Politics & Policy

California’s Drought

Genetic engineering can produce drought-resistant plants. But activists still don’t like it.

Last year was the driest on record in California, and 2014 could well set another record. Most of the state is experiencing “extreme” drought — the second-most severe category. Reservoir levels are dropping, the snowpack is almost nonexistent, and some communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage. But it is the state’s premier industry — farming — that will be affected most drastically. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water consumed by people and businesses in California, according to the Department of Water Resources.

It seems logical, then, that conservation measures should be focused on agriculture, but not everyone has figured that out. From their perch in a parallel universe, the New York Times’s editorial board saw fit to weigh in last week: “California is in the third year of its worst drought in decades. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at how much water the state’s residents and businesses are using.” You wouldn’t know it, either, by looking at the years of rants that the Times has published in opposition to a proven technology that could go a long way toward reducing the usage of water and the impact of the drought.

The technology is genetic engineering, sometimes called genetic modification (GM), which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do new things, including conserve water. Even with research and development hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by government overregulation, genetically engineered crop varieties are emerging from the development pipeline in many parts of the world. Cumulatively, during the past two decades, more than 3.7 billion acres of them have been cultivated by more than 17 million farmers in 30 countries — without disrupting a single ecosystem or causing so much as a tummy ache. Worldwide, these new varieties have provided “very significant net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $18.8 billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion for the 17-year period” from 1996 to 2012, according to an authoritative report published by Landes Bioscience earlier this year.

Genetically engineered herbicide-resistant plants make possible the use of no-till farming techniques, in which the soil is not plowed, meaning that there is less soil erosion, less runoff of agricultural chemicals, and lower fuel consumption and carbon emissions by mechanized farm equipment. From 1996 to 2010, the shift to genetically engineered crops reduced carbon emissions by 19.4 billion kilograms, the equivalent of removing 8.6 million cars from the road for a year.

The planting of genetically engineered crops has also obviated the need to cultivate vast additional amounts of arable land. Between 1996 and 2011, genetically engineered crops were responsible for the production of an additional 110 million tons of soybeans, 195 million tons of corn, 15.8 million tons of cotton lint, and 6.6 million tons of canola. If modern genetic-engineering technology had not been available, to maintain worldwide production levels farmers would have had to “find” and cultivate tens of millions of additional acres of arable land.

Finally, many of the new herbicide-resistant varieties have been engineered to tolerate glyphosate (Roundup), which is far more environmentally benign than alternative chemicals.

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. Especially during drought conditions, even a small 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 recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. For example, Egyptian researchers have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, they can produce plants that tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety of wheat requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and in some deserts it can be cultivated with rainfall alone.

Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant genetically engineered crop varieties indirectly make water use more efficient. 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 the crop has already been supplied — resistance to diseases and pests means more agricultural output per unit of water invested. We get more crop for the drop.

One would think that such developments would be universally lauded, but with the rarest of exceptions (namely, a few pieces by Amy Harmon and Andrew Revkin), for many years the New York Times, in editorials, columns, and “news” articles, has functioned as an anti-genetic-engineering propaganda shop. In a tour de force of yellow journalism, the no-star team of Keith Schneider, Andrew Pollack, Michael Pollan, Roni Rabin, Marian Burros, Denise Caruso and Mark Bittman has consistently and repeatedly denigrated and misrepresented genetic engineering as applied to agriculture, often citing for support discredited, self-interested ideologues.

The Times’s July 9 editorial presents a litany of ways to conserve water, many of which would inconvenience Californians significantly and raise food prices, but nowhere is there so much as a mention of genetically engineered drought-resistant plants, let alone an endorsement of them.  Not surprisingly, there is also no mention of the idiotic and anti-social actions of Santa Cruz, Mendocino, and Marin Counties — bastions of politically correct, far-left politics — which have actually banned the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. (These 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.)

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 ones from reaching the market.

Also conspicuously absent from the Times’s editorial is recognition that especially under drought conditions, we should discourage organic farming, which is wasteful of both water and farmland because of its low yields. I guess that might offend the paper’s elite, New Age, Whole Foods–addicted readers.

As California governor Jerry Brown declared a water emergency earlier this year, he explained that the drought “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.” Memo to him, other left-wing politicians, and the New York Times editorial board: We could find significant “new” water resources by conservation without heavy-handed restrictions and privation — if only local and federal government would get out of the way.

— Henry I. Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A physician and molecular biologist, he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.

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