Since 2010, the population of Texas has grown by nearly 4 million people. That’s more than the current populations of the cities of Houston and Dallas combined. Population growth of that magnitude has many consequences, including:
- Greater demand for water for residential, commercial, industrial and power generation use.
- More land area developed for housing, highways, shopping centers, manufacturing plants and office buildings.
This has major implications for agriculture in Texas. The amount of land and water available for growing food is shrinking at the same time demand for food is increasing. From 1997 to 2012, Texas lost agricultural land at a rate of about 115 square miles per year. During the same period, non-agricultural water use increased by about 43,000 acre-feet (about 14 billion gallons) per year.
Texas farmers are meeting this challenge with the help of science and technology in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago.
Researchers at Texas universities are among the world leaders in developing new varieties of plants that have made a dramatic difference in crop production over the past 20 years. For example, Dr. Wenwei Xu, Professor of Corn Breeding and Genetics at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Lubbock, has been using conventional and molecular breeding methods to increase corn yields and make corn plants more tolerant of drought and heat and more resistant to disease and pests. Today, Texas farmers can grow a bushel of corn with half the amount of water used 20 years ago.
The era of digital technology has transformed daily life for all of us with powerful computers, mobile phones with millions of apps and GPS. It has also transformed farming and dramatically improved water use efficiency. Whereas previous generations of farmers irrigated fields by opening flood gates and allowing water to run down furrows, today’s center-pivot irrigation systems and underground drip systems can apply water to plants with 95 percent efficiency. Soil moisture probes, satellite imagery, GPS and remote control of irrigation equipment by cell phones all enable the precise application of water when and where it is needed.
Research and demonstration projects have led to widespread adoption of conservation tillage methods by farmers that increase the productivity of land, while reducing erosion, fuel consumption, water use and pesticides. Conservation tillage increases the amount of organic matter in the soil, which is beneficial to plants and helps retain soil moisture. Farmers have reported a 30 percent reduction in water use after several years of employing conservation tillage. This food production system also benefits the global ecosystem by changing moderately-producing soils into high-producing, carbon-rich soils.
Implications for policy-makers
In recent years, Texas farmers have voluntarily invested millions of dollars on their own in new equipment and technology to produce more food using less land and less water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has been the major source of help in this endeavor through financial and technical assistance to farmers. Those programs benefit consumers as well as farmers. Even though most people are not aware of it, reducing water use, pesticide runoff and dust storms benefits urban populations just as much as rural areas.
The growing demand for water for rapidly expanding cities is putting greater pressure on water resources. Water planning is needed to ensure Texas continues to have adequate water supplies for food, for people and for jobs.
Science and technology will continue making advancements in the production of food and the contributions farmers are making to ensure a stable food supply need to be understood and recognized by all of us.