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Genetic Engineering Helps Plants Survive In Drought

June 8, 2015
The Sacramento Bee ran a timely op-ed about how technology can help farmers deal with environmental challenges such as drought. The author is Ted Sheely, a family farmer from Lemoore who grows cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic. Sheely has been honored by the California Water Policy Conference with the Innovative Water Conservation Award:

In this time of unprecedented drought, much attention has been focused on the use of water for farms to grow our food. As farmers are forced to deal with markedly less water, one promising technology that is already serving as a significant solution to reduce water use is biotechnology, or the science of genetic engineering.

The future of drought-tolerant plants and crops due to genetic engineering show vast promise for California farmers and our state.

Genetic engineering has been used for nearly two decades to grow varieties of crops that resist diseases and insects, require fewer pesticides and take less land and water to grow. The process of genetic engineering involves insertion of certain beneficial characteristics, traits or genes into the DNA of a plant.

Much of the cutting-edge research on drought-resistant crops is happening right in California. Our University of California campuses throughout the state are leading the country in the field of biotechnology.

For instance, breakthrough research under development by UC Riverside plant-cell biologists includes the insertion of a new piece of genetic code into tomatoes and other plants that effectively tricks the plants into tolerating drought conditions. This new genetic code keeps the stomata – the part of the plant that lets carbon dioxide in and oxygen out – closed to keep the plant from losing water. Even after 12 days with no water, these genetically engineered plants were able to recover after being rewatered.

New varieties of genetically engineered corn have been introduced into the marketplace to require less water and significantly improve crop yields during drought. This technology can benefit California farmers who grow corn for use as a food processing ingredient as well as for use in feeding livestock.

And biotechnologists in Japan are using genetic engineering to create rice plants that can sustain high yields in droughts that wipe out conventional rice crops. They are using a gene from a type of rice plant found in the dry uplands of the Philippines whose roots are deep and grow straight downward to find water sources, as opposed to root systems that are shallow and grow sideways in typical rice plants.

And genetic engineering is used all over California and the world to reduce or eliminate tillage, or plowing, by farmers, which significantly reduces water use. By engineering plants that produce herbicide-resistant traits, farmers are able to treat crops and eliminate weeds with herbicides rather than conventional tillage. Eliminating tillage can increase water infiltration and moisture retention and improve soil, according to the National Academies of Sciences.

As climate change produces more severe weather patterns, including the threat of ongoing droughts, technology must play an important role. The science of genetic engineering gives farmers and society a powerful tool to meet these challenges head on.