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Water: Why The Most Basic Resource Needs Our Attention

February 10, 2016
Water is on everyone’s mind lately. From the California drought to the Flint water crisis, it’s clear that our water is in jeopardy.  In spite of pollution and waste, we can still maintain the health and safety of our water supply.

GMO Answers Forbes blog recently posted a great piece by Kate Hall, managing director of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers spokesperson, which looks at this issue. In her piece “Water: Why The Most Basic Resource Needs Our Attention,”Hall explains how agricultural stewardship and environmental awareness can have a profound impact on our water.

With the onslaught of snowstorm Jonas, winter finally descended onto the East Coast. And now, sequestered in my apartment, enveloped in sweatpants and fuzzy socks, and with the humidifier running non-stop, I long for warmer temps and sunny days when I’m more likely to be rowing up and down the river than stuck between these four walls.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="202"] Rowing along the Anacostia River. (Image Credit: Christina Erling, Anacostia Community Boathouse)[/caption]

On the river paddling along in my scull, I am part of a vibrant ecosystem, sharing the waterway with families of turtles and ducks, leaping fish, blue herons, cormorants and bald eagles. Unfortunately, we also share the river with worn tires, lost toys, and so many discarded plastic water bottles.

Precious Resource

Water is a tremendously precious resource, an essential component of life and habitat for all organisms, from microscopic protozoa to us “macro” Homo sapiens. Yet, it’s also a tremendously fragile resource. And, much of the harm done to our aquatic ecosystems is brought about by us – chemical run-off from sewers, industry, cities, and farmlands, as well as all those plastic water bottles and shopping bags that don’t make it into the recycling bin.

Water pollution causes devastating impacts on environmental and human health. The citizens of Flint, Michigan, for instance, are currently restricted to bottled water because high levels of toxic lead contaminate their taps. Last year, poisonous algal blooms plagued hundreds of miles of the Ohio River and Lake Erie. Since the 1970s, the hypoxic (low oxygen) zone in the Gulf of Mexico continues to expand, suffocating aquatic life. Now at more than 5000 square miles it is the second largest hypoxic area in the world.

These crises, however, have occurred where water is overall plentiful and accessible. Let’s not forget that in parts of the globe, “precious” has another connotation – scarce. In some areas of the developing world, farmers in rural communities rely on only a few inches of rainfall per year for their water supply and livelihoods. Closer to home, the 2015 drought in California severely impacted access to water and agricultural productivity, costing the state nearly $3 billion and more than 20,000 jobs. The anticipated effects of climate change will exacerbate current water scarcity problems and the ensuing costs.

Agricultural Stewardship

Agriculture is, of course, another fundamental component of our lives. But, it can also be a polluter, as plant detritus, sediment and input residues seep into our streams and rivers. Additionally, agriculture is a major water consumer, using nearly 70% of all available fresh water globally.

As they work to grow the food we eat, farmers are not only stewards of our lands, but also our waters. They utilize important measures to minimize pollution, such as planting riparian buffer zones to mitigate run-off; moreover, they employ new technologies that facilitate more precise applications of essential pesticides and fertilizers and drip irrigation systems to help conserve water.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="167"] Sunrise at the Anacostia River. (Image Credit: Christina Erling, Anacostia Community Boathouse)[/caption]

Genetically modified crops (GMOs) are also a critical part of this toolbox, providing several environmental benefits. Herbicide tolerant crops as one example, enables farmers to adopt no- or low-till production. By allowing the crop residue to remain on undisturbed soil, run-off into waterways is reduced, and the soil maintains moisture and nutrients as well as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Improved soil moisture reduces the need for irrigation, especially significant for drought-prone areas.

Drought tolerant crops also have been developed so that plants are better able to withstand the stress of drought and achieve improved yields without the need for additional irrigation. And, looking to the future, nitrogen-use-efficient crops will more efficiently absorb nitrogen fertilizer, leading to fewer applications and less run-off.

Another major culprit of water consumption and pollution – food waste. Embedded in the more than one billion tons of food we toss aside each year are 45 trillion gallons of water. GMO potatoes and apples that don’t brown or bruise less when handled will help these items remain cosmetically appealing to retailers and consumers, thus reducing the amount of perfectly edible food that ends up in the landfill.

This doesn’t mean that GMO crops are a silver bullet. As with all other types of production agriculture, insect and weed resistance are problems, and another important part of farmer stewardship is crop and input rotation along with other integrated pest management practices that keep resistance at bay.

Knowing our water is a vital part of a healthy and active lifestyle – hydration, sanitation, recreation – we must work hard to keep our waterways healthy. Like our farmers, we all should be good stewards of our environment. So, please think twice about tossing that wrapper on the ground, throwing away that slightly overripe banana, or not picking up the plastic water bottle now swimming alongside my scull on the river. When we work together, even the smallest gesture produces a profound impact.