If a recent study is any indication, getting more crop production from every inch of water is going to become even more important in the near future.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers recently released a report describing the amount of hidden water used in food and drink production, estimated at up to 1.8 million liters per person each year — equivalent an Olympic-size swimming pool.

The institute says each person consumes 2,000-5,000 liters of water embedded in their food each day, or 730,000 1,825,000 million liters annually.

Currently, about 70% of all freshwater is used by agriculture, leaving just 30% for industry and domestic use. But as the world’s population grows and more people move to a Western-style diet, water extraction is estimated to increase by over 50% within the next few decades.

By 2050, the overall impact will see around two thirds of the world’s population living in ‘water scare’ areas, compared to 7% now.

“Estimates suggest that we will need to produce 60% more food by 2050, and agriculture will need around 19% more water to produce that extra food,” says Andy Furlong, IChemE director of policy. “It’s clear that current production methods are unsustainable, and there are genuine risks of food shortages, rising food prices, droughts and social unrest for future generations unless we make more efficient use of water.”

Furlong says chemical engineers are recommending that a global target be set to reduce the amount of water used in food production worldwide by 20%.

You’ll get no argument about the need for more efficient crop production from Jerry Hatfield, lab director for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa, who spoke about farm efficiency at the No-Till on the Plains Winter Conference this week.

The estimate that ag might need 19% more water to produce extra food might be low, he says, as USDA estimates show 30-40% more water may be needed.

“There are plenty of opportunities to improve water-use efficiency in agriculture, including the use of no-till and maintenance of crop cover and stubble. This could save 3-6 inches of water per growing season, which could be used to produce crops,” Hatfield says. “One question is how much water we should be investing into energy production (ethanol), which requires water for the crop and also the ethanol production system. This would add a new dimension to the debate over food vs. fuel.”

Hatfield adds he is unsure if IChemE’s call for a global reduction in water use for food production is realistic.

“Even with improved water-use efficiency, this may not be achievable because of the requirement for production,” he says. “But there are other parts of the food-production system that could reduce water use.”

Historic droughts were fresh on the minds of farmers at this week’s conference, but I also heard many stories about no-tillers — such as John Heerman of Haxtun, Colo. — pushing to eliminate tillage and fallow from their systems and use cover crops and grazing to keep their soils covered and healthier.

It’s been well established that the combination of no-till, stubble layers and cover crops increases organic matter in soils, which increases water-holding capacity and lets farmers take advantage of even small precipitation events. But there’s still plenty of tillage happening in parts of the Plains.

“Maybe, instead of calling your neighbor to ask how much rain they got,” Heerman told conference attendees, “you should call them and ask them how much rain got into their fields.”