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Can Organic Farming Reverse Drought Conditions?

While much of the east coast is still under water, more than two-thirds of the nation's farmlands are addressing serious drought conditions. The USDA has opened up protected lands for cattle grazing and offered millions in subsidies to farmers struggling all across the nation.

Monsanto—the biotech seed and chemical giant known for patented genetically modified crops—has even offered up its own salve to farmers struggling with significant losses. According to the company, "Monsanto is helping their farmer customers in affected regions by offering additional prepay options and financing assistance for the purchase of their seed." The irony, of course, is that much of Monsanto's seed stock is patented for drought resistant technology, "The company’s work in plant breeding and biotechnology is focused on developing innovative products that can help farmers manage challenging agronomic conditions and stressors to their cropping systems. These products can help mitigate crop losses and the broader impact those losses have on rural communities."

Major philanthropic projects underway around the world in consistently drought-stricken regions such as parts of India and Africa are focused primarily on GMO technology too.

Yet, according to Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue University who has been researching the effects of glyphosate (Monsanto's Roundup) for the last two decades, GMO technology might be the cause of our droughts, which he says, might not even be droughts at all. What?

Goss wilt is a disease that affects crops such as corn in much the same manner as drought conditions. "What is interesting about expanded Goss's wilt is that it is traditionally not a very aggressive bacterium, occurring in very localized and susceptible cultivars in a few spots in western Nebraska," according to Huber. "In the last two years, we found that even resistant hybrids were suddenly very susceptible, and it was spreading over Iowa, Illinois and into Wisconsin. We wondered if this was a new strain of the bacteria. We were seeing additional symptoms of gray/green desiccated tissue and the same scorched appearance in SDS soybeans."

Glyphosate, suggests Huber, affects the immune systems of plants in such a way that promotes disease, like Goss wilt. "We found the pathogen was prevalent when glyphosate was involved, even (in wheat) as a burndown the year before. We started looking and found it was also highly prevalent in soybeans with SDS [sudden death syndrome]."

So if GMO crops and their required pesticides are directly connected to the nation's drought conditions, what about organic farming? Can that reverse or prevent droughts? According to the Rodale Institute, during droughts organic corn yielded 31 percent more than conventional crops. The genetically modified "drought resistant" crops only saw a 6.7 to 13 percent increase over conventional.

Research published in the journal Nature also found that organic soil was better at holding water long-term than conventionally managed soil, and ultimately more capable of producing higher yields. This is due to the carbon trapped in the soil—which organic farming methods do a better job of ensuring than conventional, according to the research.

Other studies have concurred that healthier soil is better suited to maintain crops during droughts. A Michigan State University project studied red clover planted as cover crops in wheat fields. All of the conventional clover treated with nitrogen above ground failed to survive, unlike the organic crops with healthier, moister soil quality.

Organic farming represents less than 4 percent of our country's farmland. As the practice continues to gain momentum and acreage around the nation, we'll be able to get a better, bigger picture of just how effective organic farming can be at combating our own drought conditions and those affecting other parts of the world as well.

Learn more about Jill Ettinger credit: Andreas Krappweis

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