Drought resistance priority rises
America's 'biggest choice' will be water for power or crops
By MATTHEW WEAVER
In the next 10 years, the big scientific push will be to produce more crops with less water, a researcher says.
Mick Qualls, owner of Qualls Agricultural Laboratory in Ephrata, Wash., considers drought tolerance in crops to be the biggest race in agriculture.
"Right now, every chemist or plant breeder in the world in agriculture is thinking about this subject," said Qualls, who operates a research farm.
They are trying to get plants to use less water using different means -- chemical use, traditional plant breeding or biotechnology, he said.
"The biggest choice Americans are going to make about 10 years from now is whether they're going to use the water we have left to make electricity or to grow their food," Qualls said.
Electrical power generation is a bigger user of ground water than agriculture, Qualls said. Thirsty technology such as nuclear, coal or natural gas power plants comprise the bulk of electricity production in the country, he said.
Growers already make planting decisions based on how much water they can remove from the ground or supplement with rainfall, not what crop pays the most, Qualls said.
Crops like corn, cotton and soybeans are big water users. They are also the key crops companies are working to develop drought resistance in.
One dynamic that has to be considered is the degree a plant can be helped through drought stress, he said.
Kim Campbell, wheat breeder for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pullman, Wash., is working with Scot Hulbert and Camille Steber to study wheat production under drought conditions and on physiological measurements to determine which traits can best be used to predict grain yield.
The work has been under way for two years.
"If you're breeding for drought resistance you can't just start randomly breeding, because drought is different things for different places," Campbell said.
Markus Flury, a Washington State University professor of soil physics, is planting winter wheat seeds under drought conditions in the Horse Heaven Hills south of Richland, Wash. Normally, conditions there are so dry during the summer the seeds do not germinate in time, Flury said.
"If we have plants that can germinate under drier conditions and are more drought tolerant, we can grow plants in the future with less water needs," he said. "That helps dryland farming and irrigation agriculture."
Campbell sees the public and private sectors both working toward drought tolerance.
"There's a lot of collaboration and a lot of overlap, because they're too big for one person to solve," she said. "The private sector is really looking for the researchers in universities to come up with strategies and methods of measuring that are useful."
"Ten years from now, if your soybean or corn bag does not say 'drought resistant,' or 'heat-stress tolerant,' you probably won't sell seed," Qualls said.