The disastrous drought in America's heartland only signals how fragile and sensitive agriculture is to climate and temperature.

In Utah, farmers have been irrigating much of the land for decades and summer rainfall is not as critical as it is Illinois, Indiana and Iowa - where few farmers water their crops.Even so, Utah farmers depend upon winter snowfall and the filling of reservoirs for their irrigation water.

Meteorologists have already pointed out how vulnerable Utah is to drought - if the state's reservoirs are not full after the mountain runoff in the spring.

Utah farmers will face their own drought conditions next summer if there is an insufficient snowpack this coming winter.

Scientists are zeroing in as never before on the problem of drought and some day may conquer not only rainless summers, but the world's deserts.

Most of this basic research is being carried out on university campuses and in U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratories.

Some private companies are also conducting basic research and they should be applauded for their efforts - which may not always show an immediate profit, or even a long-term one.

Scientists trying to solve the problem of drought are monitoring plant stress; developing new methods of irrigation, new drought resistant plants, new farming techniques, faster growing and greater yielding plants; and designing new ways to predict drought and years of higher than normal temperature.

For years, scientists have been developing infrared temperature guns and other sensing devices to measure the temperature of plants, whose excessive heat is the first sign of drought stress. Scientists at NPI, Inc., Salt Lake City, are detecting plant stress by measuring the emission of carbon isotopes.

Plants cool themselves with transpiration - giving off water vapor through openings called stomates. When a plant begins to suffer from drought, stomates close as the plant tries to survive on less water.

Plants also react to carbon dioxide differently when their stomates are closed than when they are open and this reaction can be measured.

Scientists can use these measurements to find particular plants that are more resistant to drought and they are developing plants especially for deserts and drought-prone areas.

Plants can also be monitored for resistance to acid rain and other pollutants and, someday, pollution-resistant plants, as well as drought-resistant ones, may be developed.

Biotechnology is experimenting as well with frost-resistant, faster-growing plants that can be planted earlier and harvested earlier, thus missing the hot, dry period of late July and August.

Genetic engineering is the key to developing new kinds of plants. With biotechnology and genetic engineering, scientists can speed up plant development into weeks and months instead of years.

By monitoring plant stress, new irrigation methods have been developed that deliver water only when it is most needed. New chemicals have been developed that can be sprayed on plants to retard their normal water loss through transpiration.

No-till or minimal tillage farming methods enable farmers to drill seeds into the soil without disturbing the land or losing soil moisture.

According to USDA research reporter Howard Sherman, scientists in one experiment using conservation tillage, and planting through crop residues without plowing first, harvested 2 1/2 tons of barley per acre in 1987, a dry year. Without conservation tillage, the yield was only 1 1/2 tons. Conservation tillage also increased pea yields in dry areas - 1,800 pounds per acre versus 1,400 pounds.

Scientists should be encouraged to develop techniques that will allow this country's farmers to win the war against drought. Governments, both state and national, should be willing to fund these researchers generously.

America's economic and social future will surely depend upon how well this country's farmers can compete with others around the globe - and deal with a scarcity of water at the same time.