Many writers and researchers have come forward lately to weigh in on the milestone of the seventh billion human now considered to have been born somewhere on Earth this month.
One of the best—and most insightful—commentaries recently appeared in the British newspaper The Telegraph. It was written by one Anthony J. Trewavas, a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who is best-known for his groundbreaking research in plant physiology, his strong support for agricultural biotechnology and his vocal criticism of organic foods.
His essay, which was titled, “Technology has Saved Us Before, And Can do So Again,” traced the by-now familiar re-emergence of Malthusian naysayers, n-growth disciples of the Rev. Thomas Malthus, the 19th century English scholar who declared that sooner or later, human populations inevitably get checked by famine and disease.
Trewavas argued that, “Malthusian views, which recur with monotonous regularity, have been [refuted by] the ingenuity with which mankind solves problems. The reliance on evidence-based knowledge, rather than belief, myth or fantasy was crucial in foiling Malthus through the centuries, and it is what will see us through beyond 2050.”
Hopeful thoughts, yet supported by the facts, not the least of which is that in the last two centuries, crop yields have increased tenfold. That is stunning. However, science and technology must continue to support such progress, with the key buzzwords being what Trewavas described as “sustainable intensification,” including:
- A requirement to reduce waste, both in the agricultural and human food chains.
- Better use of existing agricultural knowledge, as many tropical crops lack optimal genetics.
- A commitment to raise most fish on sustainable aquaculture farms.
- Initiatives to close yield gaps on under-performing farmland (African wheat yields are only 50% of what’s common in Europe).
- The use of biotechnology to insert new traits must be into the world’s staple food crops.
And yes, Trewavas also recommends, “An adjustment of dietary attitudes to influence reduced meat consumption.”
Such statements don’t sit well with producers looking to expand their markets, but the truth is that on a global scale, it really is unsustainable to project straight-line increases in per capita meat and poultry consumption across another two to three billion people in the next few generations, and pretend that there are no ecological consequences.
Even if meat consumption declines in the developed world, the growth in demand elsewhere—coupled with sheer increase in the number of mouths to feed—will ensure that nobody in livestock production will go out of business due to lack of demand.
Supply & demand & stability
For his vision to succeed, Trewavas admitted that humanity is in what he rightly calls “a race against time.” However, that race “always brings forth the best in creative mankind. The challenge is to try to balance supply and demand sustainably, to ensure adequate stability at an affordable price in a world of changing climate.”
Tough talk, especially for a researcher whose best work tends to be done in sealed laboratories far from the front lines of food production. But the message underlying any optimism that science and technology can deliver solutions to what seems like a monumental challenge to increase productivity in the face of resource and land base limitations has a dark cloud hovering above it, one on which Trewavas is highly qualified to comment: Science and technology require investment.
“Sadly,” he wrote, “the provision of money for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. This will have to be reversed.”
The timing couldn’t be worse, given the recession-fueled fixation on debt reduction we’re currently experiencing. But as Trewavas noted in concluding his essay, “All human activity contains costs and benefits: there is no perfect technology. The costs of maintaining the present excessive precautionary stance on [genetic engineering] are destructive of the benefits that we will need and that are already evident.
“The debate over genetic modification, as far as scientists are concerned, is over. It is time to move on.”
Which we will, for better or worse. Only science and technology stands in the way of the worse scenario. ÿ
› To review the Trewavas review article, log onto www.telegraph.co.uk/science/8860591/Seven-billion-humans-technology-has-saved-us-before-and-can-do-so-again.html.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, who is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.