4-H youth can help solve current and future community issues

Water scarcity continues to present one of the greatest challenges in the developing world. 4-H youth can help.

Michigan State University Extension staff attended their annual Fall Conference in East Lansing, Michigan in October. At the conference, attendees were treated to several informational sessions and workshops about 21st Century Extension. The message that MSU Extension is proven, relevant and life-changing resonated as a common thread connecting MSU Extension as a whole.

During the course of two days, big ideas were shared between professionals from across Michigan and also other American Land Grant Universities. Many of these ideas are expected to be brought back to local communities for a closer look. Some may be adapted into current programming to help businesses, communities and families solve challenges, develop skills and build a better future.

One session featured water availability and efficiency information. This session’s take home message included information about expected global population growth, and projections of an increase of 2 to 3 billion people over the next 40 years.

This population growth comes with anticipated food demand increases of 70 percent by 2050. The main challenge facing the agricultural sector is not as much growing 70 percent more food in 40 years, but making 70 percent more food available to consumers. Water is necessary in order to grow more food. However, water scarcity continues to present one of the greatest challenges in the developing world (UN Water Documents, 2013).  

The World Health Organization and the United Nations estimate that almost 800 million of the world’s 7.1 billion people do not have access to potable water. At the same time, an estimated 868 million (1 in 8) people go to bed hungry every night. By 2050, in order to address this issue, the world's water will have to support the agricultural systems that will feed and create livelihoods for an additional 2.7 billion people. This at a time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts yields from rain-dependent agriculture could be down by 50 percent in the next seven years (UN Water Documents, 2013).

One way families and communities can help address the challenge of water availability and efficiency is through the power of youth. We can teach the youth who will one day inherit these important issues, to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and decision makers.

According to the EPA, it takes more than ten gallons of water to produce one slice of bread, and 1,000 gallons of water is required to produce one gallon of milk. People need 2-4 liters of water each day, but it takes 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water to produce one person’s daily food (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2013).

As mentioned at the MSU Extension Fall Conference, water footprints are becoming a sustainability indicator in agriculture and food production. In Michigan 375,000 dairy cows are housed on 2,130 farms, producing 8.9 billion pounds of milk. Fresh water is used for milk cooling, cow drinking, parlor washing, cow cooling and milk equipment cleaning.

Parents and educators can work along-side youth to experiment with reusing, or using less, water through 4-H science projects and investigations. According to MSU Dairy Extension Educators, one potentially exciting experiment in relationship to the 4-H dairy project area could be an investigation related to plate cooler water on dairy farms. Plate coolers are heat exchangers used on dairy farms to efficiently cool milk. If correctly adjusted plate coolers use about 2 gallons of water per one gallon of milk, and will drop milk from about 100 F down to 60 F.  Often dairy producers will adjust the amount of water going through the plate cooler based on how much water they are able to reuse for their cows.

A new approach to helping producers adjust plate cooler water flow is to use an inexpensive self-adhesive temperature strip on the outside of the milk pipe to observe milk temperature as it leaves the plate cooler. Producers can then look at the temperature of the milk and decide if the water flow to the plate cooler should be adjusted.

This is an example of one project that could be led by youth working with adult mentors. They could install these temperature strips on dairy farms with plate coolers to experiment with water consumption and conservation.

Through time 4-H youth have been proactive in helping to increase crop yields and address other agriculture and natural resources challenges. It would be no surprise if they are up for the challenge of helping to solve the issue of feeding nine billion people and addressing the best water use practices.

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