."
Because it's an emergency. At Agroclim, Bertuzzi and his team make projections on the effects of climate on agriculture. He says that after 2040 and 2050, "there is great uncertainty. If we continue with the current laissez-faire approach, agricultural landscapes will change. We are moving towards an increasing Mediterraneanization of the climate."
It isn't an optimistic outlook, yet this scientist still hopes that effective decisions will be taken. "With the acceleration of droughts, hopefully we'll see an acceleration of action."