Genetically engineered crops can survive floods or droughts. Here’s how.

Corn plants (© Cornell Alliance for Science)
Drought-tolerant maize, a genetically engineered crop, thrives in Tanzania. (© Cornell Alliance for Science)

This is the second in a two-part series on climate smart agriculture. The first is a story on farming technology that can slow climate change.

A new report from the United Nations sounds the alarm on climate change, saying that fires, extreme heat, heavy rainfall and droughts will become regular occurrences unless the world takes quick action.

Some farmers are preparing by growing genetically engineered crops that thrive despite droughts that can parch fields and floods that can destroy land and damage plants.

Unfortunately, farming itself can harm the climate by clearing trees, eroding soil and using machinery that emits greenhouse gases, said Sarah Evanega, the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science and a professor at Boyce Thompson Institute. But, she said, we can use the tools of genetic engineering to address these insults to the environment and create greener, climate-resilient crops.

Maize needs plenty of water to thrive. But many U.S. farmers in drier regions now plant drought-tolerant maize. After planting seeds genetically engineered with this trait, farmers employ conservation tillage (a method that conserves soil, water and energy) to limit climate harm and irrigation to improve yields, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In South Africa, Evanega said, some crops are genetically engineered to be drought tolerant and insect resistant — warding off the fall armyworm, which damages corn in all stages of its development.

Such crops help farmers get a better return on their investment, said Adam Cornish, an agricultural adviser at the U.S. Department of State. “Whenever a farmer has a better ability to say, ‘What I have done will lead to something I can sell,’ that’s always going to improve their conditions overall,” Cornish said. Better income for a farmer and farmworkers tends to help their local economy generally.

Farmers harvesting rice in flooded field (© Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters)
Farmers harvest rice in a flooded field in Ninh Binh, Vietnam, after a heavy rainfall in 2017. (© Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters)

Scuba rice, grown in Southeast Asia, is genetically engineered to survive floods that would typically destroy crops. In the U.S., scientists are researching mostly soybeans and cereals (including rice, maize and wheat) to develop flood-resistant varieties, says Endang Septiningsih, of Texas A&M University. She cautions that it could be a decade before any new variety would be ready for use by farmers. 

Still, experts are hopeful that genetic engineering can help meet the challenges posed by climate change and the more frequent floods and droughts it will bring.