More crop for the drop

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

America’s politicians and government officials have been slow to grasp the importance of societal resilience -- the ability to recover from or adapt to adversity. Sufficient resilience can minimize the risks of major, debilitating disruptions -- whether they be economic ones, such as the current recession, or unavoidable natural disasters.

Take the ability to cope with droughts, for example. Science, technology and intelligent planning cannot eliminate them, but they can mitigate their effects. Or at least they could, if only federal policymakers and local regulations permitted it.

Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification, offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and two dozen other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact.

In spite of research being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, gene-spliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world. Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases, or to be resistant to herbicides, so that farmers can more effectively control weeds while adopting more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Other varieties possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all, to food security and to the environment in the long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive. Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of the world’s freshwater consumption -- and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, such as in California. So the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource for other uses.


Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts of water or with lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. In 2004, for example, Egyptian researchers showed that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and in some deserts can be cultivated with rainfall alone.

Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown, the use of gene-spliced varieties that have higher post-harvest yields means that the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.

However, unscientific and overly burdensome regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in this country -- and by national regulators and the United Nations elsewhere -- has raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept potentially important crops off the market. This deeply entrenched, discriminatory and excessive regulation -- which flies in the face of scientific consensus that gene-splicing is basically an extension of earlier crop improvement methods -- adds tens of millions of dollars to the development costs of new gene-spliced crop varieties. Higher costs and the endless controversy translate to fewer products in the pipeline and fewer companies competing to make them. Less competition means higher prices.

California offers a stark lesson in how wrongheaded public policy can impair resilience. Although severe drought afflicts much of California, over the last few years four of the state’s counties have banned the cultivation or sale of gene-spliced plants, including those that are drought-resistant.

If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation -- and the wealth to pursue them. In society, as in evolutionary biology, survival demands resilience. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, shortsighted politicians and venal activists have conspired to limit our options, constrain economic growth and make real solutions elusive.