Biotech Crop Traits Conserve Water

Biotech Crop Traits Conserve Water

April 8, 2014
Land Use & Biodiversity  Water 

It takes an average of 3,000 liters (about 793 gallons) of water per person worldwide to produce enough food for a day. This staggering fact highlights the need to conserve water, especially on a planet undergoing climate change with prolonged droughts and extreme temperatures. Without conservation efforts, it’s estimated that half of the world will be under severe water stress in the next 20 years. Since agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global water use, it has a huge responsibility to protect this life-giving resource.

Farmers have already significantly improved the water efficiency of plants with the use of conservation tillage, higher yielding varieties, crop protection technologies and improved irrigation techniques. For example, it takes half the irrigated water to produce cotton today compared to 20 years ago. No-till farming, made possible by herbicides and herbicide-tolerant biotech crops, increases soil moisture content. For example, the use of herbicide-tolerant biotech soybean, cotton and maize varieties in Brazil contributed to a 16 billion-litre decrease in water use from 1996 to 2010 – enough to supply nearly 370,000 people.

Drought-tolerant and water-efficient biotech seeds are two new important tools for water conservation in the future. For example drought-tolerant corn (maize), which was commercially grown for the first time in 2013, shows a yield increase of about 5 per cent over other varieties. Water-efficient sugarcane has the potential to protect yields and reduce water requirements. Such varieties are expected to provide yield increases of 20 to 50 percent under moderate drought conditions. Novel crop protection products are also being created to protect major crops like maize, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton against drought and high temperature stress.

Such tools will be particularly helpful in sub-Saharan Africa, which is prone to drought and reliant on rainfall for crop production. Maize, the continent’s most widely grown staple crop relied upon by more than 300 million Africans, is severely affected by frequent drought. To combat this challenge, a public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is developing biotech drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize that’s royalty-free for small-scale farmers. Partner countries include Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.