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Biotech: To survive the mega-droughts

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted September 20, 2010

When, O Lord, will the public turn its back on the ill-founded "concerns" of the Green movement that misinformed us about DDT, salmon extinction, deformed frogs, man-made global warming, and a host of other fake "calamities"? When will we support more high-yield farming research to meet redoubled world food needs in 2050?  Especially since the alternative would be to plow down more wild species' habitat to plant additional low-yield crops.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide just announced a new gene modification that tells rice plants to store salt in their roots. That prevents the salt getting to the plants' shoots, where it would damage yields. Earlier, biotech scientists came up with salt-tolerant tomatoes, which store the salts in their leaves—again, no damage to yields.

Salt is one of the massive problems in farming. Much of the "freshwater" in the world has high salt levels, so it can't be used for high-yield irrigation. Salts are meanwhile building up in much of the world's irrigated cropland, because they are carried, dissolved, in even the freshest irrigation water. This problem has plagued farmers for a least 4,000 years, ever since crops have been encouraged by irrigation.   

 Plant engineers are already working to transfer the new salt-in-the-roots gene to wheat and barley. Other breeders are seeking more drought tolerance genes, which we've never achieved through cross-breeding.

How important would salt tolerant and drought-tolerant cereal crops be in a massive regional mega-drought?  Ancient tree rings tell us of four epic Asian mega-droughts that collapsed cultures and starved millions—just in the last thousand years.  

  • China suffered a horrific drought in 1638–1641, reported then as the worst in five centuries.  The famed Ming dynasty collapsed. This wasn't the onset of a "little ice age." We were already in the Little Ice Age. This was worse.
  • Another severe monsoon failure in 1756–1768 coincided with the collapses of kingdoms in today's Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand, with political turmoil all the way to Siberia, and western India. Fragmentary evidence indicates that the droughts were interspersed with violent and devastating floods, as though the gods had gone crazy.
  • The East Indian Drought of 1790–96 appears to have been worldwide, spreading hunger and civil unrest. In Europe, the drought led to crop failures blamed for the French Revolution, while famines ravaged India.
  • The worst was the "Great Drought" of the Victorian era, from 1876-1878. The resulting famines reportedly killed 30 million people, most of them in India, China and Indonesia. A similar drought-flood pattern, between the 1340s and the 1420s, had already collapsed the famed Khmer society that built the temples at Angkor Wat.

Droughts are the most dangerous aspect of the Modern Warming and were the worst climate danger of the previous 500 global warmings.

Recent tree ring studies in the U.S. reveal 12th-century American mega-droughts that destroyed the Anasazi culture in the American southwest and the Mississippian mound-builders cities in Illinois—simultaneously. Those droughts extended clear to the Pacific Coast of California. Evidence indicates those droughts were produced by a cold phase of the recently-discovered Pacific Decadal Oscillation colliding with a warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation.

The Asian monsoon failures are much broader, and their causes may be more complex. What we know for sure is that human-emitted carbon dioxide played no role.

What we also know for sure is that the world will need drought- and salt-tolerant bio-crops in the not too distant future. ESR

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC,  is an environmental economist.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net

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