Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Midwest drought: how engineered corn saved some farmers from disaster

Richard Mertens in the Christian Science Monitor: ...Across the Corn Belt, farmers have expressed surprise that their corn endured drought as well as it did – much better, they say, than the varieties they planted just a decade or two ago. In Illinois, for example, one estimate suggests that corn farmers will lose one-quarter less of their crop than they did during the 1988 drought – in large part because of the seeds they planted.

Farmers are benefiting from decades of research in plant breeding combined with a growing interest in crops that can better tolerate drought and other stress. Indeed, research has shown that vulnerability to drought is one of the chief limits to crop production around the world. Meanwhile, gene mapping and other innovations have enabled scientists to develop new varieties with much greater speed and precision than before.

The results are startling, and have implications far beyond the the survival of one year’s harvest in the Midwest. In a world of rising temperatures and population, improvements in drought tolerance are especially urgent.

“We’re heading for 9 billion people in the future,” says Mitch Tuinstra, a researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who has worked on drought tolerance in corn and sorghum. “If climate change is important, and we have to double the amount of grains we produce, we have to think about how we’re going to adopt to conditions like those we had in the United States this year.”

The improvements are not a cure, say experts. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that farmers this year will harvest 13 percent less corn than last year, despite planting 4 percent more acres. “Drought can wreak a lot of havoc on crops, even today,” says Emerson Nafziger, a crop specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign....

This illustration is from "The Home and School Reference Work, Volume II" by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. The book was published in 1917 by The Home and School Education Society.

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