As the Midwest contends with a drought that seems to be the new normal, farmers and other agriculture experts ponder ways to squeeze crops from the parched ground.
Farmers field test GMO corn
Agriculture biotechnology giant Monsanto may have a partial solution. Monsanto has been testing a new strain of drought-resistant corn seed among farmers. The corn seed is genetically modified to take up water more slowly than traditional corn, helping scarce water last a little longer.
DuPont and Syngenta have also introduced drought-resistant corn seed though they claim that their products are less engineered than Monsanto’s. What all three companies face, however, is that none of their products has undergone large-scale testing under real drought conditions. In the absence of real-world data, people are hoping that next year’s market rollout of the Monsanto seed will help bring the U.S. corn crop back to life.
Drought defies single answer
However, some observers are noting that the drought-resistant variety only slightly improves on existing seed and may not have the impact that one would hope. Brandon Keim of Wired observes that the new corn is expected to survive only one more rainfall than conventional corn, most of which is also genetically engineered. In short-term or mild droughts, the difference could save a crop. In the current record-breaking drought, the new seed is likely a drop in a dry bucket.
Scientists point out that drought is a complex issue that won’t be solved by tinkering with just one or two genes. Joe Keaschall, research director at agricultural seed leader Pioneer Hi-Bred, told Wired that the solution lies in creating synergy among a combination of genes.
More applied research needed
Agriculture could benefit from the innovation that applied genetic research has brought to other areas. From medical therapies to dna paternity testing, genetic science and dna diagnostics has a track record of solving practical problems. Now the weather has become an adversary, with worries of climate change underscoring the possibility that drought may be here for several years.
The only alternative to genetic tinkering has been dry farming, a technique in which water from the rainy season is trapped beneath a layer of compacted earth. The sealed moisture provides sustenance for crops through the dry spell, and crops are more flavorful from feeding off of the concentrated sugar and nutrients. However, the yield from dry farming is only one third that of conventional farming.
The money is on genetic engineering as investors drive up Monsanto shares 24% so far this year. The real bet is whether agriculture biotechnology can be the rainmaker that U.S farming desperately needs.
Image Credit: Darwin Bell