More Crop for the Drop

The worst East Central U.S. drought in almost 20 years is decimating harvests of corn and soybeans, threatening farmers’ economic survival and disrupting commercial shipping on several of the region’s busiest waterways.

The dry spell, now in its fifth month, is scorching some of America’s most productive farmland and draining tributaries that feed the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, critical routes for hauling goods to and from Midwestern cities. Low water levels exert a far-reaching ripple effect: Barge operators lighten their loads to keep vessels from scraping the bottom. This slows delivery of commodities such as salt, petroleum products and building materials, and could impede the movement this fall of newly harvested crops.

But droughts are just acts of God, about which nothing can be done, right? Wrong. Scientists might be able to provide a partial solution—if federal policymakers permitted it.

Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification (GM), offers plant breeders tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and at least 17 other countries, farmers use gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental effects. Despite the hampering of research by activists and governmental overregulation, gene-spliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out the pipeline in a handful of countries.

Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops; or to be resistant to herbicides, so farmers can adopt more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Others possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all both to food security and to the environment, long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.

Where water is unavailable for irrigation, developing crop varieties able to grow with low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen farmland productive time.

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—even more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions—so introducing plants that grow with less water would allow freeing up much of that essential resource for other uses. Especially during droughts, even a small percentage reduction of water used for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.

Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water utilization that can be transferred into important crop plants. These new varieties are able to grow with smaller amounts or lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water containing large amounts of natural mineral salts.

Aside from new varieties with lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. 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 been applied. Therefore, using gene-spliced varieties that experience lower post-harvest losses in yield means the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.

Gene-splicing can conserve water in other ways. Salty soil is the enemy of agriculture: Fully one-third of 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 they not only grow in salty soil but can be irrigated with brackish water.

There are thorns on the rose, however. Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department and the United Nations’ agencies has significantly raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept many potentially important crops from reaching the market. Several EU member countries have national bans on gene-spliced varieties, in clear violation of EU rules. The European Commission has repeatedly proven itself incapable of removing the barriers. Such policies chill U.S. farmers who export to the EU.

This discriminatory and excessive regulation—which flies in the face of scientific consensus that gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier techniques for crop improvement—adds millions of dollars to the development costs of each new gene-spliced crop variety. These extra costs, and the endless (and gratuitous) controversy about cultivating these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties, discourage research and development.

Innovation has become too costly and risky. That is food for thought as the drought parches the American heartland.