August 2005) – Realistic or not, it is now received wisdom that the
world generally is going to become a warmer place. Significant weather changes
are likely to have dramatic effects on agriculture in many areas.
While it may become gratifyingly warmer in northern countries, allowing the cultivation of crops hitherto impossible outside a greenhouse, more southerly locations are predicted to become much hotter and, in many cases, much drier. With a growing shortage of water for all purposes already affecting much of the world – and expected to become steadily worse – drought-resistant crops will become an essential way of adapting to new climatic conditions which seem to many people to be inevitable, whatever schemes might be elaborated to try to prevent them.
Such crops are already with us: in the present hot summer in the US, tiny plots of maize and soybeans around the country are growing green and strong while their neighbours give up the ghost.
Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Monsanto, two of the largest seed producers, are growing drought-tolerant maize and soybeans in the test plots. Maize is expected to be ready first for the market, in five or six years from now. Under severe conditions of water shortage, developers of the new strains were able to secure a 20% maize yield improvement with the “drought gene”, enabling farmers in drought-affected areas to reduce water usage and cut costs (ref. 1).
The opponents of transgenic technology feel, of course, obliged to put the gloomiest interpretation on all good news in this area. Thus, Michael Hansen of the Consumer Policy Institute, well-known for his views against using biotechnology to improve agriculture, warned that "A genome is like an ecosystem. When you introduce new things, it can have not so much of an impact or (it can have) a catastrophic impact. Scientists have no control over where the genes go, which can cause all sorts of disruption" (ref. 2).
Who knows, such a technology might allow agriculture to flourish under adverse conditions and put the doom-mongers out of business.
1. Elizabeth Weise (26 July 2005). Drought-resistant corn sprouts. USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-07-26-drought-resistant-corn_x.htm)
2. Are we ready for the food revolution? Mail and Guardian, 5 November, 1999 (http://www.mg.co.za/articledirect.aspx?area=mg_flat&articleid=159901)