Can we breed crops to be more drought resistant?

167982 full
167982 full

You might be carrying a tube of chapstick right now. 

USC scientist Sarah Feakins says both plants and humans use wax to stay moisturized - and a new study shows it could help us generate plants that can better withstand droughts. 

California grows much of the food eaten here in the U.S. The state's farmers produce half of all fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the country. 

But the Golden State is expected to get much warmer and drier in the coming decades, making farming more challenging. The industry typically uses 80 percent of the water stored in the state’s reservoirs and aqueducts.

USC partnered with Texas A&M University to research how to grow crops that are more drought-resistant.

"Plants actually vary the amount of wax that they have on the surface of their leaf and that seals the leaf off and stops it from losing water," she told KPCC. 

Feakins' team grew different kinds of winter wheat. It’s a plant used for yeast-based breads and flour.

The crops were grown in two locations: Amarillo, a high and dry area of Texas, and a farming site in Uvalde at a lower elevation. Some plants received 13 percent to 25 percent less water than other crops in order to test their drought tolerance.

Plants like winter wheat generate wax to retain moisture.
Plants like winter wheat generate wax to retain moisture. Sarah Feakins/USC

The study found crops that received less water in the higher and drier spot, Amarillo, generated more wax on their leaves as protection from the harsher climate.

Those crops generated 50% more wax than any other area studied.  

Carbon isotopes in the plant leaves and in the waxes the plants produced tracked how the water was used. 

Feakins says this response is a good sign for California’s own agriculture as warming temperatures increase the demand for water in the fields.

"We need to eat, and we need to develop food crops that are going to be resilient no matter how the climate changes," she said. 

The next step for the researchers is to test how different crops can use less water. 

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