The tricky thing about farming is you can do everything right and still fail to raise a crop if it doesn’t rain. If there’s a drought, there’s just not much to be done about that.
Or maybe there is.
Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry is set to run a pilot program for cloud seeding, an experimental technique to induce precipitation that may or may not work. Mexican agricultural officials will run the trials in two border states: Baja California and Tamaulipas, which abuts the Rio Grande Valley.
Myriam Vidal Valero recently investigated the project for the journal Nature and joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about what led to Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry greenlighting this project.
Myriam Vidal Valero: So the thing is that Mexico has been facing a very severe drought. So right now, a lot of farmers are complaining they are facing really big economic losses.
Well, now I’ve been reading up a little bit about cloud seeding, and I gather that this is a somewhat controversial approach. Could you say why?
Yes. The thing is that in theory they say that it should work, but the thing is that it’s very difficult to prove that it works because for cloud seeding to work, you need to have a cloud to start. So that cloud could have rained either way, no matter if you seeded it or not. So basically what happens is you can either have an airplane or you can seed the clouds from the ground. Usually what happens is that you disperse particles from silver iodide into the clouds. So these particles have a structure, a chemical structure, similar to ice and what happens inside the cloud is that structures that are similar are attracted among each other. So when you have these silver iodide particles inside the cloud, you start attracting water droplets. As they get heavier and heavier and heavier, they get heavy enough so they start falling into the ground.
I see. So it sounds like it it makes sense. But apparently the situation is so dire that even though the data is not clear on whether or not it works as a practical matter, the Agriculture Department there in Mexico has decided to give it a try. Is that what it’s come down to?
That is actually what’s happening. So the thing is that for you to be able to have a successful project of this type, you need to have, before that, an assessment report. You need to verify that the clouds that you have and the type of weather that you have in a specific region will be good enough or will work with this technique. And the government is not doing that. The government, it’s just implementing and they are using very dubious techniques to assess that it’s actually producing the results that they claim that they are producing.
Oh, so there’s like a third party that’s involved here in getting this data, is that what you’re saying?
That is actually not happening and that is the thing that worries scientists, that the government is basically… they outsource this company that doesn’t have the data to prove that it’s actually working. They haven’t done the experiments with their particular technology. And the government is conducting the research themselves without being a proper scientific institution.
I see. What about this company that the Mexican government is collaborating with on this project? What do you know about them?
So the thing that I know about them is that they are run by one guy, and this guy basically approached the Ministry of Agriculture in 2019, telling them, you know, “I have this chemical, I have the solution.” The project was benched until the drought became really, really harsh in 2020 and then the president was looking for a solution. So they decided to go back to this project that they had filed and then they reached out to the guy. And then after the government reached out to him, he decided to found his company.
I see. Well, so how much is all this going to cost the Mexican government?
So right now, the documents that I got from the government, they say that in 2021, they estimated a budget of $50 pesos, which it’s about $800,000.
Maybe this is a hard one to call, but as the story is developing, is this more about cloud seeding or more about the appropriate use of Mexican federal funds as you see it?
I think it’s the latter. The thing is that for a cloud seeding program to work, it’s very expensive and it takes a lot of years, maybe decades, for it to work. Right now, what the government is doing is that, because they reduce the insurances that they have to cover the losses from the agriculture, from the farmers, they are trying to make it seem as they are doing something – that it’s actually costing less than the insurances that they eliminated. But it’s not for sure that it’s working. So they are basically using government funds to fund a program that they cannot guarantee that it’s working.