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Drought Resistant Crops: saving humanity through the combined powers of biology and technology

28 Jul 2017

With the constant, and often unpredictable shifts in weather patterns, many areas once assured of rain at a particular time of year, are beginning to see longer periods between rainfall and less rain than expected when it does fall. Each year Africa is getting drier. So much so, that new tactics are being initiated to combat the effects of the current cycle of change. 


New crops to replace old

While over the years, maize has become a popular staple in many areas, farmers, seriously affected by increasing lack of rain, are having to replace maize with more hardy, drought-tolerant crops such as sorghum, millets, pigeon pea, cowpea, groundnuts and green gram. An important factor emerging from this change is that the sorghum and millet farmers are able to produce enough grain to last them through from one harvest to the next, whereas 80% of maize farmers have faced total crop failure.

However, the transition to new crops should be a managed and monitored process, including:

  • training in good agricultural practices and post-harvest handling – the latter as a key to ensuring a cash generation through the sales of surplus produce
  • building the capacity of farmers to utilize quality seeds of improved varieties
  • appreciation of the importance of crop diversification and rotation
  • a focus on community-level seed production and the need to establish seed banks to ensure sustainable access to affordable seeds.  


Millet and sorghum: Pearl millet is the most drought-resistant of all the major staples, and is a key source of cereal grain crops, providing both food and animal feed. A new and improved strain of sorghum has been developed that offers a 50% yield advantage over the already useful varieties of sorghum.  

Cow, chick and pigeon pea: These crops are vital sources of low-cost protein in dry areas. Grain legumes also help restore soil fertility, since their roots fix nitrogen from the air in forms that can be used by subsequent crops. In addition, the stems and stalks of these crops are a good source of livestock feed.

Cowpea is the most widely grown grain legume in the drier areas of Africa, while chickpea and pigeon pea predominate in much of Asia. With support from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), more than 60 countries have released improved varieties. Currently, chickpea and pigeon pea are experiencing a renewal and major impact in India, Nepal, Pakistan and also China.

Barley: Barley is the world's fourth most important cereal crop, and drought affects its yields severely. Nonetheless, a plant breeding programme coordinated by the International Center for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and with the participation of farmers, succeeded in developing a new drought-tolerant barley variety that has had significant economic impact in Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.

maize revolution

The maize revolution

  • After rice and wheat, maize is the world’s third most important cereal crop, but has been a constant victim of drought, especially in developing countries.
  • The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has achieved important progress in developing drought-tolerant maize through conventional plant breeding.
  • However, scientists believe they can make further gains through molecular biology. With the aid of a genomic map combining data from different strains of maize in diverse environments, they are able to identify those best armed for dry conditions, and combine these genes to create crops with much greater drought tolerance.
  • Sales of the drought-tolerant hybrid non-GM maize seed variety, has increased phenomenally in Africa, combined with an approach to seed development that encourages local-led breeding and knowledge.
  • But even drought-resistant seeds need good farm management, effective irrigation, suitable crop insurance, and the use of crops suited to the local climate and soil.

The resurrection and the life

Jill Farrant, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, UCT, and leading expert on ‘resurrection’ plants, is currently researching how these plants can lose large amounts of water without dying. She says: “The genetic modification of plants is probably the safest kind of GM, yet the most vilified one. The crops that we are eating are already highly genetically modified. Through conventional breeding, thousands of gene changes have happened without us knowing we were doing GM all along.”

She is not planning to create new genes, but to activate genes that already exist in the plant – thus ‘switching on’ genes responsible for inducing desiccation tolerance, as well as those important for recovery from extreme water loss. 

drip irrigation

Drought has created phenomenal, creative and critical change  

At Netafim we are dedicated to alleviating water shortage through constant technological innovation. So even if you are contemplating new crops – or have already switched to these – you are still going to need the latest technological know-how on saving water. Even drought-resistant crops need water, and drip irrigation is the perfect design for these types of plant. 

We have perfected the concept of ‘just enough, at the right spot, at the right time’. Beating the dry times through both, biology and technology, is creating a new world of food security. While rain is always welcome, the timely conflux of two brilliant sciences is vital to feeding the planet now and into the future.   

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