CLEVELAND, Ohio — The United Nations has referred to drought as the “world’s costliest natural disaster.” Drought causes 6 to 8 billion dollars in damages annually and has been responsible for 11 million deaths since the start of the twentieth century. It has affected a total of two billion people. However, scientists are finding ways to genetically engineer crops to be drought resistant. This means despite drought conditions, the rural poor can still harvest their crops for sale or food.
Areas that suffer from drought conditions are varied and include sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Australia. Yet, the overall area of land that is affected by drought has doubled over the past three decades according to the National Center of Atmospheric Research in the U.S.
Maize or corn, the most produced crop worldwide, has experienced losses of approximately 15 percent of its yield annually due to drought. It is predicted that due to the changing climate there will be more loss of about 10 million tons of maize per year. In response to this growing problem, scientists have developed a few different approaches to creating drought resistant crops.
One approach involves increasing the plants’ ability to conserve water. This approach was practiced successfully on 1.5 billion hectares across 30 countries without damaging any ecosystems or creating illness in those who consume the food.
Egyptian scientists have successfully developed plants that can survive long periods of reduced rainfall, only requiring one-eighth of the average irrigation for wheat. Other approaches include engineering plants to grow despite the quality of the water.
Another approach is the engineering of crops that can grow in salt rich environments. Due to repeated fertilization leaving high salt content in the soil, one-third of irrigated land becomes unusable, which means less land to grow food.
International teams of scientists working under University of California Davis researchers have developed crops that can withstand drought and grow with “70 percent less irrigation water” than is typically required. The researchers performed the experiments on tobacco plants, utilizing a control group and the same growing climate. After 40 days of watering, the plants were not watered for a period of 15 days. The results were astonishing. One scientist describes, “With only minimal reduction in yield, these plants survived on just 30 percent of the normal irrigation water—severe drought conditions that killed all of the plants in the control group.”
Although there are many solutions, there are also many obstacles when trying to implement the growth of genetically modified crops. Europe and India both have regulations against the use of genetically modified crops and environmentalists are concerned about the long-term effects like super pests and super-weeds.
Whatever the concerns, there are people who are food insecure, malnourished or starving because of drought. In areas like sub-Saharan Africa where poverty rates are high, farmers often find it difficult to recover from droughts, if they recover at all. By creating crops that are drought resistant, lives will certainly be saved.
If consistent to the previous century’s death toll, 11 million lives will be lost over the next 100 years if conditions stay consistent and do not worsen.
Whether countries allow genetically modified crops or not, it should still be a high priority to examine genetic engineering in more detail so a larger body of knowledge can be developed, and techniques can possibly be implemented on a wider scale. The practice shows great promise for the rural poor as it provides a man-made solution to the natural problem of drought.
– Christopher Kolezynski