Agricultural biotechnology companies have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing plants that can withstand the effects of a prolonged dry spell. Monsanto Co., based in St. Louis, has received regulatory approval for DroughtGard, a corn variety that contains the first genetically modified trait for drought resistance.
Seed makers, such as Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. of Johnston, Iowa, and Swiss company Syngenta, are already selling drought-tolerant corn varieties, conceived through conventional breeding.
At stake: a $12-billion U.S. seed market, with corn comprising the bulk of sales. The grain is used in such things as animal feed, ethanol and food. The push is also on to develop soybean, cotton and wheat that can thrive in a world that’s getting hotter and drier.
"Drought is definitely going to be one of the biggest challenges for our growers," said Jeff Schussler, senior research manager for Pioneer, the agribusiness arm of DuPont. "We are trying to create products for farmers to be prepared for that."
Their efforts come amid concerns about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and the unforeseen consequences of this genetic tinkering. Californians in November will vote on Proposition 37, which would require foods to carry labels if they were genetically modified. The majority of corn seed sold is modified to resist pests and reap higher yields.
Opponents say the label would unnecessarily dampen further development that is intended to feed a growing global population dependent on the U.S., the largest exporter of corn and soybean.
"Trying to create drought-tolerant crops is not going to be easy to do," said Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis. “We certainly need all the tools [available] to do that, and that includes conventional breeding and adding transgenic traits. We don’t need to stigmatize these approaches.”