Biotech Benefits: Drought- and Salinity-Resistant Crops

A study released March 14 concluded that more than 500,000 people could die due to the effects of climate change on food production.

And it isn’t the first warning. This headline comes after a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture saying that climate change could devastate agriculture. The warming climate, the report explained, could lead to dramatic increases in weeds, pests, and diseases.

Other scientists have said the change in frequency and severity of extreme weather events (like heat waves, droughts, and floods) could lead to lower yields.

"We're going to end up in a situation where we have a multitude of things happening that are going to negatively impact crop production," said Jerry Hatfield, a USDA plant physiologist.

At the same time our climate is changing, our population is growing quickly: We’ll need to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050.

Biotech crops, designed to withstand the effects of climate change, are one tool that could help us meet the challenge of feeding more people in a changing world. Here’s how:

  • Drought-tolerant corn: This corn variety, available in the United States, was specifically designed for dry, drought-like conditions. These plants still need water, but they have been engineered to protect farmer’s yields in moderate drought years.

    A public-private partnership in Africa is now working to develop a drought-tolerant variety specifically designed for the continent. It’s estimated that better corn varieties could increase yields by 20 to 35 percent in food-insecure communities.

  • Hyper-efficient, drought-resistant rice: Scientists in the UK are using genetic engineering to change the photosynthesis process in rice. The new variety could double water efficiency and increase tolerance to warmer temperatures. It could increase productivity up to 50 percent, and it has been called “one of humanity’s best chances for ending world hunger.”
  • Salinity-tolerant crops: Climate change is expected to make river water (which is used for irrigation) saltier. Scientists are experimenting with genetically modified wheat and barley that will be able to withstand higher levels of salt in water. In addition to allowing farmers to grow food in changing conditions, these varieties would free up more fresh water for drinking.

Biotech crops won’t just help with climate change adaptation in the future; they’re also helping to mitigate climate change right now. Biotech crops make it easier for farmers to practice no-till farming. It’s a way of farming without plowing the soil. This means carbon stays in the soil and is not released into the atmosphere.  Insect-resistant crops need fewer pesticide sprays, leading to less use of tractors and the fuel they need.

In 2010, the use of biotech crops helped remove 19.4 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, almost the same as taking 8.6 million cars off the road for a year.

So while climate change certainly poses a threat to agriculture, we have an important tool to mitigate and adapt. Biotech is part of the solution. Specially designed crops will be one more tool in the toolkit for feeding a hungry, growing population in warming world. 

Elizabeth Held is a director at the White House Writers Group, where she advises food and ag clients.

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