To help feed billions of people, scientists braved the snake-infested and croc-filled swamps of northern Australia in search of rice. ... Musgrave is one of a few pit stops along the rutted, mostly dirt road that traverses Cape York, Australia, and ends at the northeasternmost tip of the continent, just 100 miles from Papua New Guinea. The peninsula is part of the world’s greatest concentration of free-flowing rivers and its most extensive network of intact tropical savannas, which stretches across the country’s north for hundreds of miles. Even in a country where open spaces rule the landscape, this place looms in the national mind as an uncharted, prehistoric mystery. This year alone, scientists discovered 13 new spider species on the peninsula. Cape York is roughly the size of Nebraska but with only 17,000 residents, most of whom are indigenous and clustered in a few towns along the coast. ... Grown on six continents and in 117 countries, rice is the world’s most important food. There are 144 million farms that grow rice, more than for any other crop. The vast majority of these are in developing countries, and virtually all of them are small, averaging just over 2 acres apiece. Simply put, the crop is the daily sustenance of the world’s poor. The primary reason is its remarkable biology. Rice is naturally prolific, each plant generating perhaps 25 times as many grains as a single wheat plant. When grown in water, its microbiome regenerates the soil’s nutrition, making fertilizer unnecessary. ... In recent decades, an increasing number of geneticists and plant breeders have realized that crops’ wild relatives hold immense value because they have not been domesticated. Instead of being narrowed and homogenized by humans, these crops have produced immeasurable genetic diversity as a result of their natural adaptation to pests, diseases, and climatic fluctuation. Their genes have already begun to help agriculture tackle the enormous challenges it faces today.
Since 1960, tens of millions of people have migrated toward the Pacific, settling in Las Vegas and Tempe and Boulder. Denver has tripled in size. Phoenix, having added some 3.6 million people, has more than quintupled. Today, one in eight Americans depends on water from the Colorado River system, and about 15 percent of the nation’s crops are grown with it. ... the demands on the river were never sustainable. In 1922, the seven states in the Colorado River watershed signed a compact dividing its water. With little historical data, they calculated the river’s capacity after a decade of unusually wet conditions. ... Since the current drought began, in 2000, that shortfall has averaged 25 percent. Instead of adjusting their allotments, states have drawn down the nation’s largest reservoirs, which are quickly draining. Even this winter’s El Niño weather pattern won’t bring enough rain to restore the region’s supply ... To determine who gets water and who doesn’t, states rely on a system that originated more than 150 years ago—when water was plentiful and people were scarce. ... “prior appropriation,” which promised rights to use a share of water based on who got there first. ... Prior appropriation became the foundation of western water law, and it established order in the West. Today, though, state water laws are largely to blame for the crippling shortages. Because water rights were divvied up at a time when few cities existed west of the Mississippi, some 80 percent of the region’s water goes to farmers, leaving insufficient supplies for growing cities and industries. And farmers must put all their water to “beneficial use” or risk losing their allotment—a rule that was originally intended to prevent hoarding but that today can encourage waste. Many farmers have not adopted modern technology that can cut water use by up to 50 percent, in part because they need to protect their water rights. ... Allowing people to buy and sell water rights is a more expedient way to redistribute the West’s water, he argues. Waste would be discouraged, water would shift to where it’s needed most, and farmers would be compensated. ... The West would have plenty of water if people used it more wisely: Most of the region’s supply goes to growing low-value, water-intensive crops such as hay and alfalfa—in many cases in the desert.