Climate change and a growing world population require efficient use of natural resources including water.

Agricultural production and food manufacturing account for a third of water usage in the U.S. Water use fluctuates with weather patterns but also is affected by shifts in production technology, supply-chain linkages and domestic and foreign consumer demand.

A comprehensive University of Illinois study looked at water withdrawals in U.S. agriculture and food production from 1995 to 2020, with the main trend a decline in water use.

“However, one needs to identify the drivers of water use by crop as they differ from one commodity to the next, so water-saving strategies for one crop may not be relevant for another one,” said Sandy Dall’erba, regional economist at U of I and study co-author.

“For instance, water use in cereal grains, fruits and vegetables is mostly driven by the efficiency of the irrigation system, domestic per-capita income and sales to the food processing industry. If irrigation is more efficient, water demand increases. When demand for fruits and vegetables decreased in 2005 to 2010 during the financial crisis, so did demand for water.”

Oilseed crops, on the other hand, have experienced a 98% increase in water demand over the period, primarily driven by international supply-chain linkages.

“There has also been a shift in consumer demand from red meat to white meat in the U.S. People consume less beef and more chicken, which require 3.5 times less water per pound of production. Those trends in consumption and taste have helped the U.S. reduce water use for livestock by 14%,” Dall’erba said.

Dall’erba and co-author Andre Avelino looked at 18 factors that drive U.S. water withdrawals across eight crops, six livestock categories and 11 food manufacturing industries, and the research questions are relevant for any country heavy on agricultural production.

“Namely, how can we feed the 10 billion people we expect to be at the global level by 2080, considering that we cannot necessarily expand the amount of land that’s going to be used? And, given climate change, there is quite a lot of uncertainty with respect to the availability of water needed to grow crops an feed livestock in the years to come,” Dall’erba said.

Water management strategies may include farm-level efforts such as increasing efficiency of the irrigation system, switching crops and growing genetically modified crops.

Other measures may include policies aimed at affecting consumer behavior such as increasing taxes on water-intensive products and supporting ecolabeling, requiring manufacturing companies to report the amounts of water, carbon dioxide emissions and labor associated with production.

Lavender production

Missourians may learn more about lavender thanks to a grant to University of Missouri Extension from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

The $39,274 grant will determine standardized growing practices for lavender in Missouri.

MU Extension horticulturist Kelly McGowan will lead the research looking at practices such as plant establishment and soil preparation, winter protection, cultivar selection, plant phenology, insect and disease issues, optimal flower and oil production parameters and fertilization.

Native to the Mediterranean, lavender is in the mint family. Plants grow about 1 to 2 feet tall. Every part of the plant contains the oil that produces a sweet fragrance. Lavender oil is used for balms, perfumes and cosmetics as well as in cooking and medicines.

While lavender can be difficult to grow in Missouri because of winter stress and high summer humidity, McGowan says it offers opportunities in agritourism. Farm-to-table establishments with outside dining could plant pungent lavender fields to enhance the dining experience.

McGowan hopes the grant will help researchers find ways to increase the plant’s use in essential oils, dried arrangements and commercial operations.

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