Photo by Léon McGregor on Unsplash

Did you know agriculture irrigation accounts for 70% of the water used worldwide? That’a a lot. At the same time, most of the world relies on flood irrigation to water crops as a more efficient alternative has proved elusive. Any innovations have not been widely adopted due to expense. Yet, one Israeli soil physicist has provided a sustainable solution in a tiny plastic widget.

This modest innovation in drip irrigation could forever change agriculture, especially in resource-starved environments.

In places where rainfall is insufficient, irrigation is critical. Despite all the innovation that has made its way into agriculture irrigation in recent years, 85% is still done by releasing vast quantities of water across the surface of a field. Yes, that’s the same way it was managed thousands of years ago.

Flood irrigation has hung on because it is cash cheap. However, from a natural-resource perspective, it is staggeringly expensive. As much as 70% of the water goes to waste. Plus, overwatered crops can fail to reach their full potential. Additionally, excess fertilizer is carried away by the runoff to contaminate streams, wetlands, and lakes.

Microdrip irrigation was supposed to solve all that

Yet today, while there are hundreds of drip irrigation companies, the technology is applied to less than 5% of irrigated acres globally. That’s usually to big-ticket crops such as almonds, wine grapes, and tomatoes. Cost is the limiting factor. The whole setup amounts to at least $2,000 an acre, plus energy bills. For lower-value crops such as cotton or alfalfa, drip irrigation simply does not pay.

The good news is that there is a new alternative. This season an innovative experiment is being installed by the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) for various commodity crops. Israeli irrigation startup, N-Drip has developed a system promising drastic water savings without the prohibitive costs. We’re talking down from the $2,000 to $400/per acre.

In a standard drip system an emitter, about the size of a Tic Tac, is fastened inside every hole in those humble black plastic dripper lines. Water comes out in measured droplets as its movement is regulated through an exceedingly narrow, maze-like channel inside the emitter. The resistance produced is the reason so much pressure is required to move water from one end of a field to the other.

New innovation in agricultural irrigation

Now, along comes the new type of emitter with zero, yes…zero pressure drop. The many additional technical details are beyond the scope of this blog. But, Chuck Cullom of CRIT is convinced to give it a try. He told Bloomberg, he was originally “superskeptical…It sounded like a unicorn solution.” Yet, in 2020, CRIT Farms tried the system out on 40 acres of sorghum and “cut water use in half, while slightly improving the quality of the crops.”

The most crucial point is that an innovation, big or small, can have a major impact on society. Keep following this blog for more discoveries. And don’t hesitate your own innovative ideas with me too at [email protected].