This year, the worst U.S. drought in half a century could cause $18 billion in damage to corn, soybean and other key crops. On the heels of a Texas drought last year that cost nearly $8 billion, farmers are more interested than ever in innovations that could make crops more resilient. That includes improved farming practices, better plant-breeding techniques and even — most controversially — genetic engineering.
Given the severity of this year’s drought, many crops will wither no matter what. Still, some planters remain cautiously optimistic.
“I’ve been surprised so far. The plants are responding well,” said Clay Scott, a Kansas farmer who planted two plots of Monsanto’s genetically engineered DroughtGard Hybrids among his 3,000 acres of corn. The experimental strain, which carries a gene that helps it draw water more gradually from the soil, is slated for wider release in 2013. “The ear size, kernel counts, the ear weights look good,” Scott said. But, he cautioned, “pretty corn doesn’t always result in yield.”
For Scott, who lives in a region prone to dry spells, where irrigation water from the nearby Ogallala Aquifer needs to be conserved, these crops could prove indispensable.
It’s a pitched battle between nature and human ingenuity that will only grow more difficult. Earth’s population has soared past 7 billion. Climate models suggest that drought will become more frequent in North America. Water will become increasingly precious. Feeding the world will require wringing as much food as possible from every last drop of water.
It’s far from assured that human ingenuity will win out.
“This is perhaps the biggest challenge that we face,” said Mark Edge, who’s in charge of marketing DroughtGard for Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company. “And there’s so much complexity to it that it’s one of those things you dive into with humility.”
Adapting to drought
Since the 1920s, crop scientists have focused on breeding improved strains of corn and wheat to provide ever bigger yields. In the past decade, however, researchers at private companies and land-grant colleges have put a renewed emphasis on developing crops that can also withstand extreme weather events. Like drought.
“Ultimately, plants need water,” said Thomas Sinclair, a crop scientist at North Carolina State University. “If they don’t have the water, then farmers are going to take a yield loss. But our work is to minimize that yield loss.”
Traditionally, this has been accomplished by breeding hardier crops. Scientists might look for genetic traits that allow corn to adapt to drier areas. These traits could include roots that burrow deeper in the soil or stomata that close earlier in the growing cycle to retain moisture. By interbreeding these varieties with high-yield corn, scientists create crops that use water more efficiently or withstand dry spells.