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Growing Food in Dry Times: Drought in the West

It’s no surprise growing food uses lots of water. One cow needs anywhere from 3 to 30 L of water a day. It takes 3200 L of water to grow one pound of lentils. In this episode we ask, what do we do when there’s not enough water to feed our food? Here in Canada, prairie farmers say 2021 made history for one of the worst droughts Western North America has experienced in the last 1200 years. Dry spells like these impact everything from the crops we’re able to grow, right down to the food on our plates. 

Jay talks with Global Institute for Food Security Associate Director, Leon Kochian, about the challenges and potential solutions that can help farmers adapt to water scarcity in agriculture. We also hear from two farmers on the ground – Merle Massie and Reg Lowe – who are experiencing the impacts of this year’s drought first-hand. 

Guest Bios

Leon KochianLeon Kochian

Dr. Leon Kochian joined the University of Saskatchewan in August 2016 as the Associate Director of the Global Institute for Food Security and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Global Food Security. He also is a Professor in the Departments of Plant Science and Soil Science.

Kochian’s research deals with the molecular biology, physiology, and genetics of mineral ion transport and root biology processes as they relate to mineral nutrient acquisition, plant response to abiotic environmental stresses, and the role of root architecture in nutrient acquisition efficiency. He has published 290 papers in peer-reviewed journals that have been cited 41,862 times and has an H index of 113. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), as well as an American Society of Plant Biologists Fellow, a member of the ARS Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Arrell Global Food Innovation Award, which recognizes global excellence in food innovation and community impact. Read his full biography here.

Merle MassieMerle Massie

Merle Massie is an author, historian, farmer, and researcher. She is an adjunct Professor with the School of Environment and Sustainability and coordinator of undergraduate research initiatives at USask. Read more about Merle here.


Reg Lowe

Reg Lowe is an organic farmer located about 20 miles southeast of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. Reg has been organic farming for about 25 years now and comes from a long line of farmers. He is semi-retired, and currently farms about 200 acres of the 9-quarter sections on his property.


Global Institute for Food Security on Twitter

Merle Massie on Twitter

Photo Credit

Dr. Leon Kochian – Submitted
Merle Massie Jen Quesnel

Full Transcript


Merle Massie: When you’re waiting for the rain to come and waiting for the rain to come, and you’re watching that crop every day, every week, hoping and hoping, doing rain dances, calling for any rain clouds that come by. Here, cloudy, cloudy, cloudy! Anything. Yeah, it is one of the most disastrous years that we’ve had.

Jay Famiglietti: That’s Merle Massie, a farmer in West Central Saskatchewan. Here in Canada, prairie farmers say 2021 made history as one of the worst droughts Western North America has experienced in the last 1,200 years.

Jay Famiglietti: Stunted withered crops, intense heat waves, reservoirs, rivers, and lakes drying up. It’s not just the people growing our food who feel the burn. The acts of drought trickle down from what we buy in the produce section to what’s on our dinner plates. According to some estimates, overall food prices are expected to increase by 3 to 5% this year because of the drought, while the price of fresh vegetables and meat may rise 6.5%. So how do we adapt our food supply when we’re faced with prolonged drought? There may be much more of it in the years to come.

I’m Jay Famiglietti, executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. On this episode of What About Water? we look at adaptation and agriculture. How do we design the crops of the future? And with an expected population boom of over 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050, how will water scarcity in agriculture influence our ability to feed ourselves? We’ll hear from Professor Leon Kochian of the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan. First, water — and what happens when there’s not enough of it.

Merle Massie: My disaster flight.

I’m Merle Massie, and this is my dog Cinder and this is Massie Panoramic’s home quarter. We are the north edge of the Palliser Triangle and we try…We’re carbon relocation experts. That’s what farmers are. We try and leave that in the soil as much as possible and not dig up the soil. That’s usually lentils, canola, wheat.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been watching the water table go down and down and down because we went through about 15 years of some of the highest water levels that we have ever had in Western Canada. We have been watching that disappear. But this year the rain just didn’t come. Didn’t come. Didn’t come. We seeded into into dust, and it wasn’t just regular dust. It was that fluffy dust. You know, that really awful dust?

Interviewer: Oh!

Merle Massie: Yeah. When we had no rain, no rain, no rain, no rain and then that high heat dome that came across Western Canada, what happened was that the crop that had managed to germinate and not all of the seed germinated because of the drought, that that did manage to germinate just sort of desiccated right in the ground. It just never grew. It will have an impact on years to come, because it changes how you grow your crop, it changes what crops you’re able to grow. It changes what you’re going to do in terms of seed that you’re going to choose to put in each particular quarter section. It will change your weed pressure. A bad drought year will change not only what happens within that year; it trickles down in dominoes into years to come.

Reg Lowe: My name is Reg Lowe. I’m an organic farmer, live about oh, 20 minutes south and east of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. I’ve been organic farming for about 25 years now. I’ve lived this way on the prairies and my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather.

We tend to take moisture as a blessing. I farm like it’s a drought and then I plant tomorrow like it’s going to rain. The weather is more extreme now than it was back when I can remember in my heyday. The last two years in 2020, we got 1.5 inches of rain for the full year. And that was in July. The year before, for three months in the fall, I got 15 inches of rain. Then from last year to this spring, there wasn’t anything but the 1.5 inches.

In my particular case, an organic farmer, I grow crops that adapt to those situations. I grow kamut, which is an ancient derm and it’s very drought resistant. It takes a little longer to mature, so it can maybe take a benefit like it did this year of some late rains. Also I grow flax, which loves moisture. So if I get a year with lots of moisture, I can take a benefit from that. That’s how I’ve adapted on my particular farm.

Well, the commercial, the conventional guys, if it’s really good, they got volume and they can sell. If it’s a poor year, the price usually goes up. So they get something out of it. If it doesn’t grow, then they collect insurance. I’m no different than they are when it comes to the lack of water or moisture. It’s what feeds this country. If it’s there, it’s there; if it isn’t, it isn’t. We take advantage of when it’s there.

We don’t conserve water. Not anymore. When I plow down that clover halfway through the year, I do save some moisture for next year, which gets the crop going. Then you’re still hoping like the conventional guy that it rains. If it doesn’t rain for them, they’re out to lunch. There’s been cases in different parts of this country, maybe not right around where I am, where larger outfits have gone under because maybe two, three years of this.

In my case, organics has saved my operation. If you do what you’re supposed to do organically, it’ll look after you. Like this year, the heat in the summer affected all the conventional guys around me. Even if they got a decent yield, they lost in weight; they lost in quality. But I still get half a crop. It’s still there. For all the stress it went through, it’s still there.

Jay Famiglietti: Wild variations and precipitation culminating in this year’s drought, that’s the way farmers like Merle and Reg experience climate change. So how do farmers solve this problem? How do we maintain our global food supply? For professor Leon Kochian, it’s about getting to the root of the problem. Lean Kochian is the Associate Director of the Global Institute for Food Security. He’s also the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Leon, welcome to What About Water?

Leon Kochian: Well, thanks Jay, and thanks very much for inviting me.

Jay Famiglietti: When we were listening to Merle and to Reg, what was going through your mind?

Leon Kochian: Well, as a plant biologist, plant molecular physiologist that focuses on improving crops for shortages and scarcities of water and nutrients, this is getting to be kind of scary because there are a lot of tools at our disposal that I think we can make some significant improvements in crops in terms of them generating more, using less water, and less and less fertilizer. But I think in terms of water, a drought like we had this year, I don’t know if we have the capacity to address that just with improved crops. It’s going to have to be a combination of better ways of delivering and conserving the water.

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah. I think that that’s a really important point and it came up. Both Merle and Reg, and Reg in particular, was saying things like, “Moisture is a blessing.” So there are a lot of farmers, especially in the prairies, especially here in Saskatchewan, that don’t irrigate. I don’t see that as really being sustainable. What do you think about that?

Leon Kochian: Absolutely. I was just looking up some numbers, looking at the big AgroTech companies that have developed… Being able to perform well in response to drought is one of the most complex traits that crop plants have to deal with. It involves many different genes with small contributions. So they’re breeding some of them like Syngenta and Pioneer, DuPont. They’ve bred for some more drought… I don’t know if I want to call it tolerant, but maybe better-performing under drought maize. They’re talking about 10, 12% increases in yield during the severe drought. But when I look at what severe drought means, it’s reducing the yield from an optimal yield by sometimes as much as 70%.

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Leon Kochian: So it’s yes, you’re not losing as much with these somewhat adapted crops, but that’s just simply not enough, not for a severe drought, so.

Jay Famiglietti: Well, that’s not necessarily uplifting and related to that, I want to take a step back and sort of think about big picture. You know I talk a lot about global groundwater depletion, and a lot of it is driven by agriculture and overuse of groundwater. We’re in the middle of this global water crisis. I think it’s being worsened by climate change. A lot of the water use that we withdraw, when we withdraw water from rivers and from groundwater, a lot of it’s for agriculture. How do you think we got to this point in time where it’s a pretty big mess?

Leon Kochian: Yeah, well, yes. When you talk about food systems, incredibly complex and particularly the economic side of that. The world is becoming more and more meat consumers, which is very water intensive. I love meat, but I don’t see the world being able… That’s another change that’ll probably have to be made where we consume less meat because there’s so much water going into the grain and there’s so much grain that’s needed to grow the various animal crops. So that’s just one component of this system that we’re at the stage where with the population growth, and everybody wants to eat like us Americans and Canadians eat. I think we’re all, including the Canadians and the Americans, are going to have to change our diets in the future. I don’t think we’ll have any alternative.

Jay Famiglietti: A lot of your work really focuses on roots and what’s what’s happening below the ground. These are things that we can’t really see. Can you explain to our listeners how this connects to water?

Leon Kochian: Roots are commonly called the hidden half because we don’t see them. They grow in soil, in an opaque environment, very complex environment. In fact, the root-soil interface is probably be the most complex ecosystem in the world because of all the microbes. That’s like the plant gut. It’s the absorbing zone of water and nutrients. It’s an area of plant breeding that has been almost nonexistent because plant breeders, and this is not a criticism of plant breeders, for the entire entirety of plant breeding, they could only breed what they see. They make measurements, what we call phenotype, measure different traits, what they can see on thousands of plants. There’s no way they can get down into the ground on thousands of plants. So they have not bred for root traits.

Leon Kochian: In fact, of course with the Green Revolution, we’ve been breeding using luxury conditions of sufficient water and sufficient or too much fertilizer, and we’re breeding for other traits and we’re probably have lost some of those adaptations that the organic farmer was talking about in some of the more ancient crops. In fact, that’s where a lot of the genetic reservoir is now for us, to improve current crops by in progressing or finding the genes or the traits from these ancient crops and intercrossing them into our modern world.

Jay Famiglietti: So I’m curious then how do you get a picture of these roots? If you want to breed for better root traits, what are you doing for visualization? How are you seeing, making the invisible visible, which is a problem with us with groundwater, too. It’s below ground and you have to come up with methods. So what have you been doing?

Leon Kochian: There’s several ways that we study roots. A lot of what I’ve done through my career is to take them out of the soil, grow them hydroponically, grow them in gel, grow them in transparent media. Then we’ve been using digital technology to image the roots. For example, we’ll have a root system that’s been grown in a gel cylinder with all the mineral nutrients in it. We have a fixed high quality machine vision camera, and we have a computer that rotates the plant, the root system, as it takes images, 2D images, so usually like about a 100 2D images as we rotate the root system through 360 degrees. These are very high resolution. We can capture all the roots and the fine roots. Then we have software that reconstructs that into a three dimensional model, and we can calculate traits that we think are important for nutrient and water acquisition.

From that, we’ve developed tools that we can do this on thousands, at least hundreds and thousands of plants. So we can do genetically-structured populations and essentially then do molecular genetics, identify those very discreet regions of that plant’s genome, where genes must reside that control, for example, deep rooting. In fact, a buddy of mine in Japan, Yasaku Uga, he used a pretty low tech system. He grew this population that was made from a shallow-rooting paddy rice and a deeper-rooting upland rice. He grew them in spaghetti colanders with potting mix sitting in nutrient solution. Then he could get the angles of the deeper rooting, have sharper angles, and he could quantify that very quickly. He cloned that gene. It was the first deep-rooting gene called Dro1. He’s now using that with molecular breeding because it turns out in rice, a lot of the different rice varieties don’t even have this gene and some do, and they are deeper rooting and he’s gone into the field and studied under drought. He sees significant yield increases.

Now these are pilot studies, either not yet at the advanced varieties for farmers, but he’s working towards that. He’s seen significant increases in yield under moderate and even severe drought. I think we’re going to be able to tailor roots, the shape of the root systems. We’ve unique ways of phenotyping, that we call it, imaging the roots. We can do genetics; we can identify the genes. And I think we’re going to be able, we’re getting close to be able to control whether we want a real deep and concentrated root system or a more shallow, spread out one, which may be better for flooded conditions where at least there’s a little more oxygen in close to the surface. But I think we’d be able to tailor them in conjunction with different kinds of watering regimes, irrigation regimes.

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah. I think that’s the key, right?

Leon Kochian: Yep.

Jay Famiglietti: If we can combine the knowledge of how the roots are behaving under these different environmental conditions and these change in climate conditions, that would be… I see the potential for amazing advances.

Leon Kochian: Right. That’s actually what plant breeders have done for 10,000 years. But they’ve done it. They would say, “Okay, I want something that does better under drought. I got to bunch of different lines of a particular crop, say wheat, and I’m going to grow them out under drought conditions and pick the best performers. So I’m phenotyping, and now I’m going to cross those maybe with my elite line that I know do really well and then grow those progeny.” So I’ve been thinking about, and a lot of us think about, how can we translate these tools to the field? We’re obviously hydroponic imaging or we’re not.

Another way we can image roots is using x-rays. It’s all been borrowed from medical technology. Here at University of Saskatchewan, we have one of the best synchrotrons in the world. It generates high powered x-rays that we can actually visualize the roots in soil. There are x-ray computed tomography machines that came from medicine, and a lot of my colleagues who study roots have one in their lab and they can image roots and soil in the lab. How do you get that to the field though? You’re not going to stick an x-ray CT machine-

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah, I know. I know.

Leon Kochian: -stuck in the field.

Jay Famiglietti: So, you know, you and I are working towards doing that.

Leon Kochian: Right. Right.

Jay Famiglietti: So we are actively talking about visualizing the whole plant above the ground and below the ground. We can do that in a lab setting, but the real challenge, I think, is to do that in the natural environment. Man, if we could do that, that would be amazing.

Jay Famiglietti: Speaking of amazing, this stuff all sounds really cool and it would be great in sci-fi movies, and we could have you in there with the white coat with the hydroponics and… But when will it be available? What’s the sort of cycle from these great ideas to maybe a new variety that could be planted? And the reason I’m asking is because we’re in a rather urgent time with respect to climate adaptation.

Leon Kochian: Well, I think plants are smarter than we are because they’ve been evolving for millions of years. I think we can go a long ways towards making bigger roots, sequestering more carbon in the soil without having a yield penalty. I’d say grain or whatever your edible part of the plant that you’re producing.

Jay Famiglietti: Sure. So we’re working towards these better plant breeds and we’re bringing them to the point where farmers can utilize them and start to plant them. Are farmers going to accept that? What are the costs involved? What’s the expense? I know that in the case of adopting new irrigation methods, there’s a heavy cost: Someone has to buy the equipment. Someone has to install the equipment and, you know. Are there good pathways for getting these new breeds into the hands of farmers and actually planted?

Leon Kochian: Any farmer, if you say this variety is going to have a 5 or 8% yield increase, under good conditions, I mean, they’ll buy it.

Jay Famiglietti: Wow. So that opens up a lot of questions, and that’s going to bring me to California. It turns out we’re both from California. I want to share with you a few examples, one from a recent trip and one from something that’s been going on for a long time. But I was in the Imperial Valley irrigation district, which is in Southeastern California, just a couple of weeks ago. For context, the Imperial Valley gets a very big allocation of water from the Colorado River, and the Colorado River is drying up. So that water supply is dwindling. Yet in Imperial valley, most of the crop that has grown is alfalfa for cows. It’s harvested for hay. We’re also seeing the challenges to the orchard crops in Southern California, especially the Southern part of the Central Valley, which just a hugely productive agricultural region. There’s been a tremendous growth in orchard crops, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and of course wine. And the orchard crops, you can’t take a year off, you have to water them year round. Can this sort of behavior continue?

Leon Kochian: Well, I guess what we’re seeing… and I was just in Davis recently, where I did my PhD, and it was interesting because they’ve been replacing all the tomato fields on the outside of Davis with fruit trees, but they’re watering them with drip. It’s actually drip irrigation, but it’s also fertilized. It’s fertigation, so they’re really controlling both the water providing it right to the roots, and the fertilizer. That’s a very efficient way, as you know better than I do, of providing the water as opposed to the traditional let’s just flood, most of it evaporates or whatever.

Jay Famiglietti: So that could be the key. I’ve always felt that if we as scientists could work with farmers, work with extension, work with irrigation companies to develop optimal delivery systems for the optimal delivery of the minimum water and nutrients, that would be a huge breakthrough. But what I see, so you’re in Davis, you’re in a very academic area where they’re predisposed towards experimenting with that. That’s great, right? Pushing the boundaries of that technology. But when you’re out in the field talking to real farmers, it’s all very much analog. I mean, you literally have to call somebody to say, “I need my water delivery,” and then you have to send the irrigation person that works for you on your farm out to the canal to open the sluice gate so the water can flood the field. So there’s there’s this huge gap between the things that we talk about and what’s actually happening and probably happening too much in the field.

Leon Kochian: So how do we-

Jay Famiglietti: That’s the question.

Leon Kochian: -somehow bridge that disconnect?

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah.

Leon Kochian: And again, because putting in, say, computer control drip irrigation is going to be expensive at a large scale that’s… But-

Jay Famiglietti: I think we’re going to need a lot of financial innovation – a lot of financial incentives.

Leon Kochian: Right.

Jay Famiglietti: Right?

Leon Kochian: Right.

Jay Famiglietti: But what’s available right now, let’s bring it back to those farmers that we heard from with Merle and Reg in the field.

Merle Massie: When you look at the field, even in the summer, and you saw quite a lot of green in the field, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you’d be like, “Gee, this crop looks not that bad,” because there’s all these massive green plants that were completely happy until you realize that they were weeds and you can’t actually eat them, and you can’t do anything with them. That’s actually a huge problem because they’re pulling whatever moisture was in the soil and it’s not going into the lentils. It’s going into the kochia.

Merle Massie: Kochia is a weed that really, really loves dryland and it really, really loves alkaline. They’re a salt tolerant plant, and they love heat. So they grew and grew. So all that heat that the lentils went, “Oh, my God, it’s so hot. I am not growing.” And they just curled back in on themselves and didn’t grow. The kochia came along and went, “This is beautiful. I am a tropical plant. I will grow to the sky.” And so they’re huge. Of course, when the crop that you’re trying to get at that you can put in the bin is only 6, 8, 10 inches high and the kochia plant is 36, 48 inches high, you have a pretty serious problem.

Jay Famiglietti: So Leon, what are your thoughts?

Leon Kochian: Well, that’s interesting because these are plants that have been adapted to extreme environments. So if the conditions get a little bit harsh, not enough water, they can really out-compete. But what’s interesting about that is there are genetic resources within those kinds of plants. A lot of these adaptive traits are in there and they’ve been lost due to the breeding that we do, which is to breed under luxury conditions. And again, they can be brought in either by breeding, by improving maybe the ability to acquire water or the ability to tolerate drought better, or the ability to acquire other nutrients or tolerate less fertilizer inputs.

Jay Famiglietti: Right. Right. But it sounds like we can learn from the weeds.

Leon Kochian: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. So –

Jay Famiglietti: So they might be our enemies, but they can be our teachers too and sort of remind us of what we’ve lost through these generations of breeding for these, what you’re calling, the luxury conditions.

Leon Kochian: Yeah.

Jay Famiglietti: All right.

Leon Kochian: Exactly.

Jay Famiglietti: Well, thanks again, Leon, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Leon Kochian: Yep. It’s been a lot of fun.

Jay Famiglietti: Leon Kochian is Associate Director of the Global Institute for Food Security and the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

Jay Famiglietti: Well, that’s it for this episode of What About Water? We record and produce this podcast on Treaty 6 territory. We live and work on this, the Homeland of First Nations and Métis people, and we respect that relationship. What About Water? is produced by The Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Check out as we continue to post stories, content, and resources.

Our crew here at What About Water? is Mark Ferguson, Erin Stephens, Laura McFarlan, Fred Reiben, Jesse Witow, Shawn Ahmed, and Andrea Rowe. Thanks to Wayne Giesbrecht, our studio technician and to Farha Akhtar and to Jen Quesnel at Cascade Communications who put it all together. What About Water? available on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you download your favorite podcast. I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.