Scientists Are Engineering Crops to Be Drought-Resistant: The Pros and Cons of That

Reader Contribution by Kayla Matthews
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Droughts can increase food scarcity issues and compromise farmers’ profitability. Also, it’s likely to happen more often than usual due to climate change. A study of 571 European cities found most of them would experience more river flooding and drought conditions than usual because of environmental changes.

However, scientists recently made significant progress in engineering drought-resistant crops. They achieved that with tobacco by altering the expression of a gene found in all plants, causing them to close the pores in leaves that usually let water escape.

The researchers’ work resulted in 25 percent better water usage in the crops and did not affect yields. They believe that in drought conditions, these modified crops will grow faster and yield more than those not modified for resilience against the lack of water.

The Technology Could Influence International Development

While aiming for future prosperity in the global marketplace, several countries — including India, the Philippines and Kenya — have viewed biotechnology as a tool for international development. They’ve signed international biosafety treaties, and some have enacted national laws. As such, drought-resistant crops could be an essential resource for helping disadvantaged countries achieve sustainability and global prominence.

Some People Steer Clear of Genetically Modified Foods

A study of more than 1,700 adults found there are numerous uncertainties about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For example, 40 percent of those polled reported avoiding buying GMO foods, and 71 percent of those did so due to worries about adverse impacts on their health. However, only 52 percent knew what GMOs were.

Biotechnology Accomplishments Encourage Better Methodologies

When a newsworthy achievement occurs, such as the tobacco plants that use a quarter less water than their non-engineered counterparts, other scientists and companies capitalize on that momentum and use it to improve their own methods. Progress in the biotechnology sector not only keeps scientists more motivated to explore their hypotheses, but it could result in outcomes that change viewpoints and break down boundaries of what people thought was possible.

In the case of photosynthesis, scientists long agreed it was a factor that limited possible yields. However, scientists at the University of Illinois manipulated a part of the photosynthesis called photoprotection, which slows down the process in shady areas. The study, which, like the first one mentioned, was also on tobacco plants, resulted in up to 20 percent greater yields compared to plants that did not receive that photosynthesis-related tweak.

It’s too early to say if the tobacco crops initially mentioned will have yield increases as the scientists hope, but if they do, scientists could potentially apply the biotechnology to other crops as a way to conquer food scarcity issues.

GMOs Linked to Higher Levels of Herbicide Use

Beginning in 1994 when GMOs arrived in the United States, farmers started using an herbicide called glyphosate to keep pests at bay. Research relating to soybean and maize crops show farmers with genetically modified crops that were resistant to that herbicide actually used more glyphosate over time than those without crops engineered for glyphosate resistance.

Researchers believe that farmers became more dependent on the herbicide to try and kill new varieties of weeds that also resisted glyphosate. That is an example of an unintended consequence of some GMOs that could not have been predicted before real-world use cases.

Also, a long-term study of 100 older adults that took place from 1993 to 2016 found increased amounts of glyphosate in their urine. Researchers discovered that the detectable levels went up over time and suggest a link to consumption of GMOs treated with Roundup, an herbicide with glyphosate as the primary ingredient.

They say the component is found within the crops at harvest time and bring up how ongoing exposure to the toxin in animals causes symptoms of fatty liver disease, and that the state of California considers glyphosate a probable carcinogen. They conclude, though, that further research is required to pinpoint the relationship between exposure and possible human health problems.

On its face, growing crops that need less water than the traditional varieties seems like a remarkable achievement, and indeed, it could bring about some of the positive aspects discussed here. However, it’s necessary to consider the potential cons of introducing another genetically modified crop, especially the downsides associated with public perceptions and increased herbicide use.

Image byJahoo Clouseau

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