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20 July 2018 Photo Leonie Bolleurs
Research informs about sustainable use of fresh water for food production
Conducting research on the topic of water-footprint assessment, are from the left: Dr Enoch Owusu-Sekyere, Dr Henry Jordaan, study leader and Senior Lecturer in the UFS Department of Agricultural Economics, Dr Frikkie Maré (Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics), and Adetoso Adetoro.

The fact that South Africa is a water-scarce country has been highlighted during the past couple of years, and even city dwellers were suddenly very aware of the drought due to the strict water restrictions. These are the words of Dr Frikkie Maré, Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and one of the graduates who received his PhD on water-footprint assessment studies at the recent June 2018 graduations.

The department is currently involved in various water-footprint and water-management research projects which assist in providing solutions for better water management in the future. “As department, we want to be at the forefront of research that will assist all agricultural producers with sustainable production practices to ensure economic, environmental, and social sustainable food and fibre products for the society at large,” said Dr Maré.

Research funded by Water Research Commission

The UFS recently conferred two PhD degrees (Drs Enoch Owusu-Sekyere and Frikkie Maré) and one master’s degree (Adetoso Adetoro) in the Department of Agricultural Economics. All three have been working in the field of water-footprint assessment. The research formed part of two different projects that were initiated and funded by the Water Research Commission.

According to Dr Henry Jordaan, Senior Lecturer in this department, four of his students already received their master’s degrees on the topic of water-footprint assessment, while two students are busy with PhDs and three more are working on their master’s degrees.

Topic gains momentum in research community
The water-footprint concept serves as a useful indicator to sensitise society about the impact of the food we eat on scarce freshwater resources – from agricultural producers using water to produce primary food crops and products on the farm, to the end consumer buying the food products in the retail store in town.

“Water-footprint assessment is a relatively new field aimed at informing the sustainable use of fresh water for food production. This topic is gaining momentum in the research community, given the substantial increase in the global population in the context of freshwater resources that is getting increasingly scarce. The challenge is to feed the growing population while still using the scarce freshwater resources sustainably.

Volume of water used to produce food

“In order to inform water users on how to use the resource sustainably, it is important to know the volume of water that was used to produce the required food products. Through our research, we are contributing to this knowledge by assessing the volume of water that was used to produce selected products, and to interpret the water use in the context of water availability to gain insight into the degree of sustainability with which the resource is used. The results are expected to inform water users, water managers, and policy makers regarding the sustainable use of fresh water for food production,” said Dr Jordaan.

News Archive

Well-established root system important for sustainable production in semi-arid grasslands
2015-02-24

Plot layout where production and root studies were done
Photo: Supplied

The importance of a well-established root system for sustainable production in the semi-arid grasslands cannot be over-emphasised.

A study of Prof Hennie Snyman from the Department of Animal and Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the University of the Free State is of the few studies in which soil-water instead of rainfall has been used to estimate above- and below-ground production of semi-arid grasslands. “In the past, plant ecological studies have concentrated largely on above-ground parts of the grassland ecosystem with less emphasis on root growth. This study is, therefore, one of the few done on root dynamics in drier areas,” said Prof Snyman.

The longevity of grass seeds in the soil seed bank is another aspect that is being investigated at present. This information could provide guidelines in grassland restoration.

“Understanding changes in the hydrological characteristics of grassland ecosystems with degradation is essential when making grassland management decisions in arid and semi-arid areas to ensure sustainable animal production. The impact of grassland degradation on productivity, root production, root/shoot ratios, and water-use efficiency has been quantified for the semi-arid grasslands over the last 35 years. Because of the great impact of sustainable management guidelines on land users, this study will be continuing for many years,” said Prof Snyman.

Water-use efficiency (WUE) is defined as the quantity of above- and/or below-ground plant produced over a given period of time per unit of water evapotranspired. Sampling is done from grassland artificially maintained in three different grassland conditions: good, moderate, and poor.

As much as 86, 89 and 94% of the roots for grasslands in good, moderate and poor conditions respectively occur at a depth of less than 300 mm. Root mass is strongly seasonal with the most active growth taking place during March and April. Root mass appears to be greater than above-ground production for these semi-arid areas, with an increase in roots in relation to above-ground production with grassland degradation. The mean monthly root/shoot ratios for grasslands in good, moderate, and poor conditions are 1.16, 1.11, and 1.37 respectively. Grassland degradation lowered above- and below-ground plant production significantly as well as water-use efficiency. The mean WUE (root production included) was 4.79, 3.54 and 2.47 kg ha -1 mm -1 for grasslands in good, moderate, and poor conditions respectively.

These water-use efficiency observations are among the few that also include root production in their calculations.

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