Trying To Beat Drought

To satisfy the world’s growing demand for food, scientists are trying to pull off a genetic trick that nature itself has had trouble accomplishing in millions of years of evolution. They want to create varieties of corn, wheat, and other crops that can thrive with little water.

As the world’s population expands and global warming alters weather patterns, water shortages are expected to hold back efforts to grow more food, according to a New York Times article. For companies that manage to get “more crop per drop,” the payoff could be huge, and scientists at many of the biggest agricultural companies are busy tweaking plant genes in search of the winning formula.

Monsanto, the biggest crop biotechnology company, says its first drought-tolerant corn will reach growers in only four years and will provide a 10 percent increase in yields in states like Nebraska and Kansas that tend to get less rainfall than eastern parts of the Corn Belt.

Monsanto’s competitors, including DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred unit and Syngenta, say they also plan to introduce water-efficient corn in a few years. Syngenta says it will introduce drought-tolerant corn developed by conventional breeding in 2011, followed by a genetically engineered version in 2014. And companies are working on plants that can stand up to heat, cold, salty soils and other tough environments.

A small California company called Arcadia Biosciences is trying to develop crops that need only half as much nitrogen fertilizer as a conventional plant. Fertilizer is crucial to modern food production, but the large quantities used today damage the environment. And because fertilizer is made from natural gas, its costs have soared along with other energy costs.

Many of these advanced crops are being developed using genetic engineering. The technology, already used to make crops that can resist weeds and insects, has spurred worldwide controversy. But in an era in which people are marching in the streets of many countries to demand more food at lower prices, low-water crops might win over areas that now shun biotech crops, such as most of Africa.

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