For more than half the world’s population, rice is on the menu every single day. As a crop that can be grown on every continent, we have come to rely on it heavily. But there’s a catch. Requiring waterlogged paddy fields to grow, rice is an extraordinarily thirsty crop.
With the advance of climate change, extreme events such as droughts and flooding are becoming more frequent. Finding staple foods such as rice that can survive an unreliable water supply is essential to the world’s long-term food security. So, too, is finding ways to make the use of water in all areas of agriculture more precise and efficient.
The scale of the challenge is vast. At present, agriculture accounts for an enormous 70% of all freshwater use worldwide, and this thirst is only going to increase. The world’s population is expected to exceed 10 billion by 2050. And as incomes rise among the poor in many countries, diets are shifting from primarily starchy foods to animal protein, which guzzles up still more water.
Tackling the issue will take action from the ground up. Given the urgency of the problem, scientists are exploring ways to make crops like rice require less water to grow in the first place, in an attempt to produce the same amount of food using less water.
From developing strains of rice that are more resilient to drought, to obtaining invaluable satellite data on water loss, farmers and researchers are rethinking agriculture to create a food system less vulnerable to a changing climate.