In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote in his book The Population Bomb that “mass starvation” due to “burgeoning population growth” was inevitable. “It is now too late to take action” to avoid hundreds of millions of deaths in developing countries, he declared, more than 40 years ago. Nothing could be done to stop all those people dying from hunger, because there were simply too many mouths to feed. It was already game over.
Indeed Ehlich used a flawed model to make his prediction. Unfortunately, he did not use the ubiquitous logistic curve which held true. Population should peak and level off as population density peaks and resources remained constant or decline. Everything else equal, this would have been true with no intervention. In fact, it might be argued that any intervention that caused the population to continue upward instead of leveling off, like a green revolution, is responsible for the current population issues and has killed more than it has saved.
That Ehrlich was wrong, both morally and factually, was largely down to the efforts of one man. Norman Borlaug was as concerned about population growth as Ehrlich, but instead of making doom-laden prophecies about mass death, he decided that the best course of action to stop people starving would be to help them produce more food. Now famous as the father of the Green Revolution, he toiled for years to breed high-yielding cereal crops and other innovations which enabled poor countries to dramatically increase agricultural productivity.
Some might be interested in this podcast: Exposing the Green Revolution: Myths, Realities, and Community Responses.
The task of feeding the world is only going to get harder in years to come. By 2050 the world’s population will approach 10 billion, and combined environmental crises mean we must produce much more food on less land with less water, fewer agrochemicals and less fossil fuel, while still maintaining biodiversity. At the same time, farming must adapt to changing climate zones and weather patterns. To do all this we must heed Borlaug’s plea to deploy the full range of cutting-edge techniques to produce higher yielding, higher quality, lower input, lower environmental impact crops. As founding director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security, I can testify to the urgency of this challenge.
I see the same fallacious argument here that was originally argued against. The only difference here between a doomsayer and a doomsayer with a solution that puts money and control of food in fewer and fewer hands, is that the inevitable doom predicted by the former is replaced by the inevitable doom hidden by the latter. I can forgive the former of blindness, the latter is unforgivable.
Among the techniques that Borlaug highlighted were gene manipulation approaches that promise to deliver results faster and more precisely than the classical crop breeding techniques. Dr Clive James, Borlaug’s deputy director at his wheat and maize research centre in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s, today reports that the 94-fold increase from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 395 million acres in 2011 makes GM crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in recent history. During the period from 1996 to 2011, millions of farmers in 29 countries worldwide chose to plant and replant an accumulated acreage of 5.9 billion acres – a testimony to the fact that such crops deliver sustainable and substantial socioeconomic and environmental benefits.
Yet this progress has not been smooth. Norman Borlaug was forced to spend his dying years campaigning to protect agricultural innovations like GM from being derailed by activists who opposed all genetic engineering for ideological reasons, or were simply against modern biotechnology on principle. As Borlaug warned in 2004, success for the anti-GM lobby could be catastrophic: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”
The idea that scientists invested in the idea of patenting corporate scientific technology lack any ideological bias would be laughable if it was not so sad and dangerous. His line of argument boarders on propaganda.
This warning seems particularly prescient right now, as anti-GM activists threaten to destroy publicly funded research on wheat at the Rothamsted Institute here in the UK. A group called “Take the Flour Back” has pledged to destroy the entire trial site next Sunday, while on Sunday a lone activist broke into the experimental plots and caused damage before being arrested by police. The threatened “decontamination” by anti-GM zealots is supposedly in response to the danger of pollen from the wheat spreading to neighbouring fields – the activists seem to be labouring under the misunderstanding that wheat is wind pollinated, whereas in fact it is self-pollinating, so little if any pollen ever leaves the plant. This sadly testifies to the extent of their understanding of agriculture.
Except you can read in GMO Compass this:
Normally, self-pollination occurs, which means wheat plants fertilize themselves with their own pollen before flowers even open. Nevertheless – depending on genotype and climatic conditions – cross-pollination with other wheat plants is possible. It usually occurs at a rate of approximately one to two percent. The rate can increase up to 9.7 percent when weather conditions are dry and warm.
Unlike, yes, but possible.
It is also important to understand what the scientists
at Rothamsted are trying to do. Their experiments test the important ecological concept that natural behaviour-modifying pheromones – which repel sap-sucking insect pests called aphids – can be used to protect crops in the same way as they protect wild plants. The project is publicly funded and, if it is successful, the results will not be patented. Indeed, if successful the trial runs counter to the interests of the agrochemical industry because it may point the way to another type of plant protection which reduces insecticide use and the effects on non-target insects, and thereby benefit both biodiversity and productivity at the same time.However, the activists seem impervious to scientific reasoning, and have rejected an offer by the Rothamsted team for a public debate in front of an audience. Still, constant attacks by a tiny, ideologically motivated minority on work which could benefit the whole of humanity raise serious questions. Can a small, thuggish “action group” take a unilateral decision to suppress the advance of knowledge which might benefit everyone? If so, they will continue wilfully to deprive British farmers of the benefits of a technology that is already cherished by millions of producers worldwide, and limit the response of distinguished British scientists to the needs of the billion people who are already starving.
It is truly unfortunate that a small group of thuggish scientists can decide to steer research in a direction which is more driven by profit than people and that it can be marketed as free and open research that is to the serve man and knowledge. I suppose it could be a cookbook.
This attack on both scientists and the scientific method cannot go unopposed. It is incumbent upon everyone who values science and reason to stand up to vandalism and the destruction of legitimate scientific experiments. The attack on Rothamsted’s experimental plot must not go ahead.
Indeed we cannot stand for this attack on science. This attack on science by a handful of scientists with the hubris to push dogmatic, reductionist scientific advances in technology as representing the syne qua non of science is not acceptable. That something can be done, does not mean it should be done. Unintended consequences are more than just a small possibility.
Professor Malcolm Elliott is the founding director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security