That’s the annual price tag of drought-caused events in the United States. Drought affects farmers and ranchers across the country, drying up crops and pasture and driving up prices of water access for crops and livestock. In places like the Western U.S., where the Colorado River provides water for about 40 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland, drought is taking a heavy toll. Some reservoirs are at their lowest water level ever recorded, resulting in water cuts that primarily affect agriculture, which makes up 80% of water usage made possible by the Colorado River. And when producers can’t afford or aren’t allowed to buy water due to general shortages, drought means significant loss of profits and jobs as crops decrease in quality and livestock performance diminishes. In places like California, where a quarter of U.S. food production occurs, those losses are devastating.
The megadrought problem in the American West and other parts of the world is rooted in climate change, which lowers snowpack and moisture levels and generates higher temperatures—three factors that create drought. While some shifts in climate have characterized our planet for millennia, human activities have exacerbated it, and the complex web of factors impacting climate change means that it will take significant time and effort to reduce negative impacts like drought. But farmers and ranchers are in crisis now and need immediate solutions.
With a projected population increase to over 10 billion people by 2050, experts estimate that agriculture will need to expand by 70% to meet worldwide caloric needs, and yet drought is crippling many producers’ efforts to meet those demands. While efforts to permanently reduce the damage of climate change will take time, creativity and innovation may help alleviate the detrimental effects of drought now. One such technology is hydroponic farming.
Hydroponic systems are designed to be an optimal environment for plant growth and to efficiently use the resources required for that growth. In the case of water, hydroponic systems reportedly use up to 90% less water than traditional agricultural methods. In a field, water tends to sink into the ground, run off, and evaporate, so while much of it goes to nourishing crops, the realities of that open environment mean that it requires more water to produce a healthy harvest.
In a hydroponic system, by contrast, the controlled interior environment allows for the most efficient use of water possible, bypassing the loss of water otherwise prominent in traditional agriculture. And despite requiring only a fraction of the water of a traditional field, hydroponic systems can still produce significant amounts of feed—The reliability and consistency of the harvest that a hydroponic system yields plus the significantly reduced water usage can make this a viable feed solution for producers facing extreme drought and its agricultural fallout.