UArizona experts suggest solutions to encourage food, water and economic security in a changing climate

A cow walking through a field being watered by sprinklers

Agriculture accounts for 72% of Arizona's water use.

David Quanrud

Most of the world's food is grown in semi-arid environments like Arizona. Yet, growing food reliably in such places will become more challenging as temperatures rise and water supplies dwindle, experts say. This threat to the state's agricultural sector – a major player in American food production – is especially acute for rural communities at the heart of agricultural production.

University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins convened the Presidential Advisory Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Food Production in a Drying Climate in December and tasked it with proposing solutions to this problem.

After six months of consulting and surveying experts and stakeholders, a report outlining recommendations is now available. The commission identified threats to Arizona agriculture and potential solutions before recommending five actions that the University of Arizona can take.

The actions include:

  • Create an Institute for Sustainable Food, Water, and Agriculture Systems to bring together experts from across disciplines to develop broad solutions.
  • Create a Center for Soil Health to bring food producers and researchers together to maintain and restore soils.
  • Create technology and innovation hubs at the Maricopa, Yuma and Campus Agricultural Centers, as well as Biosphere 2, to shrink the gap between idea generation and implementation. These hubs will not only develop and test new technologies, but also educate students.
  • Expand partnerships with the tribal agriculture community to learn from historical agricultural knowledge and exchange ideas.
  • Establish new and strengthen existing collaborations with institutions in arid regions around the world to learn from and share with partners facing similar climate pressures.
University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins

President Robert C. Robbins

With these recommendations, the commission aims to build university infrastructure and strengthen community engagement to see solutions come to fruition. The report also details how to fund the recommendations, identifies essential partners and calls for the creation of an action plan over the next six months.

"As Arizona's land-grant university, the University of Arizona has the unique capacity and mission to develop and implement potential solutions to grand challenges such as this," Robbins said. "With this report, the commission has taken a crucial first step. The proposed actions draw on the university's combination of expertise, connections and sense of responsibility. Now comes the hard work of acting on these recommendations."

UArizona is a world leader in water resources, ranked No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 6 globally in Shanghai Ranking's 2022 Global Ranking of Academic Subjects. U.S. News & World Report ranked the university No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 21 globally in water resources.

As the state's land-grant university, UArizona maintains strong connections to agricultural communities. For example, Cooperative Extension offices – which serve as links between the university and agricultural communities, through engagement and education – are located in each of Arizona's 15 counties and in five of the state's 22 Native American nations.

UArizona leadership across research, education, community engagement and economic development can propel the report's proposed solutions into real action, the report authors say.

Joaquin Ruiz

Joaquin Ruiz

"Between our assets and expertise, we can show the rest of the world how it's done properly," said report co-author and commission co-chair Joaquin Ruiz, UArizona vice president for global environmental futures. "I want us to be the Silicon Valley of agriculture. This will be the place where industry, policy and technology are working together to transform food production."

Identifying threats

Arizona's food growers – from family fields to corporate operations to tribal farms – have a rich history spanning thousands of years, but they are all threatened by the same things: a harsher climate and limited water resources. Decades of warming climate, megadrought and dwindling water supplies mean that impending water supply cuts will fall heavily on agriculture, which accounts for 72% of the state's water use. Given these conditions, report authors identified four major types of threats to agriculture in Arizona.

  • Food production will become more challenging. Increasingly harsh environmental conditions and less water will strain livestock, pollinators and crops, as well as degrade soil and make crops more susceptible to disease, pests, invasive species and wildfires.
  • There are systemic food production vulnerabilities driven by a highly interconnected system, Colorado River water cuts and unresolved tribal water rights.
  • Arizona's economy and rural communities could suffer as agricultural production decreases, driving down employment and causing the loss of institutional knowledge. On top of these threats, tribal communities must also navigate challenges related to poor water quality.
  • Structural issues, such as confusing or inflexible policies, can hinder the state's ability to adapt and establish long-term stability. This is in addition to limited public understanding of Arizona agriculture and lack of long-term planning by farmers who lease land rather than own it.  

To address these threats, the commission suggests developing data-based technical solutions to develop heartier crops and improve soil health, water efficiency and new water sources. But advancements in technology must be paired with thoughtful policy, the report authors say. 

They say bringing together expertise and communities from across economic sectors will drive smart decision making, shrink the gap between research and application, promote knowledge sharing, strengthen the workforce and educate the public.

Laura Condon

Laura Condon

UArizona harnesses the climate of tomorrow, today

Some might wonder why Arizona grows food in the first place, but the state is actually a great place for agricultural production, says report co-author and commission co-chair Laura Condon, an associate professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences.

"Between the relative lack of pests, the year-round sunshine and the mild winter temperatures, we can produce a lot of food per drop of water," Condon said, adding that agricultural know-how goes a long way.

"Because we are so arid, we have a long history of water conservation and sustainability," she said.

The commission recommendations pull from this legacy and aim to build upon it.

Sharon Megdal

Sharon Megdal

"By developing solutions in Arizona, we can provide a lot of good resources and information for the rest of the world," Condon said. "The university specifically stands out in arid landscapes for having this great history of agricultural production and research that goes across technical solutions, water resources and policy. Our goal is to bring people together around the strengths we already have."

The commission members agree that, ultimately, the university has a responsibility to act.

"The issues of food, water and agriculture are the issues of the day," said commission member and water policy expert Sharon Megdal, director of the university's Water Resources Research Center. "We need all hands on deck. It won't be without burden and cost and hardship, but I am optimistic that we can adapt."