How much could farm water management interventions increase global crop production? This is the central question posed in a global modelling study by Jägermeyr et al (2016 Environ. Res. Lett. 11 025002). They define the biophysical realm of possibility for future gains in crop production related to agricultural water practices—enhancing water availability to crops and expanding irrigation by reducing non-productive water consumption. The findings of Jägermeyr et al offer crucial insight on the potential for crop water management to sustainably intensify agriculture, but they also provide a benchmark to consider the broader role of sustainable intensification targets in the global food system. Here, we reflect on how the global crop water management simulations of Jägermeyr et al could interact with: (1) farm size at more local scales, (2) downstream water users at the river basin scale, as well as (3) food trade and (4) demand-side food system strategies at the global scale. Incorporating such cross-scale linkages in future research could highlight the diverse pathways needed to harness the potential of farm-level crop water management for a more productive and sustainable global food system.