Nina Fedoroff – TRANSCRIPT
I’m here today to challenge the way we think about food and civilization. We live in a mobile, highly-technological, largely urban civilization; our food markets are bursting with produce.
We have an amazing global system that brings food from all over the world to those who can buy it; and there’s the rub to those who can buy it. In 2008, the food prices spiked and food riots broke out in 30 countries; governments fell. At the time, I was working as the science advisor to the US Secretary of State, then, Condoleezza Rice. She asked me to organize a high-level meeting on this food price crisis. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was there; he understood the implications.
In the ensuing years, food prices moderated, then spiked again, and the Arab Spring began.
(Video starts) (Moderator: Angry protesters burning tires, blocking roads, and attacking the police with fireworks in the Algerian capital They are protesting over the rise in food prices and unemployment (Arabic). We do not accept this government because we’ve been suffering for ten years and ten more years are coming, and nothing will have changed. (Moderator) Anti riot squads deployed in many Algerian cities as a simmering anger threatens massive protest in the oil and gas-rich North African country. (Rioters) The government is humiliating us, they’re raising the price of sugar. We have to pay the rent, the electricity, water, sugar,and oil; we’re all poor. (Video ends)
You all know how that came out; and if you think that’s a coincidence, watch this: the red lines mark when, and the flags mark where food riots happen – a scary thought. Can the stability of governments, indeed civilizations, ride on food? Let’s go back for a moment and look at how civilizations started. For most of our history, we were hunter-gatherers.
We spent our days gathering and capturing food. Then, about 10 or 20,000 years ago, we began to adapt plants and animals better to our own deeds, and settle down to grow and herd them. That, of course, is called agriculture, and it allowed us to feed more than ourselves and our families. We could feed scribes, artisans, warriors, and kings. These are scenes from a 3,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.
Cities and civilizations flourished. What I’m saying is simply this: all of human civilization emerged because we figured out how to produce surplus food. For millennia, civilizations rose and fell, lasting largely until the land wore out or until the neighbors invaded having worn out their own. Even at the turn of the 18th century, Thomas Malthus told us that we were doomed to hunger and strife because our numbers inevitably grew faster than our ability to produce food. If Malthus thought the game was over when we were just a billion people on the face of the earth, how did we get to today’s seven billion? It was just about the time Malthus was penning his gloomy predictions that science began to enter agriculture in earnest.
Over the next two centuries, three key innovations transformed agriculture. These were: synthetic fertilizer, genetics, and the internal combustion engine. These three innovations set in motion the most profound changes in human civilization ever. Plants do something quite extraordinary: they make sugar out of water, in thin air; well across the carbon dioxide in the air. We also need nitrogen, but most plants can’t use atmospheric nitrogen.
Manure contains nitrogen in the right kinds of compounds, and of course, it’s been used since time immemorial to fertilize crops. The problem is there isn’t much nitrogen in manure so it takes a lot of it to fertilize crops, and of course, you have to feed the animals that produce the manure. About a century ago, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere to compounds plants can use. That’s done in huge plants all around the world today.
And then, there’s genetics. This is Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution that put the countries, the populace, and famine-plagued Asian countries on the road out of poverty. What you might not know is that the Green Revolution was based on mutations, genetic changes that allowed plants to use fertilizer, nitrogen fertilizer, more efficiently, doubling and tripling yields.
Genetic modification, GM; today, we vilify that – I’ll get back to that. Then there’s the internal combustion engine: for most of human history, agriculture was back-breaking work and occupied most people. The populace remained largely agrarian even in developed countries, well into the 20th century.
As machines gradually took over the task, it requires fewer and fewer people to produce more and more food; people flow to cities, cities became hotbeds of innovation and collaboration; technology-driven wealth generation accelerated giving us all the machines, the gadgets, and the comforts of modern life, even the Internet and even Twitter.
What does the future hold? Was Malthus just plain wrong because he didn’t figure out science? Are there limits to how much, how many people the plant can provision? Will climate change help or harm? Let’s look at some trends. Population growth is slowing, but it’s not likely to stop much short of 10 billion; probably will go higher. As technology powers country after country out of poverty, people want to eat more meat; transitioning from a grain-based diet to a meat-based diet requires more grain; growing more grain requires more land, but there isn’t any more. In fact, we’re losing it faster to urbanization, salinization, and desertification than we’re adding it.
If we don’t do something different, we’ll be back to Malthus in our lifetime; well, maybe not mine, but certainly yours and your children’s. Then there’s climate change. Our major food and feed crops grow best at about the temperatures that you and I find comfortable. Let me draw your attention to this very hot summer of 2003 many of you experienced it. It was only three degrees above average for the last century, but crop yields declined by about 30%; think about that – that’s going to be an average summer in a few decades, and a cool summer by the end of the century.
Then there’s water – the most productive agriculture is irrigated agriculture, and the most reliable water comes from deep underground, indeed, from fossil aquifers. These are being exhausted faster and faster the world around. Not good trends; I think that our past successes in our bursting food markets have led a lot of city folks into thinking Malthus is ancient history; but Norman Borlaug knew otherwise. In his Nobel Prize speech, he said, “We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts,” and that’s just what we’ve done. We’ve contracted our investments in agricultural research leaving the job primarily to big agribusiness companies, and then we berated them – think Monsanto.
We’ve taken to the notion of organic food because it’s more natural; don’t be seduced – the primary tenant of organic farming is a prohibition on the use of synthetic fertilizer, but manure alone can’t do the job; if we, the entire world, went organic tomorrow, we could probably feed half of our current population. So can we feed 10 billion people? I think we can, but we have to think and act differently. Agriculture is a complex system of water, energy, chemical nutrients, environment, of course, people; we have to optimize that system as a whole and make it more sustainable. Very easy to say, hard to do. Let me give you some specifics: we need to increase the yield on the land we already farm using less water.
One contribution of many is moving high-value crops indoors. This is a very modern greenhouse in Southern California; tomatoes are growing on strings straight up producing five to ten times as much this they produce in open fields, as much as 100 kilograms per square meter per year using a tenth as much water. We can build greenhouses in cities on rooftops, and even in the desert with a bit of tweaking, but we won’t grow our grain under glass. Today, farmers distribute a hundred million tons of chemical fertilizer on their fields each year. Much of it runs off to pollute our waterways, killing them; figuring out how to deliver the nutrients precisely when they are needed, exactly where they’re needed is one of the challenges of the future.
Here’s one system, is called fertigation, and you can see the nutrients in the water go directly to the roots underground, but there’s much more to be done. Then there’s insecticides – we use about a billion pounds a year globally, to kill pests like this corn earworm, but they also kill beneficial insects. Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring” that ignited the environmental movement dreamed of a time that we could do this biologically rather than with toxic chemicals. Now we can: take this corn – is called BT corn similar to any other corn except it has one extra gene in it, taken from a safe bacterium used as a pesticide by organic farmers and put directly into the genome of the plant.
This is modern genetic modification, GM: the plant produces the bacterial protein, and it affects only the insects that munch on the plant; insecticide use has gone down a lot, worldwide, with the use of these plants, with these crops, beneficial insects flourish, and farmers’ prices come down; but there’s much, much more that can be done. We can look forward to crops that withstand drought, that use nitrogen more efficiently, that tolerate heat, and they are frankly, more nutritious for us, but contemporary genetically modified crops are the only ones that have gotten the GMO moniker, and that’s a fearful word. Google it, and you’ll be astounded: GMOs have been blamed for farmer suicides in India, tumors in rats, and every manner of human ill from autism to obesity to infertility and cancer. Scary – fortunately, none of it is true.
Indeed, after 25 years of government research, the EU published a report, basically summarizing the 25 years of research costing upwards of 300 million euros by saying very simply the modification of plants by GM techniques is no more dangerous than modification of plants by other techniques.
But the GMO wars rage on fueled by electronic gossip, by organizations that exploit GM fears for profit; fears sell better than facts. Important work on GM crops has been destroyed the world around like work on this golden rice, vitamin-A-enriched rice; I myself have been picketed, verbally abused, subject to endless hate email, and even narrowly escaped physical attack, all because I keep trying to explain the science and the sense behind this amazing revolution. We are approaching a tipping point; we expect 10 billion people for dinner in the not-too-distant future. How we meet their demands for food will again reshape civilization; will we continue to ignore facts and cling to fear-based belief systems with the glowing embers of poverty-based social instability flare into civilization- consuming conflagrations?
Or will we be able to develop, test, and actually use new technologies? Will we be able to realize the knowledge civilizations to which we all aspire? Will we have the wisdom to invest in the scientific and technological innovations that can give everyone a livelihood, a seat at the table, and enough to eat? I believe we can. Will we? I don’t know.
- Neil MacGregor: 2600 Years of History In One Object (Transcript)
- What the World Can Learn From Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy: Olesya Khromeychuk (Transcript)
- The War-Torn History of Crimea—My Home: Emine Dzhaparova (Transcript)
- How Literature Can Help Us Develop Empathy: Beth Ann Fennelly (Transcript)
- The Human Skills We Need In An Unpredictable World: Margaret Heffernan (Transcript)