Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Back to Nature All of the articles in Nature are based on the premise of continued population growth -- though this as seen as leveling off at around 10B people sometime in the second half of this century. This projection is based primarily on age structure of the population. These people have to be fed. And yield rate growth from past technological advances is running out of steam.

The Malthusian scissors, so casually mocked in Trewavas's introduction:

I think I may fairly make two postulata.

First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.

Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

Well, no one, it turns out, is denying this. In fact, when agricultural productivity does shit the bed (which, it is claimed, will happen without transgenic technology), the food supply will finally become inelastic. Then war and famine will force elasticity upon that population size, i.e., "the passion between the sexes." So the point seems to be, not that Malthus was wrong, but rather that even though he was right we must continue to prove him wrong whatever the cost. Is it wrong of me to interpret this as a smug, and crazed (Strangelovian?), faith in progress?

Trewavas also ignores the problem noted in another article by Gordon Conway and Gary Toenniessen in Nature 402, C55-C58 (1999): "The world already produces more than enough food to feed everyone if the food were equally distributed, but it is not." Increases in agricultural productivity are not connected in any satisfactory way with more food for people in developing areas (where most of the allegedly final doubling of world population is taking place).

Conway and Toenniessen also note the disinterest of the big agribusiness companies in developing markets -- they want public sector funding to make up the gap, which is in fact what has happened most dramatically in China (see the article by Huang et al.). But the benefits of this technology to poor farmers is complicated by a number of problems. They depend first of all on the absence of a price premium for GM seeds over natural ones, which either has to be "stolen" (in countries without the draconian IP regimes of the first world, like Argentina) or paid for by the government, as in China. Then the "savings" in pesticide/herbicide spraying, which is based on the assumption that poor farmers could afford to pay for this in the first place -- I don't have any numbers on this, but how much Roundup were these poverty-stricken farmers buying before the miraculous gene? Seems like a reasonable question. Finally, the increase in productivity leads to... declining prices. duh. (Huang et al. note that the Chinese government had to subsidize cotton prices).

There's also the obvious hazards of the transgenes escaping to the wild population, or the inevitable Bt-resistant pests (that will perhaps evolve less rapidly in the developing world than then in an environment of industrial monoculture). Trewavas dismisses the latter: "on-going technological development of other GM lines will almost certainly ameliorate the problem if it emerges." Perhaps he thinks that there is an infinite supply of potentially useful genes. Or maybe he forgot that we're about to destroy what little biodiversity is left.


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