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Using Recycled Water To Irrigate Crops Studied
May 22, 2019

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farming uses consume nearly 80 percent of our available water. With a diminishing supply of safe freshwater in many areas, and increasing periods of drought that further limit that supply, a real crisis looms on the horizon. To avoid a possible calamity, producers and agricultural researchers are searching for alternative irrigation sources to limit this consumption and extend our water supply.

In an informal demonstration similar to the published research, attendees at a University of Delaware alumni weekend event were invited to sample various wines made from grapes irrigated with conventional or recycled water and later joined a discussion on consumer response to water use in food production. Credit: University of Delaware/ Wenbo Fan.

Based on information provided by the University of Delaware (UD), researchers suggest that one solution is to irrigate crops using treated wastewater, otherwise known as reclaimed or recycled water. This recycled water, highly purified though perhaps not as pristine as drinking water, could be the key to a successful crop yield during times of drought when conventional freshwater is unavailable.

However, while recycled water is widely used in some countries, it has yet to be widely adopted in the U.S., due at least in part to concerns about consumer response.

Kent Messer, UD professor of applied economics and director of the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics, said current trends suggest that consumers are taking more and more interest not only in the nutritional value of food but also how it was produced. In the near future, food labels could also include the type of water used to irrigate and grow the product and, indeed, some blueberries and cut flowers already include information about irrigation sources.

Recently published in the journal Ecological Economics, research conducted by Prof. Messer and his team of researchers from UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources looked at consumers’ willingness to pay for wine made from grapes irrigated with both conventional and recycled water.

With funding provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture as part of its COordinating Nontraditional Sustainable watER use in Variable climatEs (CONSERVE) program and armed with an array of French and California wines, the team attended the Philadelphia Food and Wine Festival, attracting more than 300 research participants in one day alone. The team then watched to see which wines people would buy and how much they would pay when faced with different information about the production of the grapes used in the wines.

“The interesting thing that popped out that we weren’t quite expecting,” noted Prof. Messer, “was that people preferred not to know anything about the water.”

Participants paid more for wines that used conventional water to irrigate the grapes versus those using recycled water, but were willing to pay the most for wines that did not reveal the water source, offering insight for the future of wine marketing.

Based on our research, Prof. Messer pointed out, “Reducing the amount of water used to irrigate foods and using treated recycled water can have benefits for the environment and agriculture.This research shows that for wine drinkers, when it comes to source of the water that helped create their wine, ignorance is bliss.”

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