More Crop for the Drop

Your morning espresso at Starbucks will soon be more expensive.  Unless, that is, they find a way to make it without water or coffee, both increasingly in short supply. 

The worst drought in almost 200 years in arid northeastern Brazil is turning about 110,000 square miles of once fertile land into desert.  The coffee harvest of the world’s largest producer is expected to drop next year as much as 17 percent.  As a result, the price of coffee is up more than 6 percent in the last two weeks, and Starbucks has announced a price increase for October.

Well, droughts are just acts of God, with nothing to be done, right?  Wrong.  Science may soon provide a partial solution. 

Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification (GM), offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things.  In the United States, Brazil, and at least 16 other countries, farmers use gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental effects.  Though research has been hampered by activist resistance and discouraged by governmental overregulation, gene-spliced crop varieties slowly but surely are trickling out of the pipeline. 

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

Where water is unavailable for irrigation, development of crop varieties able to grow with low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the farmland productivity. 

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 free much of that essential resource for other uses.  Especially during drought conditions, even a small reduction in water used for irrigation could offer huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian. 

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

Aside from new varieties with lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also indirectly make water use more efficient.  Because 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 used — gene-spliced varieties with lower post-harvest losses in yield means farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same amount of food: more crop for the drop. 

Gene-splicing can conserve water in other ways.  Salty soil is the enemy of agriculture: Fully a third of irrigated land worldwide is unsuitable for growing crops because of its saline quality, and every year nearly a half-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. 

There are thorns on the rose, however.  Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation in most countries and by the U.N. agencies has raised significantly the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept many potentially important crops from ever reaching the market. 

This antisocial public policy—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 over growing these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties, discourage research and development.  Not surprisingly, it is primarily the species and traits most commercially profitable—commodity crops with pest- or herbicide resistance, grown at vast scale—that have emerged from the research and development pipeline. 

Think of those flawed government policies as you sip that pricey cup of java.