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
In four out of five drought years, the organically grown corn produced significantly more than the conventionally grown corn. The organic corn of the FST was even more successful under drought conditions than the drought-tolerant seed varieties were in the industry trials. The Rodale Institute’s organically managed fields produced between 28.4 percent and 33.7 percent more corn than conventionally managed fields under drought conditions.
Monsanto boasted that its genetically modified drought-tolerant corn was “one of our most significant R&D milestones,” producing between 6.7 percent and 13.4 percent more under drought conditions than other corn varieties. DuPont touts hybrids that produce 5 percent more on average, and Syngenta, which is leading the pack, has managed to produce 15 percent more with its drought-tolerant seeds.
So why does the FST’s organic crop outperform the chemical crop? “The current toxic-chemical approach to growing our food destroys the life of the soil with pesticides, herbicides, and high levels of inorganic fertilizers,” says Elaine Ingham, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute. “They are destroying the support system, developed by nature over the last 4 billion years, that grows healthy plants.”
That natural support system of organic practice is what makes those crops more drought-tolerant. Fertile soil, rich in organic matter and microbes, creates a more stable environment for plants. Rather than crop failure in times of stress, the organically cultivated plants can rely on the soil to provide what the weather has not.
“The organic matter in soil acts like a sponge, providing water reserves to plants during drought periods and preventing water from running off the soil surface in times of heavy rains,” says Rita Seidel, agroecologist and FST project leader at the Rodale Institute. “This organic matter has significantly increased in the FST organic fields and is actually diminishing in the conventional fields.”
Even in times of severe water shortage, not only can organic fields produce a more successful crop, but they continue to contribute to our drinking water reserves. In the FST, the organic fields recharged groundwater at rates 15 to 20 percent higher than the conventional fields.
Whether you are cultivating 40 acres or 40 square feet, compost, mulches, and cover crops create a well-balanced, fertile soil that can absorb more water, which buffers plants from drought stress. And avoiding toxic herbicides and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers keeps the community of soil microbes actively processing organic matter.
Thirty years of research proves that organic farming and gardening grows food and grows it well even during extreme weather conditions. Good news, for in the face of a warmer, drier future, the more we can rely on our soil rather than our hoses, the better off we’ll be.