When rain gets scarce, we turn a tap, and water flows readily from hoses and sprinklers in yards across the nation, making it easy for us to take the resource for granted. But with climatologists predicting weather extremes in all corners of the globe in the next century, wise water use will become even more critical for all American gardeners and farmers. Hardiness zones have already changed in just the past 20 years; warm-region growing conditions are moving farther and farther north. And drier conditions are racing north, as well. Drought already costs U.S. citizens $6 billion to $8 billion a year on average, and according to a study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, we could face extreme drought within just 30 years.
This could mean devastating crop failures, water shortages, and widespread water restrictions. With a warmer, drier environment on the horizon, turning on the hose or sprinkler to quench a thirsty garden might not be an option.
In response to the changing climate, the big three chemical-producing companies—DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta—are in a heated race to be the first to release a drought-tolerant variety of corn. Both genetically modified and standard-bred hybrids are in the works. They may claim feeding an ever-expanding world population as their altruistic motivation, but making millions from drought-stricken farmers makes for a lucrative incentive: Feeding the bottom line is any public corporation’s duty.
While drought-tolerant varieties are a valuable piece of the puzzle, another solution already exists—one that farmers and gardeners can practice immediately, without paying for specialized seeds. And it’s a solution that has scientific research to back it.
The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST) has been tracking the performance of organically grown grain crops (such as corn and soybeans) and conventional, synthetic-chemical-reliant grain crops for the past 30 years. As America’s longest-running side-by-side comparison of these farming systems, the FST has revealed that crops grown organically are truly healthier and hardier in the long run, and better able to cope with weather extremes. Organic fields in the FST produce just as much as the chemical-reliant fields, despite claims that organic farming uses more resources to produce less food. But it is the performance of the organic fields during drought years that is truly amazing.
Photo: Andrew Norelli