Massive networks of drains, pipes and tiles that enable food production on much of the world’s most productive cropland are due for expansion and replacement to meet the demands of agricultural intensification and climate change.
Massive networks of drains, pipes and tiles that enable food production on much of the world’s most productive cropland are due for expansion and replacement to meet the demands of agricultural intensification and climate change. How that infrastructure is updated will have enormous consequences on food production and the environment, according to a new study.
The study outlines the need for an overhaul of agricultural drainage infrastructure. Such an update would require major investment and widespread consensus from policymakers, taxpayers and producers, said Michael Castellano, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University and lead author. But the effort would be a sound long-term plan with a range of benefits, Castellano said. ISU agronomists collaborated with scientists at the University of Kentucky and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH-Zurich on the study, which appeared Monday in the academic journal Nature Sustainability. The researchers based their findings on field experiments and computer simulations.
“We have this enormous infrastructure investment that’s deteriorating and needs to be updated,” Castellano said. “If we update it the right way, we can benefit crop production and the environment. If we don’t, it will be extremely difficult to meet agriculture’s water quality goals.”
Croplands have been drained for millennia, but extruder technology invented in the mid-1800s enabled widespread installation of drainage systems, which rapidly spread from Europe to North America. Miles of strategically placed tiles and pipes allow water to flow away from farm fields, which keeps soils dry enough for farmers to cultivate crops. Without that drainage, many temperate humid croplands, such as the northern U.S. Corn Belt, would be too swampy to farm, Castellano said.
Read more at Iowa State University
Image: This photo shows the amount of drainage infrastructure that might exist under a typical farm field. Drainage keeps soils dry enough for farmers to cultivate crops in soil that might be too wet otherwise. (Credit: Michael Castellano)