Why Modern Famine Predictions Failed
When I graduated high school in 1968 there were rampant predictions of environmental collapse and eco-catastrophe theories flourished. The highly influential Stanford scientist Dr Paul Ehrlich dominated the doomsday media stating, “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born.” Predicting global famine in 1970 this PhD wrote, “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
Why was Ehrlich’s apocalyptic predictions so wrong? Ehrlich believed the promise of the “green revolution” via high yield crops and better cultivation practices would never offset the needs of a growing human population. Indeed, the early distribution of high yield “miracle seeds” had failed to stave off famines during the cooler 1960s. But then the earth began to warm, there was a CO2 fertilization effect and the growing season increased in concert with great leaps forward in genetics, biotechnology and agricultural innovations.
From NASA : CO2 fertilization - change in leaf area across the globe from 1982-2015. Credits: Boston University/R. Myneni
To produce high yield crops, early researchers had simply cross-bred compatible plants possessing desirable traits. Genetic manipulation via selective breeding had been done for hundreds and thousands of years as humans successfully created a wide variety of farm animals, or dog breeds like Chihuahuas and Great Danes from their ancestral wolf. Similarly, selective breeding transformed a scraggly grass into modern corn. Later, modern “mutant breeding” evolved in the 20th century as seeds were exposed to gamma rays searching for “hopeful monsters.” The public fails to recognize they likely consume many of the 3,000 crop varieties created via mutant breeding such as high yield barley, oats and grains commonly used in making premium beers and whiskey. For chocolate lovers, mutant breeding created a cocoa tree resistant to deadly fungus. At California’s UC Davis, scientists irradiated rice seeds to create a high yield variety that reached supermarket shelves in 1976 as “Calrose” rice, which still dominates over other varieties in many regions of the Pacific.
Next, the discovery of “restriction enzymes” in 1970 allowed scientists to successfully engineer organisms by surgically removing useful genes from one species and placing them into another species. Such genetically engineered plants now comprise most of today’s soybean, corn and cotton crops, as well as some varieties of potatoes, apples, papayas and sugar beets. Yields increased as engineered crops were better able to flourish under stressful conditions. Plants became more resistant to specific insect and fungal pests, producing greater yields without pesticides. Despite the tremendous benefits of genetically modified crops (GMOs), many people remained distrustful of possible detrimental health effects. More radical groups condemned GMO’s simply because they generated profits for large businesses.
The strange battle between pro and anti GMO groups is best illustrated in the Golden Rice saga. Golden Rice was first engineered in 1990s as a non-profit attempt to prevent blindness and premature deaths from vitamin A deficiency. That deficiency afflicted 250 million children, mostly in Asia, and killed more than 200,000 people a year. Because rice is those children’s primary food source, 2 German scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, removed a gene, from daffodils that produced beta-carotene and carefully inserted the gene into rice. Beta carotene is the key building block for vitamin A and gives the rice its golden color. Later a more efficient gene from corn was used. Potrykus and Beyer also insisted the technology to create Golden Rice be donated freely. So, the biotech company Syngenta waived its right to commercialize the product. The humanitarian benefits of free Golden Rice could not be more clear.
Nonetheless opponents of GMOs, led primarily by Greenpeace, vilified Golden Rice. Greenpeace lobbied countries around the world to prevent legalization of Golden Rice by simply generating as much fearful speculation about “imagined” health repercussions. Greenpeace was also fanatical about fighting biotechnology companies. They justified their propaganda campaign against Golden Rice claiming, "Corporations are overhyping golden rice benefits to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops.”
However, as Golden Rice continued to be proven safe, a letter signed by more than 100 Nobel laureates, accused Greenpeace of leading a “fact-challenged propaganda campaign against innovations in agricultural biotechnology." They demanded Greenpeace end its campaign against GMOs. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, had previously left the organization because its original good intentions were being subverted by extremists. Moore bemoaned, "They're linking Golden Rice with death, which scares parents into not wanting the technology developed”. Such false propaganda so infuriated Moore he created an alternative movement – Allow Golden Rice Now. As the outcry of support grows, countries are now increasingly moving towards legalizing Golden Rice.
Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions were incomprehensible. That environmental groups like Greenpeace vehemently propagandized against the technologies that prevented Ehrlich’s doomsday is even more unintelligible. But then again, there are many activists who only see humanity as earth’s scourge and best eliminated.
Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism