More Crop per Drop with Plant Science

More Crop per Drop with Plant Science

March 9, 2017

Innovations in plant science are critical to helping farmers conserve water and combat drought. These tools include drought-tolerant and water-use efficient biotech crops and novel crop protection products.

The adoption of biotech soybean, corn and cotton crops in Brazil – particularly herbicide-tolerant soybeans and insect-resistant maize – has cut water use dramatically. That’s because herbicide-tolerant crops allow for no tillage, which keeps moisture in soil, and insect-resistant crops greatly reduce the need for crop protection products, which are mixed with water. From 1996 to 2013, biotech crops in Brazil saved more than 35 billion liters of water. From 2012 to 2022, they are expected to save an additional 169 billion liters of water – enough to meet the water needs of nearly 4 million people for 10 years.

Besides conserving water, biotech crops can also help farmers maintain and increase yields during severe droughts, when reduced rain would normally severely impact productivity and crop quality. A 2016 study showed that droughts and heatwaves cause an average annual loss in cereal crops of 10 percent globally. New tools to combat such conditions like biotech drought-tolerant maize are helping farmers with these challenges. This biotech trait helps maize plants survive stress and risk of failure in drought conditions.   

A 2014 report by IFPRI estimates that drought-tolerant crops could increase yields by 15-20 percent during severe drought in areas such as the United States, China and East Africa. Drought-tolerant maize, commercially grown since 2013, already shows a yield increase of about 5 percent over other varieties.

In the future, a biotech water-use efficiency trait may also help plants stand up to water shortage. This trait reduces the ratio of plant water uptake to the rate of water loss (transpiration). Water use-efficient sugarcane and rice are expected to increase yields by 20 to 50 percent and by 30 to 40 percent, respectively.

Finally, novel crop protection products are being created to protect crops like maize, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton against drought and high temperature stress. All of these tools combined will help farmers get the most crop per drop.