Can Genetic Engineering Mitigate California's Drought?

Posted: Feb 5 2014, 5:52am CST | by , Updated: Feb 5 2014, 5:56am CST, in News | Technology News

Can Genetic Engineering Mitigate California's Drought?
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STANFORD, CA– Water is in increasingly short supply in many parts of the United States. Here in California, where most of the state is experiencing “extreme” drought, 2013 was the driest year on record, and we have had no relief during what should be the height of the rainy season. Moreover, there’s no end in sight: The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service forecasts that the drought will “persist or intensify” at least through April.

Reservoir levels are dropping, the snow pack is almost nonexistent, and many communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage. In the city of Santa Cruz, for example, restaurants can no longer serve drinking water unless diners specifically request it; Marin County residents have been asked not to clean their cars or to do so only at “eco-friendly” car washes; and there are limitations on watering lawns in towns in Mendocino County.

But it is the state’s premier industry– farming – that will feel the pinch most. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water used by people and businesses, according to the Department of Water Resources.

During a January 19 press conference at which he declared a water emergency, Governor Jerry Brown said of the drought, “This is not a partisan adversary. This is Mother Nature. We have to get on nature’s side and not abuse the resources that we have.”

Drought may not be partisan, but it does raise critical issues of governance, public policy and how best to use the state’s natural resources. It also offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: Ironically, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Marin counties — all of which boast politically correct, far-left politics — are among the local jurisdictions that have banned a key technology that could conserve huge amounts of water.

The technology is genetic engineering performed with modern molecular techniques, sometimes referred to as genetic modification (GM) or gene-splicing, which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do spectacular new things, including conserve water. In the United States and about 30 other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.

Even with R&D being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, genetically engineered crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world. Cumulatively, over 3.7 billion acres of them have been cultivated by more than 17 million farmers in 30 countries during the past 15 years – without disrupting a single ecosystem or causing so much as a tummy ache in a consumer.

Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to herbicides, so that farmers can adopt more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides; or to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops. Others possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all both to food security and to the environment in the long term will likely be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.

Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Because irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water consumption, the introduction of plants that grow with less water would allow much of it to be freed up for other uses. Especially during drought conditions, even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits.

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 that which has been recycled or that is high in natural mineral salts. For example, Egyptian researchers showed a decade ago 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. One genetically engineered, drought resistant corn variety has been commercialized in the United States and many more are in advanced field testing.

Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant genetically engineered 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 — that is, after most of the water required to grow a crop has already been applied — disease resistance means more agricultural output per unit of water invested. We get more crop for the drop.

The use of molecular genetic engineering technology can conserve water in other ways as well. Salty soil is the enemy of agriculture: Fully one-third of irrigated land worldwide, including much of California, is unsuitable for growing crops because of the presence of salt, and every year nearly half a million acres of irrigated land is lost to cultivation. Repeated fertilization, growing seasons and cultivation cause this accumulation of salts. Scientists have enhanced salt tolerance in crops as diverse as tomatoes and canola. The transformed plants not only grow in salty soil, but also can be irrigated with brackish water, conserving fresh water for other uses.

Incredibly, in spite of the intensive, safe and successful cultivation of genetically engineered plants for almost two decades, four California counties have banned them entirely, either via legislation or referendums. These actions in Trinity, Mendocino, Marin and Santa Cruz counties represent political leadership and voter ignorance at their absolute worst. The measures are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk: They permit the use of new varieties of plants and microorganisms that have been crafted with less precise and predictable techniques but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones.

And speaking of irony and pols who are unable to connect the dots, California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who both favor mandatory labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients – which activists have admitted is nothing less than a stalking horse for eliminating the technology entirely – now have their knickers in a twist over the drought. They’ve sent a letter to President Obama, requesting that he “appoint a drought task force and federal drought coordinator to parallel efforts at the state level.”

A good start would be regulatory reform at the federal level: Even where genetically engineered crops are being cultivated, unscientific, overly burdensome regulation by the EPA and USDA has raised significantly the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept many potentially important genetically engineered crops from ever reaching the market. The discriminatory and excessive regulation — which flies in the face of scientific consensus that genetic engineering splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier techniques for crop improvement — adds millions of dollars to the development costs of each new genetically engineered crop variety. These extra costs and the endless, gratuitous controversy over cultivating and consuming these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties – to say nothing of outright bans – are anathema to investment in research and development.

One casualty of such obstacles has been the development of new varieties of grasses for lawns and golf courses. The Scott’s Miracle-Gro Company has been working for years on “enhanced turf grass” designed to grow slower, require less mowing and water, and make weed control easier. This innovation alone could be a tremendous boon to water conservation in California: For example, in the Coachella Valley, which is located southeast of Los Angeles and contains the resort cities of Palm Springs and Palm Desert, the irrigation of golf courses consumes at least a quarter of all the water that is pumped from the ground.

Gov. Brown said in last month’s State of the State speech that “life is local,” and the absence of drought-resistant genetically engineered plants is going to cause life in many California localities to become a lot more expensive and less pleasant. The colossally stupid and irresponsible public policy that has discouraged the use of molecular genetic engineering techniques to conserve water should provide food for thought as California farmers’ crops and profits dry up, our lawns turn brown, and the costs of food and water increase.

Source: Forbes

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