Population question : Why do we reject the technology that would put food on the plates of the poorest?
Now we are seven billion, let’s feed the world
Happy birthday, baby seven billion, Danica May Camacho. Born on Sunday night in Manila, you won’t know about your demographic celebrity – which is likely to be short-lived, as was that of Adnan Nevic, the equally arbitrary baby six billion, born just 12 years ago in Bosnia. And some time in the late 2020s, baby number eight billion will arrive.
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Since 1880, the world population has doubled and doubled again, and this has changed the face of the planet. We (hopefully) won’t see a further doubling, but even the best-case projections see the human tide topping out at around nine to 10 billion in the 2060s.
I am an optimist; I think we will cope, just – but it won’t be easy. I know that to stand a chance of keeping an extra two or three billion people fed, watered and sheltered in the decades ahead without completely ruining our planet, we are going to have to abandon our bizarre, decadent aversion to “risky” new technologies and embrace a Brunellian programme of hyper-tech big engineering and innovation. The alternative? An awful lot of dead black and brown people.
Today, we ignore the fact that the reason food is mostly affordable and famines are relatively rare is almost entirely down to the work of scientists few have even heard of – the plant breeders who forged the “green revolution” in the post-war years.
Nobel peace prizes have been awarded to some dodgy people, but if one man deserved it a thousand times over it was American scientist Norman Borlaug, whose work on dwarf and disease-resistant wheat varieties has been credited with saving a billion lives. His research proved wrong the doomsayers such as the US economist Paul Ehrlich, who in the Sixties predicted global famines by the century’s end. But we may be getting close to the limits of conventional plant-breeding and we cannot take for granted its ability to feed an extra one to two billion mouths in future. Ehrlich’s predictions may yet come true – and food prices have been rising for some time.
There is fury among scientists at the reluctance of the world (outside the US and China) to embrace GM technology. In Britain, scientists have developed varieties of transgenic wheat that are resistant to a new strain of deadly stem-rust disease. Geneticists in the UK, the US, Switzerland and elsewhere have developed wheats, “golden” rices and barleys that require fewer expensive pesticides, fewer herbicides and far less water to grow, or which can even grow in brine. Yet this technology is shunned not only in Europe but in Africa, where local green activists take their cue from decadent, well-fed Europeans who would presumably rather see the Third World starve than adopt “unnatural” technology.
If few have heard of Dr Borlaug, Rachel Carson is a heroine to millions. Her 1962 book Silent Spring is credited with launching the modern green movement, and detailed the effects of chemicals such as DDT and pesticides on the food chain. Carson made “chemical” a dirty word.
What her followers ignore (to her credit, she did not) is the fact that if it weren’t for chemicals that kill insects, fungus and weeds, two billion people would be starving. Carson’s claims about the mosquito-killer DDT have also been blamed for millions of needless malaria deaths. If Norman Borlaug is the unsung Nelson Mandela of science, Carson is seen by some as the (unwitting) Pol Pot of the environmental movement.
We are not just running out of food. The world faces an energy crisis of grotesque proportions. China’s population has (more or less) stopped growing, but India’s hasn’t, and if the subcontinent is to keep the lights on, it must invest in new energy technologies. Again, we face a choice: Earth has plenty of coal and gas, but to power a world of 10 billion people using carbon-emitting, coal-fired steam turbines will invite consequences so dire that even the most diehard climate sceptics will be finally convinced, as the floodwaters come lapping round their ankles.
Again, there is an answer – the wholesale adoption of ultra-modern, clean, green nuclear-fission technology. Nuclear is not perfect. There are well-known dangers and costs associated with the atom. Like democracy, nuclear energy is the worst option there is – apart from all the alternatives.
Greens – not all, but too many – hate machines. Such an attitude has been deemed by too many for too long to be “progressive”. We could go back, of course, to a world where food is grown “naturally” and our lives are powered by windmills and everything is sustainable and organic. Such a world would be a paradise if there were a billion humans. But there are not.
If the late-21st century is not to be remembered as the era of the giga-famine, we will have to stop pretending we live in a prelapsarian idyll and accept that only our ingenuity will allow Danica Comacho to live in anything approaching peace and prosperity.