A cool, wet night shifted almost imperceptibly into a cooler, wetter dawn that morphed into a quiet Monday morning, just the kind I like. Koko and I slipped out briefly, during a slight lull in the downpour, and it did my heart good to see my taro plants already rejuvenated from a couple of hours of heavy rain.
You can irrigate plants all you like, but if you watch them carefully, it’s obvious that rain is what they really want. It’s got stuff they need that we can’t even fathom — minus the chlorine from municipal water and the chemicals found in plastic hoses.
Looking at the perky plants all covered with raindrops got me thinking about an article that Farmer Jerry gave me a while ago, in part to convince me that scientists manipulating food crops have our best interests at heart and GMOs can play a crucial role in feeding the world.
Entitled “Ears of plenty,” and published in the Economist, which unfortunately doesn’t allow full on-line access to its stories without a subscription, it tells the story of wheat — “the strange little grass that has done so much for the human race.”
Although the author turned me off in the second paragraph by dismissing gluten allergies, which can be life-threatening, as a “fashion” making “wheat seem less wholesome,” I kept on reading about how some 11,000 years ago, people in what is now Syria began cultivating wild grass seeds, one of which “contains the identical genetic fingerprint of modern domesticated wheat.”
From there comes a fascinating tale of how wheat began to evolve and humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, with its accompanying “drudgery, subjugation and malnutrition.” The author goes on to state: “Population growth was now inevitable. Within a few generations, wheat farmers were on the march, displaying and overwhelming hunter-gatherers as they went…”
And we’ve been playing catch-up ever since, desperately trying to feed a steadily growing number of humans. As the author notes, the population crash forecast by Thomas Robert Malthus was staved off in the 19th Century by bringing more land in North America under cultivation — an action made possible, though not recorded in this article, by displacing the indigenous people and killing off the buffalo.
Then came the tractor, which the author said “released about 25 percent more land for growing food for human consumption” because draft animals no longer had to be fed.
But then soil fertility became an issue. The author notes that “British entrepreneurs scoured the old battlefields of Europe searching for phosphorus-rich bones.” Then it was on to seabird nesting islands, which were mined for guano — at an untold cost to bird populations.
When the guano ran out, the nitrate deposits in the uplands of Chile were mined. Then Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber figured out how to make nitrogen fertilizers, which at first were resisted by farmers who had the good sense to realize that “fertilizer must in some sense be alive.”
But they grew used to this synthetic substitute, and wheat was adapted to this new source of fertilizer, including several naturally-derived mutant strains developed by Norman Borlaug, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to averting famine in India.
From there, the author states, genetic modification was invented “as a gentler, safer, more rational and more predictable alternative to mutation breeding — an organic technology, in fact. Instead of random mutations, scientists could now add the traits they wanted.”
So here we are, with demographers now predicting that the population will peak below 10 billion people not long after 2050, according to the article, which goes on to state:
Of course feeding ten billion will not be trivial. It will require at least 30% more calories than the world’s farmers grow today, probably much more if a growing proportion of those ten billion are to have meat more than once a month. (It takes ten calories of wheat to produce one calorie of meat.) That will mean either better yields or less rainforest — which is why fertilizers, pesticides and transgenes are the best possible protectors of the planet.
But this article was published Dec. 24, 2005, before skyrocketing oil prices drove the cost of fertilizers made from fossil fuels right through the roof and farmers began planting crops not for food, but for biofuels, and rainforests were cut down to grow palm oil plantations, leaving the hungry among us in a decidedly more precarious place than was envisioned even two and a half years ago.
As I read this article, I wasn’t enthralled by the science that has brought us to this place but appalled by the consistent pattern of resource exploitation and human displacement — with all the concurrent wars, environmental degradation and misery — that has characterized our efforts to stay one step ahead of collapse.
And here we are still, on the very same track, now foolishly thinking the GMO crops peddled by multinational corporations driven by profit and the desire to control the world’s seeds, will be the ones to save us once again from the Malthusian crash.
The harsh reality just may be that eight billion, 10 billion, people are not sustainable on this planet, no matter how hard we try push the limits — especially when so many of us are unwilling to share what we’ve got, to give up even a little so others can have more.
But no one really wants to think about that nightmare scenario, and how we might change our course instead of following this one to its inevitable dead end. Instead, we hold on to the pretty dream that we can keep growing our way out of our woes, and that science will somehow come to the rescue.