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Frankenfoods vs Thomas Malthus

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It’s nice to see two classic scientific scare stories facing off. We’ve read a lot about both over the years, and both have been the subject of a lot of media-led panic, and now they’re being set against each other in a battle to the death. It’s a bit like Alien vs Predator, except it’s real life. Frankenfoods vs Thomas Malthus.

Yes, Professor Sir John Beddington, the chief science adviser to the government, has suggested that genetically modified (GM) crops are our best hope to keep the growing population of the world fed. “In 20 years’ time, the world population is going to be sky high, demand for food, demand for water, demand for energy, is going to be way up there,” he told the BBC.

“The population of Africa is scheduled to double over the next 20 years. We need to be thinking about making agriculture more effective, dealing with the problems of water, dealing with the problem of energy.

“There’s no one simple solution. GM may be the answer for certain problems.”

People have been predicting the world’s population outrunning our ability to feed it since 1798, when the aforementioned Reverend Thomas Malthus pointed out that population increases exponentially, while food production ability increases linearly. To put it another way, population generally increases by a steady percentage each year, while resources generally increase by a steady sum. Eventually, if left unchecked, an exponential increase will always outrace a linear one: so population must, eventually, outgrow our ability to feed that population.

The idea took off most spectacularly in the late 1960s and 1970s, with the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Professor Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist, thought that within 20 years of the book’s publication the world would see widespread famine: “”the battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now”, he told New Scientist in 1967, shortly before his book was published. He also said that “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

Now, Prof Ehrlich was clearly wrong, but he was wrong in a very instructive way. When he was writing, in the few years either side of 1970, the world population was about 3.5 billion. Now, 40 years later, it is more like 6.9 billion (or, if you’d like a spuriously precise figure, 6,895,537,788 at the time of writing – 1:48pm on 24/01/2011 – according to the US Census Bureau). But, in that time, instead of everyone having less food, food production per capita has actually gone up by more than 25 per cent. In real terms, that means, our food production capability has doubled, and more.

How has that happened? Simply put: technology. The “green revolution” of agriculture saw the creation, through selective breeding, of high-yield strains of grains like maize and rice; the vastly increased use of fertilisers and pesticides; industrial-scale farms and irrigation systems; and, of course, the use of genetic engineering to produce more efficiently harvestable crops. All that allowed us to feed the world; there is now more than enough food to go around, although it is still extremely unequally distributed.

So GM has already played a role in averting one global food catastrophe, albeit a relatively small one compared to the other aspects of the green revolution. Can it do it again? Prof Beddington thinks so, although he acknowledges that it will be no “silver bullet”. Africa did not benefit much from the previous green revolution, but GM crops that are ready to grow in salt-spoiled earth or hotter temperatures, or to resist diseases and parasites, could change that. And Malthus’s simple mathematics suggest that, without qualitative changes in food production, population will one day outstrip supply.

GM, of course, has had a bad press. Partly that’s a reasonable response to the idea that multinational corporations will be able to copyright the genomes of food crops, and charge a premium for the right to grow them, but mainly – as far as I can see – it’s part of the general fear of The Unnatural; hence pejorative terms like Frankenfoods and so on. We don’t like the idea of Messing with Nature, of Playing God. But since every advance mankind has made since the taming of fire is interfering with the natural order in some sense, it’s not a helpful argument.

As Prof Beddington points out, it’s going to be the poorest of the world’s population who are going to be hardest hit if the predictions of overpopulation-caused famine bear out. GM represents an important tool in preventing that happening. It’s easy for us in the pampered West to demand organic all-natural produce, but other parts of the world do not have that luxury. Malthusian collapse is a genuine possibility, even if it has been wrongly predicted before. And there is little actual reason to fear GM foods, and much to be gained from them. So Prof Beddington is right: Frankenfoods should be unleashed to do battle with the hordes of Thomas Malthus, and there’s really only one side we should be rooting for.


10 Comments on "Frankenfoods vs Thomas Malthus"

  1. Crazy_Dad on Tue, 25th Jan 2011 8:15 am 

    As usual the author misses the point. IF we manage to feed 7 billion, then it will become 10 billion. How do we feed 10 billion with the environmental impact that many people will have? I didn’t see any peak oil references either…

  2. DC on Tue, 25th Jan 2011 8:55 am 

    This guy is just another cheerleader for endless growth. What he fails realize is(or ignores), the only result of the 1st green revolution, which had far less to do with science than with simply bombarding the soil with petroluem and toxic chemicals, was to fuel(pun intended), a new round of a population explosion. Now, in order to ‘fix’ the resuls of the last round of techno-fixes to the worlds food problem, we need yet another techo-fix, but this time magically, a further growth in food supply wont stop soil erosion, toxic runoff or cause the population to grow another 3 or 4 billion while doing it. The only real constraint on human numbers is our ability to feed ourselves, growing the food supply quarantees more mouths to feed in the future-period. Bottom line, a new green revolution would be a disaster for an alrleady stressed world, even if the GM proponents claims could be validated(doubtful).

    PS the green revolution failed in africa because they couldnt afford to pay for it. Sinkhole countries lacked the elaborate water systems, and compliant governments willing to subsidize toxic factory farming.Monstano ADM and all the american agri-corps tht pushed green revolution agri-chemicals prefered to be payed in cash, and africa simply didnt have any.

  3. Kenz300 on Tue, 25th Jan 2011 9:08 am 

    Quote — “In 20 years’ time, the world population is going to be sky high, demand for food, demand for water, demand for energy, is going to be way up there,” he told the BBC.”

    Maybe part of the answer is to slow population growth and then level off to a sustainable amount.

    Limited resources meets an ever expanding population. When you play musical chairs someone is left standing. Who will be left standing when food, water and energy can not meet the needs of the population?

  4. mos6507 on Tue, 25th Jan 2011 10:24 am 

    I’m sure some people will be saying the same thing about soylent green. Give it time.

  5. Radu on Tue, 25th Jan 2011 4:23 pm 

    the “green” revolution was actually a chemical revolution;

    companies making agricultural chemicals (pesticides, herbicides) made massive profits from this gigantic move to more chemically-intensive agriculture, which damages the soil, leading to more forests being cut down to make room for cash crops

    the fact that corporations can own patents for living organisms and then sue people whenever their farms are contaminated with GM seeds (which is unpreventable) gives corporations tremendous power

    just search for keywords: “percy schmeiser” and see exactly what the truth of the matter is

    the GM industry is trying to take over all of the world’s agriculture, by using legal tricks and hostile takeovers

    what does that say about the quality of their products?

    Europeans aren’t stupid, they know a good web of lies when they see one; if GM crops were any good we’d all embrace them, but they aren’t, so we need to do away with them and move to decentralized agriculture

    if each person on the planet could produce at least some of their own food, there would be no need to have destructive, chemically-intensive agriculture at all

  6. TheProphetNabob on Tue, 25th Jan 2011 7:34 pm 

    OMG, those awful GMOs!

    Tell that to the millions who take insulin made from GM bacteria.

    Tell it to the millions vaccinated with GM hepatitis vaccine.

    Tell it to the billions who will need food, and quick.

  7. Simon in BC on Wed, 26th Jan 2011 1:36 am 

    Actually, people start having fewer children once their standard of living reaches reasonable levels and the infant mortality rate has been reduced by adequate nutrition and medcal care. In the mid 20th century population growth was at its highest doubling every 30 years. If every thing continued as it is now population would increase from 7 billion now to only 9 billion in the next 40 years and then would stabalize and even start to shrink as it has in the developed world. Unfortunately we have run out of time. Or more accurately we have run out of the cheap fossil energy that fueled the remarkable increase in the worlds standard of living in the late 50 years. And as it declines we will see population growth increase again, ironically.

  8. Bill Sadler on Wed, 26th Jan 2011 3:17 am 

    Prof Bartletts story:

    He was giving a talk to a local community mtg about growth. He stated that if the population of the city increased at the current rate, within a short time the city would be the size of Los Angeles, due to exponential growth. A local politician stood up and stated “Well, that does not apply locally!”.

  9. nanaimo_bc_steve on Wed, 26th Jan 2011 11:07 am 

    “The water lily

    French children are told a story in which they imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. Day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. They are then asked, on what day that will occur. This is revealed to be the 29th day, and then there will be just one day to save the pond. (From Meadows et al. 1972, p. 29 via Porritt 2005)”
    Just quoting…
    PS Monocropping ( ) is a recipe for disaster, with catastrophic starvation , the result if anyone of the crops failed . Think Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1852 – est 6 million dead

  10. SilentRunning on Wed, 26th Jan 2011 4:20 pm 

    Technology can only delay die-off, it can not stop it. The only cure is an intelligently managed human population – but there are too many people who want population to grow endlessly for religious/business reasons.

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