With so much of the Corn Belt suffering reduced crops because of the drought, even as we enter a new marketing year with beginning stockpiles of corn at only about 7 percent of the 12.7 billion bushels we’ll need to satisfy the coming year’s demand, how will U.S. farmers ever recover enough production to satisfy that demand?
They’ll do so by continuing the pattern we’ve experienced year after year: Farmers will respond to this year’s drought with a production increase of nearly 50 percent, if next year has normal weather. Just a dozen years ago, U.S. farmers were planting only about 75 percent of the corn acres they planted this year. Next year, that number will increase another 6 percent or more by some expectations.
But that’s only half the story. The average amount of corn produced for every acre harvested will likewise continue trending upward. The average yield per acre for the last half decade, not counting this year’s drought-stressed crop, is nearly 8 percent higher than it was for the first half of the decade after 2000. It is fully 40 percent higher than the average for 20 years ago. That kind of productivity increase isn’t limited to corn. Historically, all U.S. crops are showing that pattern of farmers squeezing more and more food from the same or fewer acres. They have done so by adopting technology that makes their use of natural resources more efficient.
The quest for drought tolerance
Take, for instance, the all-important resource of water. All crops require water, and this summer’s withering drought and heat have reminded us of the need to continue improving the management of that water both this year and in the longer term.
When it comes to saving and more efficiently using water, farmers have three options: irrigate more, improve their management of the soil and environment to conserve water, and look for crops and varieties that require less. Farmers have already increased irrigation: Nebraska's 8.5 million acres under irrigation as of 2007--the latest count available--makes it the largest irrigating state in the nation. But potential to continue that growth is limited, according to Bruce Johnson, a University of Nebraska- Lincoln agricultural economist. "We’re developed pretty much to the max," he said. “In short, there is no more development frontier. From now on, Nebraskans, from the individual water user up through our policy arena, will need to wisely manage our water resources for a sustainable future.” Continuing improvements in management practices like no-till and low-till to better manage the water-saving capacity of the soil and reduce the water use of competing weeds are also being made every season.
But it's development of crops, specifically corn, that are genetically bred to more efficiently use water that may be the real bright spot. "Drought tolerance conferred through biotech crops is viewed as the most important trait that will be commercialized [from] 2006 to 2015, and beyond, because it is by far the single most important constraint to increased productivity for crops worldwide," according to Greg O. Edmeades, former head of the corn drought program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. "Drought tolerant biotech/transgenic maize is the most advanced of the drought tolerant crops under development."
In any given year, Edmeades predicts, the world loses 15 percent of its potential corn crop to drought. Regular, temporary droughts in the Corn Belt take 20 percent in some years. “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," says farmer and North Dakota state senator Terry Wanzek. "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. Drought-resistant crops will help us move even further towards that goal."
During the last century, according to Pakistan's Muhammad Ashraf, one of the world's authorities on genetic resistance to drought, conventional plant breeders have already made great strides in developing drought tolerant lines of not only corn, but also of many important food crops. For example, one breeding approach started at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in the 1970s developed a drought-tolerant corn for use in Mexico that improved yields per acre by nearly three times. However, conventional plant breeding for traits like drought tolerance are both time-consuming and labor- and cost-intensive.
New biotechnology that identifies specific genetic markers on a plant's DNA that signal an ability to withstand drought promises to greatly speed that development cycle. Using those genetic markers now makes it possible to examine the usefulness of thousands of genomic regions of a crop's genetic profile under conditions of limited water, a task that took generations and decades under conventional breeding. In addition to that "marker-assisted breeding" that offers a tool for better selection, other biotechnology also permits developers to examine the breeding value of each of the genomic regions of a plant veriety and then piece together genes of several origins in novel ways, which was not possible previously with conventional breeding tools and protocols. Monsanto, for instance, already has a drought-resistant corn variety based on introduction of such "transgenes" in the final stages of commercial development. Published scientific studies suggest that the transgene used could offer from 8 percent to 22 percent yield improvement under a drought stress that reduces yields of conventional corn by about half--although more recent statements have downplayed these yield gains. Equally important, those yield improvements under drought don't come at the price of yield reductions under normal seasons. It's "drought gene" functions by enhancing the way the plant uses its own genetics to adapt to drought, reducing the stress reaction with which they respond and improving photosynthesis in stress conditions. That stabilized photosynthesis leads to better plant growth , which leads to increased growth of kernels per plant.