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Why Midwest drought could have been much worse for some corn farmers

Estimates suggest that drought-resistant corn breeds might have diminished potential crop losses by one-quarter this year – a development with major implications for a hotter, more crowded world.

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“If we had the hybrids we had in ’88, we’d be looking at lower yields,” says Mr. Nafziger.

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Other farmers agree with Nafziger and Sousek.

“Our yields didn’t dip nearly as much,” says Leon Corzine, who farms in Assumption, Ill., and recalls how 1988 devastated his crop.  

Bruce Rohwer, a farmer in Paulina, Iowa, marvelled at how his corn stayed green this year while lawns turned brown – then perked up quickly after August rains. “The plant is absolutely phenomenal, what it can do,”  he says.

Several years ago, researchers at Dupont Pioneer, the world’s third-largest seed company, planted modern corn hybrids next to top corn varieties from the past 80 years and exposed the plants to dry conditions. They found that today’s corn is three times more drought tolerant than varieties from the 1930s – and that much of the improvement was in varieties from the past 20 years.

“When you see it in the fields, it’s quite dramatic,“ says Jeff Schussler, senior research manager for Maize Stress at Dupont Pioneer.

Researchers around the world are working to increase the drought tolerance of many crops, including rice, wheat, and sorghum. But corn, the world’s most abundant grain and an immensely profitable crop, has been the focus of research in the United States. Commercial seed companies began marketing drought-tolerant hybrids several years ago, and next year Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, plans to begin selling genetically modified seed that it says confers even greater drought tolerance.

Farmers are following these developments closely. DuPont Pioneer says farmers planted its drought-resistant AQUAmax seed on 2.5 million acres this year, and it expects them to plant even more next year.

“There’s a huge interest in anything that’s going to get you a crop when you have a situation like this,” says Greg Kruger, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Scientists say modern crops are better at tolerating drought because of improvements like more efficient roots and greater resistance to insects. Farmers also deserve credit for adopting practices like “conservation tillage,” which preserve soil moisture and make it easier for plants to send their roots deep.

Mr. Tuinstra of Purdue says his own research, which involves cross-breeding plants from a wide range of the world’s 20,000 corn varieties, has shown promise. But making plants more drought tolerant is far from easy. The biggest challenge, scientists say, is to produce crops versatile enough to do well when the rains fail, but also when they don’t. 

Moreover, “it’s going to be hard” to match past gains, says Mr. Schussler of Dupont Pioneer. “We have made major improvements already, optimizing parts of the plant.”

For his part, Mr. Corzine of Assumption worries that farmers will expect too much. “There’s no miracle cure for extreme weather,” he says. Still, he’s considering planting “a few bags” of the newest drought-tolerant varieties next year. “I might try a little bit of that and see how it does.”

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