Making the Desert Bloom

There is big news from the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Middle East that is unusual in several ways: It's positive, involves a scientific advance, and comes from a developing country. Researchers at Cairo's Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate less watering for a longer period of time before their leaves wilt. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and actually can be cultivated with rainfall alone in some desert areas. It could literally make the desert bloom.Agricultural shortfalls around the world, especially in developing countries, are being aggravated by the potential catastrophe of water shortages, not only for agriculture but also for basic human needs. As groundwater dwindles, millions of wells throughout Asia and Africa are drying up.Bureaucrats and aid workers long have searched for solutions. Gene-spliced, drought-resistant crops might provide one—so long as unfounded fears and flawed public policy don't block progress.Modern biotechnology, also known as gene-splicing or genetic modification (GM), offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States, Egypt and at least 16 other countries, farmers are using GM crop varieties to produce higher yields, with fewer resources and reduced impact on the environment. In spite of activists who have resisted research and governments that have overregulated it, some GM crop varieties specifically tailored to aid the plight of poor countries' farmers are in the development pipeline, and a few are nearing commercialization.Most of these new varieties are designed to resist the particular pests and diseases that ravage crops in the poor tropical regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Others improve nutritional quality. But the greatest long-term boon to food security in the developing world may be the enhancement of the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.In most of central Africa, for example, farmers have no access to water for irrigation, so the development of crop varieties able to grow despite low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh water consumption, so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource for other uses. Especially during drought conditions, even a small reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.Plant biologists already have identified genes that regulate water utilization in wild and cultivated plants and that can be transferred into important crop plants. These varieties can grow with less or lower quality water, such as water that has been recycled or that contains large amounts of natural mineral salts. In as little as a decade, farmers in drought-stricken Ethiopia and Zambia might have access to drought-resistant GM crops that will produce food even in sun-parched fields.Aside from new varieties that use less water, the pest- and disease-resistant GM crops that are widely cultivated by North American farmers indirectly make water use more efficient. Much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown—that is, after most of the water required to grow a crop has already been applied. Therefore, using GM varieties that experience lower post-harvest losses means that the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. Merely by planting some of the insect-resistant GM varieties now grown in America, African subsistence farmers could control the stem-boring insects that destroy as much as half their corn and cotton crops. In other words, more consumable crop for the drop.GM crops are important to subsistence farmers in another way. Salty soil is anathema to agriculture. Fully one-third of the irrigated land worldwide is unsuitable for growing crops because of the presence of salt, and every year nearly half a million acres of irrigated land worldwide is lost to cultivation. Scientists at the University of California, Davis, have enhanced salt tolerance in crops as diverse as tomatoes and canola. The transformed plants are so tolerant to salt that they not only grow in salty soil, but also can be irrigated with brackish water. Eventually, it will be possible to transfer these traits to many other important crop varieties.There is an impediment to this rosy scenario, however. Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation in the U.S., and by agencies of the United Nations and the European Union, has raised significantly the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept most crops from ever reaching the market.This flawed public policy—which flies in the face of scientific consensus that GM is essentially a refinement of earlier techniques for crop improvement—adds tens of millions of dollars to the development costs of each new GM crop variety. Those extra costs, as well as the endless (and gratuitous) controversy over growing these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties, discourage research on new varieties of subsistence crops such as millet, sorghum, cassava and sweet potatoes. Not surprisingly, it is primarily the most commercially profitable species—commodity crops grown at vast scale—that have emerged from the research and development pipeline.Biotechnology applied to agriculture can help the poor by sowing a second Green Revolution, but only if politicians create public policy that enables it to flower.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />