Drought Tolerant Corn – One step closer to reality

Saw the news of Pioneer’s OPTIMUM AQUAmax corn hybrids talked about in my tweet stream the other day.  What is AQUAmax?  Mostly, a fancy marketing term I suppose.  But, underneath all the sales front-end there’s some important things I want to talk about.

Water, the massive requirements we have for it, the fact it’s a fairly limited resource (unless we learn to drink saltwater), and how technology is helping.

As I’ve studied and tried to understand crop farming across the country over the last couple of decades, one of the things that’s struck me is how many different things limit folks from getting top-end yields.  Drought is the big scary term, images of 1930’s style dust bowls in the back of many minds.  And yet, theres a LOT of yield robbing factors, modern agronomy and experience has taught us that too much water is often the culprit in many cases.  And you see the massive drainage tile industry that has resulted from that knowledge.  I would venture to say that in what is considered the  heart of the midwestern cornbelt (Iowa, Illinois), too much water is the leading yield robber over the last number of years. 

But out here in Kansas, even in northeast Kansas, the best corn-growing region of the state, more often than not too little water is the issue.  And that’s even more true of almost any field of corn west of me, as well as many to the south.  Well if you get clear to California, I’m not sure, but do they grow corn out there? (apologizes to my CA farmer friends! )  Anyone who’s driven through western Kansas or Nebraska, eastern Colorado, etc. realizes its more a desert than a corn growing oasis.  One thing they do have out there is large underground aquifers, but once again, it’s not an unlimited supply.

So, against that backdrop, “drought-tolerant” corn sounds exciting.  And notice we’re not talking about drought-resistant corn.  No one is claiming we’re going to grow corn without water.  The goal is just to make better use of the water we have.  There’s ongoing work to take the latest biotech research as well as conventional breeding programs to insert genes into corn plants that maximize their use of whatever water is available, there’s efforts to try to widen the window of time that corn can go without water without causing significant yield impacts.  There’s just numerous ways you can optimize water use.

The specific announcement from Pioneer?  You can read all the details here.  While I don’t believe it’s earth-shattering in terms of changes to the drought-tolerant corn equation, it highlights the ongoing work that’s taking place every day by thousands and thousands of the best scientists, plant breeders, molecular biologists, and many, many others.   All aimed at improving the water use efficiency of the corn plant.  And that’s good news for a global population to whom water is becoming an increasingly critical resource.

Update 1/10/11 :  Just saw this article on same topic from Progressive Farmer

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