Scientists Are Trying to Save Salad From the Drought
By Tove Danovich
For the last four years, California has been dreaming of water. Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a state of emergency in 2014, followed by a mandatory water reduction of 25 percent in urban areas. But the water saved by digging up lawns and installing new shower heads hasn’t helped farmers, who have let an estimated 540,000 acres of land go fallow, resulting in a total economic loss of $2.7 billion, according to a report by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Even if El Niño shows up as predicted, it’s not a long-term solution for many crops. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently published a report showing that combined global temperature in July was the highest in 136 years of recorded data. And a wet winter doesn’t mean the drought will end. So rather than praying for rain, scientists have started work on a number of drought- or flood-resistant crops that will hopefully make agriculture in California (and beyond) more resilient.
Though many of the drought-tolerant varieties under development are commodity crops such as rice, wheat, or corn, the high water content of the delicate vegetables grown up and down California makes their fate iffier during water shortages. A USDA research project based in California is attempting to develop a drought-resistant variety of lettuce. At about 96 percent water, the green has one of the highest water-content levels of any type of fruit or vegetable. Renee Erikson, a plant research geneticist working on the breeding program, said the crop was of particular interest because California produces 72 percent of head lettuce and 85 percent of leaf lettuce grown in the United States.