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The Global Race for Drought-Tolerant Crops: A Critical Analysis

Navigating the Challenges and Opportunities in the Quest for Climate-Resilient Agriculture

corn field

In the face of escalating climate change, water scarcity is one of the most significant challenges confronting the agricultural sector. Global warming and shifting precipitation patterns have triggered prolonged periods of drought in many regions worldwide, gravely affecting crop production and food security. As conventional irrigation strategies become increasingly unsustainable and ineffective, there's a global push to develop drought-tolerant crops—a race against time and the changing climate.

Current State of Research and Adoption

This race is inherently global, yet the approaches vary significantly across regions. The United States, a pioneer in agricultural biotechnology, has embraced genetic modification to improve crop tolerance to drought. Big players like Monsanto and Corteva have invested extensively in creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with drought-tolerant corn and soybean varieties already on the market.

Another illustration is Bioceres Crop Solutions Corp. which announced that HB4 Wheat, a crop productivity solution, has received full approval for commercialization and cultivation in Brazil from CTNBio, the National Biosafety Commission. This approval comes after Brazil approved HB4 Wheat flour for food and feed use in November 2021. The approval of HB4 Wheat for cultivation in Brazil is significant as it offers the potential for double cropping in regions with limited water availability by rotating wheat with a summer legume. In addition, this technology is vital for adapting farming systems to an extreme climate. It has already delivered over 40% yield increases in environments under severe water stress, based on results from Argentina’s recent drought-affected crop.

However, this adoption of genetically engineered crops has sparked controversy. Critics point out that heavy reliance on a few select crops could lead to genetic uniformity and render the entire crop system more susceptible to pests, diseases, and other environmental stresses.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe has adopted a different approach, partly due to its stringent regulations around GMOs. European research has primarily focused on traditional breeding techniques and a deep understanding of plant genetics to develop crops that can thrive with less water. Although slower and less transformative, this approach raises fewer ethical and environmental concerns. Moreover, it offers a more diversified and adaptable way of coping with the uncertainty of climate change.

The search for drought-tolerant crops is equally active in Latin America, a region known for its rich biodiversity and variable rainfall patterns. In Brazil, for example, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) has successfully bred a range of drought-resistant beans, a dietary staple in the country. Similarly, research is ongoing in Mexico to develop drought-resistant varieties of maize, a crop deeply intertwined with the region's culture and economy.

The recent study in Nature by Issa et al. unveils significant findings about developing drought-tolerant sweet potato cultivars in West Africa, a region known for its arid climate. This ground-breaking research set out to create higher-yielding, drought-tolerant sweet potato hybrids through an accelerated breeding scheme (ABS). It further focused on studying the genotype by environment (G × E) interaction, providing valuable insights for agricultural development in dry regions. During extensive yield trials, multiple clones were evaluated across six locations, including four in Niger and two in Nigeria. The assessment focused on crucial aspects such as storage root yield (SRY), harvest index (HI), and root dry matter content (DMC).

The results from the study have identified several hybrids that showed promising results under varying environmental conditions. In terms of SRY under both drought stress and well-watered conditions, clones 4 × 5 – 3, 9 × 7 – 1, 5 × 9 – 2, 3 × 6 – 2, and 3 × 12 – 3 proved to be the best, according to parameters such as drought susceptibility index (DSI), drought tolerant expression (DTE), and HI. Nonetheless, it was revealed that the cultivars with the most superior performance were unstable, according to the AMMI stability value (ASV) and stability cultivar superiority (SCS) results. For optimal SRY stability under drought conditions, along with high DMC and total carotene (TC), clones 12 × 5 – 1 and 9 × 10 – 1 were recommended. For conditions under irrigation, clone 13 × 8 – 2 proved to be a good candidate for stability across all locations, coupled with high DMC and medium TC. Meanwhile, clones 4 × 3 – 2, 13 × 8 – 2, 4 × 6 – 2, and 6 × 8 – 5 were found to be stable in SRY with high DMC. The study concludes by highlighting the potential of these ABS-developed hybrids to significantly improve crop yields, thereby enhancing food security in the region. This research represents a significant stride towards agricultural sustainability, with the development of drought-tolerant sweet potato hybrids offering a measure of resilience in crop failure and ensuring a consistent food source, even in drought conditions.

Challenges and Concerns

As we delve into the race for drought-tolerant crops, it becomes clear that it's not without challenges and concerns. Among the most significant concerns is the potential ecological impact. GMOs, although providing a quick solution, pose a risk of genetic homogenization, reducing biodiversity and potentially making crop systems more vulnerable in the long run.

Besides, the cultivation of drought-tolerant crops could lead to an extension of agricultural lands into areas previously deemed unsuitable for farming. This could increase deforestation rates, further exacerbating the climate crisis.

On a socio-economic level, developing and deploying drought-tolerant crops have implications for smallholder farmers. High research and development costs often translate into expensive seeds, creating barriers for smaller farmers, especially those in developing countries. Furthermore, the emphasis on drought tolerance might draw attention away from other essential traits such as crop yield, nutritional value, and pest resistance.

Lastly, there are ethical concerns, particularly regarding the patenting of GMO seeds. These patents often restrict farmers from saving and replanting seeds, a practice that has been an agricultural norm for thousands of years. Critics argue that this commercialization of life forms infringes upon farmers' rights and jeopardizes food sovereignty.

Looking Forward

Moving forward, it's essential to strike a balance. While developing and adopting drought-tolerant crops is an integral part of the solution to our climate crisis, it shouldn't be at the expense of biodiversity, smallholder farmers, or local and indigenous knowledge. As researchers race to breed and genetically engineer drought-tolerant crops, we must ensure that these innovations are holistically beneficial, both environmentally and socially.

Efforts should be made to incorporate traditional knowledge and practices into the

development process. These practices, honed over generations, often hold valuable insights into sustainable farming and can offer locally adapted solutions.

Moreover, an inclusive dialogue around intellectual property rights concerning these innovations is crucial. Policy and legal frameworks must ensure equitable access to these advancements, particularly for those in developing regions most affected by climate change.


The race for drought-tolerant crops is a testament to human ingenuity in the face of climate change. As the United States, Europe, and Latin America continue to carve their paths, a shared goal remains—to develop and deploy these innovations equitably, sustainably, and inclusively. In the end, this race isn't just about scientific advancement; it's about securing our collective future—making sure that as we adapt to a changing climate, no one is left behind.

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