Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?

The drought is eating away at U.S. crops—and climate change could make it worse in the future. Are GM crops an answer?

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Saul LOEB – Getty Images

Severely damaged corn stalks due to a widespread drought are seen at sunset on a farm near Oakland City, Indiana, Aug. 15, 2012.

All farmers know they’ll have to endure the occasional dry period, but what has happened to the American Midwest this summer has been practically biblical. By the end of July, over 60% of the U.S. was experiencing some form of drought–the most in more than half a century. Corn yields fell by at least 16%, and prices rose to record highs as farmers confronted fields of dust. Scariest of all, the drought of 2012, which could eventually cost as much as $18 billion, may be just a taste of what’s to come in a hotter, drier future. Climate models suggest broadly that dry areas will become drier as the planet warms—and that could be seriously bad news for America’s breadbasket, especially in the already arid areas of the Western breadbasket.

Farmers and crop companies are struggling to figure out ways to cope with severe drought. Changing the weather is still beyond us—though some countries like China are trying—but what if there were a way to breed crops that could use water more efficiently, thriving even in times of drought?

(MORE: Dry Summer Means More Encounters with Hungry Bears)

That’s what agribusiness is hoping to achieve with new genetically modified (GM) crop strains that are designed to endure arid conditions. Industry leader Monsanto is working on a hybrid line of corn called DroughtGard, developed with the German firm BASF, that is designed to enhance crop yield in dry soils. It is the first U.S. Department of Agriculture–approved GM crop to focus on drought tolerance and features a bacterial gene that enables it to better retain water. Hundreds of farmers in the western end of the Corn Belt–an area that runs to dry even in normal years–are field-testing DroughtGard, and Monsanto says early results indicate that the GM crop might improve yields by 4% to 8% over conventional crops in some arid conditions. “This year magnifies how important it is to have drought tolerance,” says Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer.

Still, critics are skeptical that GM crops alone will enable farmers to overcome persistent drought. In a June report, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) noted that GM crops take years to develop and that the seeds created so far offer only modest benefit. “Genetic engineering is not a silver bullet,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at UCS and the author of the report. GMO crops come with their own concerns. While most studies have shown genetically modified crops to be safe (PDF), many consumers still aren’t convinced. And GM seeds may not be affordable for the farmers in truly hard-hit areas—like sub-Saharan Africa. Still, if the drought of 2012 really does become the norm, though, farmers may need all the bullets they can get.

MORE: The Great Drying Comes Again