Solution To Drought: It’s In The Genes


Investor’s Business Daily
April 8, 20009
Viewpoint – by Henry I. Miller

California is short of more than jobs, money and optimism these days.

Several years of drought have dried up reservoirs, parched fields, damaged forests and caused regulators around the state to impose restrictions on water usage.

California agriculture, which employs 1.1 million people and yields products worth more than $36 billion annually — including more than half of the nation’s vegetables, nuts and fruits — consumes 80% of the water used in the state.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that farmers and ranchers — especially in the state’s vast, fertile Central Valley — have borne the brunt of the burden up to now.

The pain is about to spread.

According to the director of the California Department of Water Resources, “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history. It’s imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately, at home and in their businesses.”

Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu was even more alarming: “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”

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 only federal policymakers and local regulations permitted it.

Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification (GM), offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things.

In the U.S. and two dozen other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact.

In spite of research being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, genespliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world.

Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops; or to be resistant to herbicides, so that farmers can more effectively control weeds, while adopting more environmentfriendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides.

Others varieties possess improved nutritional quality.

But the greatest boon of all, both to food security and to the environment in the long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.

Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture makes up roughly 70% of the world’s fresh water consumption — and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, such as in California — so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource for other uses.

Especially during drought conditions, even a small reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits.

Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts or lower quality water, such as recycled water or water with lots of natural mineral salts.

In 2004, for example, Egyptian researchers showed that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time before their leaves wilt.

This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and actually can be cultivated with rainfall alone in some deserts.

Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly.

Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown, the use of gene-spliced varieties having higher post-harvest yields means that the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.

However, unscientific, overly burdensome regulation by the EPA and USDA in the U.S. — and by national regulators and the U.N. elsewhere — has raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept potentially important crops off the market.

In several EU countries, national bans on new gene-spliced varieties are in place, in clear violation of EU rules, and the European Commission has repeatedly proven itself incapable of removing the barriers.

Such policies exert a chilling effect on farmers who export to the EU, causing some wheat growers to resist planting genespliced drought-resistant varieties.

The deeply entrenched, discriminatory and excessive regulation — which flies in the face of scientific consensus that genesplicing is basically an extension of earlier crop improvement methods — adds tens of millions of dollars to the development costs of new gene-spliced crop varieties.

These extra costs and the endless controversy over cultivating these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties discourage research and development.

Even worse, and cruelly ironic in light of California’s water shortage, is the fact that over the last few years four of the state’s counties — Trinity, Mendocino, Marin and Santa Cruz — have actually banned the cultivation or sale of gene-spliced plants, including those that are drought-resistant.

This prohibition of the use of an important tool reduces the resilience of farmers and of the state’s economy.

The measures are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk: They permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise and predictable techniques but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones.

They might as well ban cars that have disc brakes and radial tires. Wrongheaded regulation has made agricultural innovation with gene-splicing costly and (economically) risky, and caused it be vastly underused.

That should provide food for thought as water is rationed, farmers go bust, food prices skyrocket, and our lawns turn brown.

Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was an official at the FDA from 1979 to 1994 and is the author of “The Frankenfood Myth.”

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