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Home>News Articles>Highlights of Accomplishments in 2008>Understanding the link between agricultural water quality and food safety
 October 24 2008
Automatic water quality monitoring system used by the Taoyuan Irrigation Association in Taiwan ROC.

Automatic water quality monitoring system used by the Taoyuan Irrigation Association in Taiwan ROC.

TAOYUAN, TAIWAN ROC - Agricultural water is one of the most critical components of food safety during production. Water has the potential to transmit both chemical and biological hazards to fresh produce, as used for irrigation of crops, and/or during post-harvest operations. At any of these points, the use of contaminated agricultural water (AW) could potentially pose food safety hazards. Hence, effective water management strategies are necessary in improving and maintaining AW quality to ensure safe food production as well as for the sustainability of water resources.

However, farmers in developing Asian countries can not help but use whatever water they can obtain, often using highly polluted water for irrigation, washing and processing of produce. When polluted water is repeatedly used for irrigation of crops, and/or used during post-harvest operations, there is a great risk for the produce becoming seriously contaminated by various hazardous chemicals and virulent pathogens. This puts the health of the consumers as well as the farmers themselves at risk.

Against this backdrop, FFTC in cooperation with the Asian Productivity Organization (APO) and the Council of Agriculture (COA), Taiwan, organized the study meeting on Monitoring and Management of Agricultural Water Quality for Green Food Production in the Asia-Pacific Region held in Jhongli, Taiwan on September 29-October 3, 2008. Co-organized by the Agricultural Engineering Research Center (AERC) and the China Productivity Center (CPC), Taiwan, the study meeting primarily aimed to examine the current status of agricultural water (AW) quality in the Asian region and its relation to the safety of agricultural produce for human consumption.

During the study meeting, 30 participants from 11 countries (India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam) as well as 30 local participants shared and exchange promising technologies and innovative practices for the effective monitoring and management of AW quality. Specifically, they deliberated on the status of AW availability and quality, and regulations and standards of AW quality in the Asian region; newly-developed technologies/innovations in monitoring systems for AW quality; technologies for AW conservation, pollution prevention, and remediation of polluted AW, and institutional and policy arrangements; technologies for recycling wastewater as a reliable source of irrigation water; relationship between AW quality and food safety for green food production; and developing guidelines for the minimum requirement of AW quality for small- and medium-scale Asian farmers.

As identified during the study meeting, some of the parameters for quality monitoring and management of agricultural water are salinity, water infiltration rate, specific ion and heavy metal toxicity, and excessive nutrients that reduce crop yield, quality and marketability. Some suggested tools and technologies for monitoring as identified by the participants include: establishment of monitoring network system, along with guidelines and standards for monitoring like BOD/COD (biological and chemical components of water); development of water database such as the hydrological information system (HIS), with feedback/assessment mechanism; promotion of people's participation during sample collection and analysis and other public awareness campaigns; and capacity building on data collection and analysis.

Meanwhile, some of the management options for water quality improvement based on the results of water quality monitoring are: treatment (physical, chemical, biological), sediment removal, aeration, dilution, filtration, and change of canal alignment; and strategies such as land preparation, irrigation and drainage control, fertilizer and pesticide management, and recycling of irrigation water.

While most member countries have existing regulations and standards for monitoring and managing water quality, governments must provide the necessary budget support to ensure compliance and implementation of AW quality standards. Enforcement of those standards, while delegated to environment control agencies, must be closely coordinated with other implementing agencies and all stakeholders for effective compliance.

Policy and institutional strategies must also be in place for the effective implementation of regulations and standards such as: demand management through appropriate irrigation technologies and practices like pressurized irrigation system and hydro-flumes; and programs to raise public awareness on water conservation and water quality management as it relates to food safety and environmental sustainability.

In context of the rapid demographic growth, increased competition for water, and greater attention to environmental issues, water for food production remains a core issue that can no longer be tackled through a narrow sectoral approach. Among the many challenges that the agriculture sector faces include:

  1. Producing safe food of better quality, while using less water per unit of output;
  2. Providing rural people with resources and opportunities to live healthy and productive lives;
  3. Applying clean technologies to ensure environmental sustainability; and
  4. Contributing in a productive way to the local and national economy.

The sustainability of agricultural water for green food production in the Asian region can be intensified through strong policy support from the government; water conservation and quality awareness campaign; participation of farmers/farmers' association and rural institutions in water governance; and financial and technical assistance to environment control agencies.

Most importantly, every country in the region must have a strong political will to put into action agricultural and rural development policies that will accelerate changes in irrigation governance, as well as adequate water laws and institutional capacities in support of the needs of the people for safe and quality food and the sustainability of water resources.