News Analysis

Sunday 31 August 2014

We must open our minds if we are to feed seven billion mouths

Michael Hanlon

Published 01/11/2011 | 05:00

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Six of the some half a million babies born around the world yesterday that pushed the global population to the milestone of seven billion

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 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. 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.

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.

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 is the fact that if it weren't for chemicals that kill insects, fungus and weeds, two billion people would be starving.

But we are not just running out of food. The world faces an energy crisis of huge proportions. 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 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. We could go back, of course, to a world where food is grown "naturally" and our lives are powered by windmills. Such a world would be a paradise if there were a billion humans. But there are not. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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