Science-based Agriculture Technology Can Reduce the Harmful Impacts of Drought

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Europe has suffered through its worst drought since the death of Leonardo Da Vinci more than 500 years ago. That’s the startling claim of the European Commission’s Global Drought Observatory.

Between the heat waves and water shortages, the summer of 2022 was very difficult. The Po River—Italy’s longest waterway, running across the northern part of the country—simply dried up.

On my farm near Venice, it was very hot and we received no rain at all from the end of April until the middle of August.

Because of these challenges, this crop year was going to be difficult no matter what. Yet it was made harder because governments have blocked farmers like me from enjoying access to basic technologies that would have reduced the most harmful effects of the drought.

We grow a wide range of crops: maize, soybeans, wheat, barley, and sugar beets as well as some wine grapes and walnuts. We also raise beef cattle and have a biogas plant that produces electricity.

Our maize and soybeans were badly hit by the drought. We rely on irrigation, but our systems aren’t designed to apply the amount of water that our fields needed during these extremely dry conditions. Because our land is very flat and the water table is shallow, we use a system of channels and ditches to deliver water to the fields where it can infiltrate the soil. This technique works well if you get at least one inch of rain, helping the young plants deepen their roots and take in the side-dressed nitrogen. The lack of rain and high-water consumption due to the heat set the soil very hard and did not allow the roots of our young plants to grow properly, which hurt plant development all summer.

Then came another blow. A fungus known as Aspergillus flavus infected our maize. It produces dangerous aflatoxins. Farmers know this fungus well, and we tend to encounter it with crops in storage, where moisture and temperature are under poor control.

The fungus also can take hold in the field when crops suffer stress from heat and drought. The conditions in 2022 were perfect for an outbreak—and this one hit us hard.

The fungus is at its worst when it is found where maize ears have been damaged by the European corn borer, a pest whose larvae love to feast on maize. As these insects munch on the maize plant, they open pathways to fungal disease—and as I inspected my fields, I saw that this is precisely what had happened.

The good news is that scientists know how to protect crops from this damaging pest. They’ve created a variety of GMO maize, Bt maize, that resists the European corn borer. Farmers around the world have used it successfully for more than a generation.

The bad news is that I am not allowed to plant this GMO in Italy because Italian regulators banned it in 2015 from cultivation. Many of my fellow farmers in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere see it as an ordinary tool that protects their crops from attack.

My maize, by contrast, had little defense against the European corn borer—and farmers know from long experience that this pest and its afflictions can reduce yields in a first maize crop by as much as 30 percent and in a second crop by as much as 60 percent. Insecticides can help limit the damage, but success with them requires excellent timing, special high-clearance tractors, and additional costs. And in July, temperatures are high, and the metabolism of plants and insects is so fast that a few days of delay can make a significant difference in the efficacy of the attempted crop protection process.

The best solution today —GMO maize that naturally repels pests—is a safe and proven technique. What’s more, Bt maize has the power to lower the risk that the corn is contaminated with aflatoxins and other products of fungal disease. This means that despite their occasional portrayals as radical experiments, GMOs are in fact a key to food safety.

They are also good for the environment. Without GMOs, defending my crops against damage from European corn borers requires me to spray insecticides. Since in any case I lose some production, this implies that to produce the same amount of food I have to grow more hectares and doing this I use more energy, fertilizer, pesticides, and water. In the end I release more greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change—something that worries me, because my farm near the coast of the Adriatic Sea is more than a meter and a half below sea level.

Today in Italy and across most of Europe, we can’t take advantage of new and old GMOs and a growing list of crop-protection products because law makers paid more attention to the alarmism of ideological activists than the advice of scientists.

So, when Europe’s worst drought in half a millennium arrived, we could have taken advantage of important innovations to limit the damages, but we couldn’t because in Europe ideology prevailed over fact-based science.

There’s only one solution: We must go back to science and explain to people that facing the challenge to nourish 8 billion people in a changing climate we need to make decisions based on facts.

Marco Aurelio Pasti
WRITTEN BY

Marco Aurelio Pasti

Farms 1,300 acres - mainly corn and soybeans - Past-president of the Italian corn grower association. Expertise in conservation tillage.

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