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The Malthus Gun

WASHINGTON, DC – Science and technology changed agriculture profoundly in the twentieth century. Today, much of the developed world’s agriculture is a large-scale enterprise: mechanized, computer-controlled, and based on sophisticated use of chemistry and knowledge of plant and soil physiology. amp#160;

The invention of chemical fertilizers early in the century and their increasing use, together with mechanization and the development of high-yielding grain varieties, propelled the growth of agricultural productivity in the developed world. The Green Revolution brought these benefits to less developed nations.amp#160;

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As a result, despite a tripling of the global population, we have so far evaded Malthus’ 1798 prediction that human population growth would inevitably outstrip our ability to produce food. Over the second half of the twentieth century, the hungry of the Earth shrank from half of its three billion human inhabitants to less than a billion of the current 6.5 billion.

Twentieth-century plant breeders learned to accelerate genetic changes in plants with chemicals and radiation – a rather shotgun approach to the genetic improvement of plants. The introduction of molecular methods began the current agricultural revolution. The use of such techniques is referred to as genetic modification (GM), genetic engineering, or biotechnology. GM crops that resist certain pests and tolerate herbicides have gained rapid acceptance in many countries.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), GM crop adoption is growing at double-digit rates, reaching 114.3 million hectares in 23 countries in 2007. Perhaps most importantly, 11 of the 12 million GM farmers are resource-poor smallholders.

In the 12 years since their commercial introduction, insect-resistant GM crops have increased yields while significantly decreasing the use of toxic pesticides. Herbicide-tolerant plants have decreased herbicide use and encouraged the widespread adoption of no-till farming, markedly reducing topsoil loss and promoting soil fertility.

Despite dire predictions, no adverse effects of GM crops on health, biodiversity, and the environment have been documented to date. The only unanticipated effects so far have been beneficial. Insect-resistant GM corn, for example, shows much lower levels of mycotoxin contamination than conventionally or organically grown corn because the plants are resistant to the insect larvae that bore holes through which fungi enter plants. No holes, no fungi, no mycotoxins.

GM techniques are widely accepted in medicine and food technology. What would we do today in the face of the growing world-wide diabetes epidemic without human insulin, now produced on a very large scale from human insulin genes expressed in microorganisms?

But the use of molecular techniques to improve crop plants continues to be rejected emphatically by many countries in Europe, by Japan, and – most tragically – by many African countries.

Recent food and energy price shocks have pulled the world up short. The so-called “food crisis” of 2008 was not really a crisis in the sense of a condition that can be resolved by the quick application of emergency measures. It has been developing for decades. And it is not likely to disappear soon, though food prices are moderating for the moment.

A human population approaching seven billion is straining the limits of the planet’s ecological support systems. Water and arable land are in short supply. The climate is changing. Fossil fuel energy is expensive and contributes to climate change. Unexpectedly, we find ourselves once again staring down the barrel of Malthus’ gun.

Most of the world’s poorest people are rural, small-holding farmers, virtually untouched by modern agriculture. There is much room for increasing productivity. And yet, while we hear talk of a second Green Revolution, expanding the food supply today in the poorest, most crowded, and insecure nations is a formidable task.

It seems that somewhere between the Green Revolution and the biotechnology revolution, the developed world declared the battle for food security won and moved on. Citizens of many urbanized, developed countries have grown nostalgic, increasingly convinced that organic farming, a throwback to nineteenth-century agriculture, produces nutritionally superior food (it doesn’t) and can solve the world’s food problems (it can’t).

Where land is not yet limited, small-scale organic farming is an affordable luxury. The amount of arable land on the planet has not changed substantially in more than half a century. Land is lost to urbanization, desertification, and salinization as fast as it is added by clearing forests and plowing grasslands.amp#160;

Yet the human population’s growth and increasing affluence continue to push up demand for food, feed, and fiber. Now, as we begin to confront the inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies, we are asking agriculture to satisfy some of our energy appetite, as well. This is like expecting your modest annual salary to satisfy all the appetites you developed while burning through a large inheritance.

Adapting to climate change and decreasing agriculture’s environmental impact, while substantially increasing its productivity, are among the key challenges confronting us in the twenty-first century. Despite the bad rap they’ve gotten, the GM crops in use today have already contributed to meeting both challenges.

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Developing an environmentally friendly agriculture for a hot and crowded planet will require the most advanced agricultural methods available, including GM techniques. Indeed, there are projects underway to develop crop varieties that use less water and maintain their yield potential under harsher drought conditions than today’s crops.amp#160;

Will we have the wisdom to accept the growing evidence of safety and welcome these necessary survival tools?