Senator: Farmers Need Drought-Resistant Crops

Terry Wanzek, a North Dakota State Senator and Jamestown, ND, farmer recently authored an editorial on the need for drought-resistant crops for Truth About Trade & Technology. Here’s an excerpt from that blog:

More than half of the United States is now suffering through drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Only the droughts of 1934, 1939, and 1954 spread across larger areas.

Every plant requires water to grow, but some plants survive with less. The cactus flourishes in hot and dry climates because it has adapted to them, conserving water like a precious resource.

Genetic modification won’t ever allow us to turn desert into farmland, and the worst droughts will continue to inflict a terrible price on agriculture. Yet biotechnology gives us a tool for pushing back. Just as it has helped farmers fight weeds and pests, it can help them battle dry spells too.

The goal is to grow more food with less water. Here’s the rhyming slogan: We need more crop per drop!  Biotechnology has helped us move in this direction. Drought-resistant crops will help us move even further towards that goal.

For four decades, researchers have tried to breed plants that resist drought. Traditional methods are slow and difficult. At best, they’ve shown mixed results. The bar is very high.

Biotechnology has changed all that. Just as Olympic pole vaulters soar over heights that high jumpers won’t ever reach, biotechnology lets 21st-century researchers leap over daunting challenges in ways that their predecessors barely could have imagined.

Now we’re on the verge of another breakthrough. Next year, farmers will have widespread access to a type of GM corn that’s built for dry weather. It should generate plenty of interest. According to one estimate, 40 percent of crop losses are a direct result of drought. Moreover, the Department of Agriculture says that this year’s drought affects 88 percent of America’s corn crop.

A new report from North Dakota State University points to the promise: “Early results indicated that drought-tolerant corn could potentially improve yields by 8 to 22 percent (15 percent average) under drought stress,” write Sumadhur Shakya, William W. Wilson, and Bruce Dahl.

That wouldn’t be enough to save this year’s most devastated farmers in places like Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois – states where the drought has dealt a brutal blow – but it’s enough to make a difference on the margins. A lot of farmers would have been better off this year if they had enjoyed access to drought-resistant corn.

The same goes for consumers: The drought will push up their food prices, which means that biotechnology is a tool for keeping bills in check.

To a certain extent, it’s already helping. Because biotechnology beats back weeds, farmers are tilling their soil less. Tilled soil loses moisture; limited tillage conserves it. As a result, biotechnology probably has mitigated the effects of this year’s drought, even if we don’t fully appreciate it.

To read Wanzek’s entire blog post titled “How Dry Is it?”, click here.

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