Why King Corn Wasn’t Ready for the Drought

Brandon Keim, writing for Wired:

For more than a decade, academic and industry scientists have promised crops that would endure hot, dry weather. That weather has arrived. The crops have not. In a land where corn is king, the king is stunted and withered.

Keim rightly points out that drought resistance is a tough nut to crack, especially on the plant level. Not only is the trait difficult to produce, the results aren’t desirable to farmers—”[a] slow-growing plant with tiny leaves that shutters its metabolism in the absence of rain”. That’s a recipe for survival, not for a bumper crop. As a result, seed companies have largely ignored drought resistance.

Instead, they have spent the last few decades investing heavily in “blockbuster” plants like Bt corn. Those have made them buckets of money, but climate change could nullify the advantage of such seeds. Who needs pest resistance if your crops are parched, wispy stubs?

But there are other solutions, Keim notes:

That makes non-genetic approaches, such as using cover crops to manage soil characteristics and fine-tuning planting times, all the more important. But those methods are knowledge-based, and it’s much harder to monetize knowledge than genes.

Harder, but not impossible. It sounds like an opportunity for seed companies: Deemphasize their seed lines and strengthen their consulting staffs. Other companies have navigated such dramatic shifts before. IBM did it in the 1990s. They shifted their focus from hardware to software and services, with much success. The market for ag services and consulting may not be significant now, but global warming could quickly change that. To quote Wayne Gretzky, whose father once told him, “Skate to where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.”

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