By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
How dry is it?
It’s so dry, the fish have ticks.
It’s so dry, the swimming pool has closed two lanes.
It’s so dry, the fire hydrants are chasing the dogs around.
Those are some of the jokes zipping around the Internet, in response to the dreadful drought of 2012. 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.
So here’s another line to remember: It’s so dry, farmers need drought-resistant crops.
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.
After corn, the next big step for drought resistance is wheat. In Australia, research indicates that GM wheat could boost yields by 20 percent during drought conditions as compared to non-GM wheat. Commercial access is still years away, but it’s on the horizon.
Unfortunately, the enemies of biotechnology never sleep. A decade ago, their scare tactics persuaded several seed companies to halt their research into GM wheat. Except for this work stoppage, we’d possibly have GM wheat right now, helping us withstand the drought of 2012.
Now these professional protestors have turned to new strategies. In California, they’re trying to pass a ballot initiative that would require a special label for any food product that carries a biotech ingredient, as if it poses a health hazard--which it absolutely does not. Their scheme is to create consumer pressure in opposition to a technique that will provide relief to farmers in severe conditions and also keep down food costs for consumers.
How dry is it?
It’s so dry, this is no laughing matter.
Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org