What does irrigation have to do with climate change? Possibly a lot.
According to a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, irrigation has increased agricultural productivity by an amount roughly equivalent to the entire agricultural output of the United States. That’s a lot of increased productivity!
All of those growing plants take up more carbon dioxide, which could lead to slowing global warming. But without the extra water required for irrigation, not as much carbon dioxide would be taken up by plants–and that could lead to more warming.
The study also shows quantitatively that irrigation increases productivity in a nonlinear fashion — in other words, adding even a small amount of water to a dry area can have a bigger impact than a larger amount of water in a wetter region. “More irrigation doesn’t necessarily mean more productivity,” Ozdogan says. “There are diminishing returns.”
This was already known on the field scale, he says, but is true globally as well. Interestingly, he found that, on average, worldwide irrigation is currently conducted close to the optimal level that maximizes gains. While this may be good news for current farmers, it implies limited potential for irrigation to boost future productivity even as food demands increase.
So what does this mean for us?
Be mindful of the amount of water that we use so that we can continue to irrigate fields, grow food to feed ourselves, and, along the way, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.