KANSAS CITY, Mo. (DTN) -- Farmers worldwide either need to find a way to produce more food with the same land or expand the industry's footprint in the face of water scarcity threats, a panel of experts said on Monday.
Exactly where water will be available as changes in climate occur is something no one can predict, panelists said during an agriculture symposium at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
Mark Rosegrant, director of the environment and production technology division of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., said water scarcity has intensified in the past couple of years with expanded drought areas worldwide and other issues.
"There's not that much land left that can be economically exploited," he said. "Developing new water systems is becoming more costly."
When it comes to water use in agriculture, Rosegrant said the adoption of new irrigation technologies including drip and sprinkler irrigation is not having "big, system-wide benefits."
"To get broader benefits, we need to promote water allocations that recognize geography," he said. "We need to have perpetual rights by individual users. We need a transparent process and accounting system that tracks water losses."
One of the major barriers toward increasing overall efficiency in water use across agriculture, Rosegrant said, is "long-standing practices and beliefs that water is a free resource."
Rosegrant said Africa will provide potentially large markets for U.S. farmers in the next several decades. There is potential, he said, to create large-scale irrigation systems with enough investment in Africa.
Kenneth Cassman, emeritus professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the rate of annual growth in global grain yields from 1965 to 2011 of about 1.2% isn't going to be enough to feed a world population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050.
"We have to accelerate that or there will be massive expansion of agriculture," he said. Although corn breeding to improve yields quadrupled during that time, Cassman said, agriculture's footprint has grown as well.
"We are expanding the agriculture area at a rate faster than any time in human history," he said.
Though irrigation expansion is seen as a way to grow food production globally, Cassman said, it is unlikely irrigated agriculture can be increased worldwide to any degree. Instead, food-production gains could be realized with the wide adoption of precision technology and continued yield improvements in seed technology.
"It is more about efficiency," he said. "We underestimate the productivity enhancement of these kinds of technologies. We need to accelerate the rate of gain on existing ag areas. We must accelerate the rate of gain in yields."
Patrick Westhoff, professor and director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said an annual average of 25 million acres has come into production globally in the past decade.
"These are amazing levels you can't keep going forever," he said.
What's more, Westhoff said there is uncertainty in how much food will be demanded and how much can be produced worldwide by 2050.
It is difficult to account for the unknowns.
For example, between 1980 and 2015, the world's population grew by about 60%, he said. Production of grains and oilseeds increased by about 86%. Westhoff said the two driving factors in the disparity were demand by the Chinese economy and the expansion of biofuels in the United States -- something economists didn't widely predict.
Westhoff said he believes projections of the world's population "are going to be proven wrong."
"Unless there is a major change in policy, we are probably near the end of rapid growth in biofuels production," he said, while China cannot continue its growth pace.
"What will be our new engine of growth?"
While the federal government has to some degree protected natural resources through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, Christopher Hartley, deputy director and senior environmental markets analyst for USDA, said the private sector has to take a larger role in protecting water in particular.
Cassman said ag economists should prepare for the unexpected when they make forecasts on food production, demand, use and water availability.
"We should be building even greater uncertainty into our projections," he said.
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN
© Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.