Fight Droughts With Science
News Aug 14, 2009
Fight Droughts With Science
- Henry I. Miller, The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2009
‘Better crops could ease India's monsoon worries”
News that India may suffer a weaker-than-normal monsoon this year is raising concerns about crop yields and food supply. As worrying as those reports are, however, this is only a short-term element of a much bigger problem with the availability of water there. Even when the rains do come, India's water usage still will be at unsustainable levels. Better crop plants that use water more efficiently could be a big part of the solution---if only bureaucrats and activists would get out of the way.
Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70% of the world's fresh water consumption, but that figure can be higher in some places, depending on crop types and local hydrological conditions. India, for instance, is the world's second-largest producer of cotton, the thirstiest of crops: It takes 11,000 liters of water to produce a single kilogram. In just one example of the consequences, consumption from irrigation and other human uses is depleting groundwater in the northwestern part of India at the unsustainable rate of four centimeters per year despite consistent rainfall levels, according to an article published this week in the British journal Nature.
The results of this research should get policy makers to focus on how water is being used, especially in India's agricultural sector. The introduction of plants that grow with less water would allow more to be freed up for other uses. Plant biologists have identified genes regulating water utilization that can be transferred into important crop plants. Some modifications allow plants to grow with less or lower-quality water. The first drought-resistant crop, maize, is expected to be commercialized by 2012. If field testing goes well, India would be a potential market for this variety.
Pest- and disease-resistant strains also indirectly help water efficiency. 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---the use of crop varieties that experience lower post-harvest losses in yield means that the farming and irrigation of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. More than 13 million farmers in at least 25 countries already are using genetically modified crop varieties to produce higher yields with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment. In 2008, India ranked fourth in the world (behind the United States, Argentina and Brazil) in cultivation of genetically modified crops, with 7.6 million hectares.
But research and development are being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental overregulation. There are more than a dozen vocal and radical activist groups---of which Greenpeace is the prototype---around the world opposed to this kind of technology. They have concocted tales in developing countries about genetically modified crops causing homosexuality, impotence, illnesses like HIV/AIDS, and even baldness. One of the most vocal activists is Delhi-based Vandana Shiva, who denies not only the manifest benefits and potential of genetically modified crops, but even derides the 20th century's stellar Green Revolution as having inflicted violence on the environment. She claims that genetically modified crop technology is untested, unproven and unsafe---all of which are demonstrably untrue.
This pressure both encourages overregulation in response to questionable science and also offers cover to those who want to overregulate these crops for other reasons. The United Nations agency that sets international food standards, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, has established requirements for data on genetic construction, composition, toxicity, and the like specific to genetically modified foods that are hugely expensive---and that could not be met by any food derived from conventionally modified plants. In addition the Cartagena "biosafety protocol," crafted under the aegis of the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, has created unscientific and burdensome regulations of field trials and transport of genetically modified organisms (but not of other conventional plants such as invasive vines or weedy grasses that are far more worrisome). The United States has not ratified this convention.
Meanwhile, governments interested in protecting their agricultural sectors from foreign competition are all too happy to use spurious fears over genetically modified crops to erect trade barriers. Witness the European Union's unscientific, protectionist restrictions on the import of genetically modified agricultural products. This, as much as any other U.N. regulation, effectively discourages the use of these technologies.
A study by Professor David Zilberman at the University of California at Berkeley dates the worldwide slowdown in the development pipeline to the EU's 1998 ban on genetically modified products.
The U.N.'s misadventures in regulation fly in the face of the quarter-century-old scientific consensus that modern genetic modification is essentially an extension or refinement of conventional (but less precise and less predictable) ways of modifying crops to create or enhance desirable characteristics.
The U.N.'s inconsistency is striking. The Food and Agriculture Organization calls for a greater allocation of resources to agriculture, but then makes those resources drastically less cost-effective via unnecessary, unscientific regulation of genetically modified plants. The Secretary-General of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization announces that "integrated water-resources management is the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals of securing access to safe water, sanitation and environmental protection," while an alphabet soup of other U.N. agencies is making virtually impossible the development of crops that can grow with low-quality water or under drought conditions.
By compromising commerce and the quality of life, water scarcity has the potential to destabilize industrialized and developing countries alike. Scarcity hinders economic development; excessive water extraction lowers ground levels and exacerbates rising sea levels; and poor water quality makes populations vulnerable to water-related diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, viral hepatitis A and typhoid. Especially during drought conditions---which currently afflict much of Europe, Africa, Australia, South America and the U.S.---even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.
Some of the planet's biggest drought fears may be in India today, but no one will be immune to water worries in the future. It's essential that bureaucrats and activists stop blocking agricultural technologies that can give us more crop for the drop.
Dr. Miller is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of "The Frankenfood Myth" (Praeger, 2004).