What Crops Use the Most Water — and What We Can Do About It
| August 30, 2023 |
what crops use the most water

As we know, clean water isn’t infinite; supply has become a concern with the rise in temperatures and increased frequency of drought. With agriculture being a major user of water in the United States, more sustainable water management strategies have become a hot topic in recent years.  

Part of the drive for more sustainable water management strategies comes from the need to drastically increase our food productivity over the next few decades to meet the world’s demand. Understanding what crops use the most water and which strategies work best to maximize yields while minimizing the use of water continues to be important.  


What Crops Use the Most Water?

Each crop has specific needs, whether it thrives in a unique climate, is more resistant to drought, needs extra inputs, and even differs in water demand. Understanding what crops use the most water is one of the first and most important considerations when determining what to plant and informing water management strategies. While you can’t always avoid these high-demand crops, you can make smarter decisions to better preserve water. 

Some of the most popular, water-intensive crops include:  

  • Rice 
  • Sugarcane 
  • Corn 
  • Cotton 
  • Wheat 

These water-intensive crops are vital in today’s world – which is precisely why they are continuing to be grown. Over half of the world’s population relies on rice as a basic food, but unfortunately, this crop requires a lot of water to be successfully grown. It takes 3,000-5,000 liters (about 1320.86 gallons) of water to grow 1 kilogram of rice.  

Advancements in seed traits are helping to improve the water needs for these crops; for instance, short-stature corn has received a lot of attention this season because of the unique traits it brings to the market to make it a more resilient crop. Among these is its ability to perform well under drought conditions, meaning it can require less water.  

For many, choosing which crops to grow and where may not be as simple as understanding the water requirements. However, certain practices can help alleviate the strain that may be placed on a field if water-intensive crops are planted for the season.  


Are Regulations the Answer?

Some regions of the United States and countries around the world have gone as far as banning certain crops from being grown in an area due to the intense water requirements for its growth. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has banned the growth of alfalfa because it requires too much water.  

And now, with more growers from the Middle East leasing land and depleting resources, Arizona is re-evaluating how they handle water use and whether they should include restrictions.  

But this isn’t a new concept. In Kansas, for instance, individuals must hold a permit from the Division of Water Resources in order to use water. This includes farmers, who must also make yearly reports of how they are using water. This creates challenges in a drought-ridden year, but it also protects this precious resource for years to come.  

Does this mean that regulations are the answer? Like many things in agriculture, it depends. If there’s a year that has an unprecedented drought, does a limit on water usage help – or hurt production for this year and the following years? Is there an effective way to manage water usage that takes into account the various needs of specific farms? And supports innovation?  

On the other hand, can we protect water quality and promote the evolution of more efficient irrigation systems simply by having the right regulations in place?  

As regulations continue to ebb and flow, ag technology may be a more immediate response to help manage water usage while continuing to support the crops that require the most water (and are needed by our world, too!).  


The Role of Ag Technology in Promoting Sustainable Water Use

Technology, like remote sensing, has become crucial in better informing water management strategies. In addition to precision agriculture, advancements in products like new traits or seed varieties have the power to reduce agriculture’s water usage and accomplish sustainability goals.  

This is where remote sensing can play a powerful role. Sure, it can be useful in capturing data to understand how water flows within a field or uncovering the stress levels of crops due to inefficient water management, but it can also help to uncover water use in different seed traits and varieties.  

There are a few areas where remote sensing shines for agronomic leaders. By leveraging aerial imagery captured by drones, with the subsequent images then translated by a trained machine learning platform, the resulting analytics can provide deep insight into crop performance and the impact of various water management strategies.  

And, because of the versatility of remote sensing, it opens the door to capture and analyze data in a few different ways. Because multispectral imagery can detect crop stress before the human eye can see it, it can be a useful tool to identify areas that are at risk of drought before they cause widespread impacts on maturity and vigor.

A 2014 study published in Remote Sensing of Environment, for instance, used multispectral imagery to accurately predict the severity of drought in the region. As a result, it led to early action – which helped to mitigate the effects of drought and reduce its impact on the agricultural sector.  

Beyond understanding where drought may hit next, remote sensing can be used in a few different capacities: 

  • Monitor the health of watersheds 
  • Track the movement of water in rivers and streams 
  • Assess the impact of climate change on water resources  


Building a More Sustainable Future: Optimizing Agriculture’s Water Usage

Optimizing water usage is essential for the future of not only agriculture but the world. Unfortunately, it will continue to be a vital resource that keeps our crops growing. However, with a focus on how to maximize drought-resistant crops while finding ways to reduce the production (or make it more efficient) of the crops that top the list of “what crops use the most water,” it helps the world take a vital step towards increasing food production and ensuring we are keeping up with the growing population.  

Improper water use or application can be detrimental to not only the year’s final yield but also the future of manageable farmland. And, whether it’s building in more sustainable water practices or optimizing the seed traits that are grown, either option has the potential to make farmland last longer. With operational land already limited, this is critical in supporting the increasing food demand and population.  


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