Farmers understand the threat of drought. It’s one of our biggest fears, partly because we have no control over it. You can be the best farmer in the world, but if the skies don’t release rain, nothing will grow.
The problem afflicting Georgia and its neighbors is severe–the worst drought in a century, say the experts. Other parts of the world are experiencing their own problems. In Australia, farmers are in the seventh year of the worst drought that anyone Down Under can recall. They’re calling it the “Big Dry.”
There won’t ever come a time when crops won’t need water. But if biotechnology is allowed to reach its full potential, there may come a time when crops need less water than they do now. Drought-resistant crops are on the scientific horizon. They can become a reality soon–but only if we make a determined effort to develop them.
In truth, biotechnology already has improved the ability of crops to survive dry spells. Herbicide-resistant plants prevent the growth of weeds, which suck moisture from our fields. As a result, these biotech-derived plants can get by with a bit less access to water than the crops of just a generation ago.
What’s more, because GM crops make it possible to farm without constant plowing, our fields don’t suffer from nearly as much soil erosion as they once did. If my ancestors had access to the same crop technologies that I use today, they might not have suffered from the Dust Bowl catastrophes of the 1930s, when dust storms aggravated drought conditions and led to what may be the worst decade in the history of American agriculture.
That period generated at least one great work of literature–The Grapes of Wrath–but it also produced untold suffering in the heartland. Biotechnology virtually guarantees that there won’t be a sequel to John Steinbeck’s famous book.
The practice of crop rotation also can lend a helping hand, so long as one of the crops in rotation is genetically enhanced. That’s because the effects of herbicide-resistant plants on a particular field can be felt beyond a single season. When I grow GM soybeans in a field that sprouted GM corn a year earlier, I know that it will have a little extra success at fending off weeds, and therefore surviving with a little less moisture.
All of these benefits, however, are secondary–you might call them weed control’s unintended consequences, albeit of the positive variety. In the future, we should use biotechnology to tackle the problem of drought head on. It should be the intended consequence of research.
The next step is to produce plants that don’t merely have improved access to water, but to produce crops that use the water they receive more efficiently. For them, drought resistance would be a fundamental trait.
According to some timetables, drought-resistant versions of corn and soybeans may become available within five years or so. What we really need, however, is drought-resistant wheat, because wheat is grown in areas more likely to experience the stress of drought. Unfortunately, seed companies by and large have abandoned the effort to develop GM varieties of drought-resistant wheat because of concerns about the consumer reaction.
I don’t know why consumers would resist GM wheat when they’ve so readily accepted GM corn and soybeans–crops that find their way into something we eat just about every day.
It would be best if we could think logically about the incredible promise of drought-resistant crops and make a clear-headed commitment to their development. And it would be a shame if, before making this necessary decision, we waited until a crisis came to wheat country–a crisis that we might lessen or even avoid through the smart application of biotechnology right now.
Rain may come from a higher power–but biotechnology, though arguably a gift from God, comes from our own brain power. We should set our minds to taking advantage of it.
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)