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The Environmental Challenge

By Peter H. Raven
Missouri Botanical Garden
P.O. Box 299
St. Louis, MO63166, USA

It is difficult to comprehend that as recently as 10,000 years, or about 400 human generations, ago, the entire human population of the world consisted of about the same number of people who visited this museum, The Natural History Museum in London, last year -- three million people, give or take. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the product of some two million years of human evolution, lived at about the density of the aboriginal people in Australia before the start of Captain Cook's voyages of discovery, and in about the same way. These several million human beings populated all of Eurasia, Africa, Australia and the Americas, mostly living in small, scattered bands. Although they had inherited the use of fire and of weapons from their ancestors, they had no steady supplies of food, no villages or towns, and thus no basis for specializing in all of the wonderful ways that have given rise to the civilization that we enjoy today in the 21st century. Their ways of managing their lives and their relationships with one another were necessarily very different from the ways that will serve us best in a crowded world of 6.3 billion people. It is not, however, clear that we have learned how to behave under these new conditions, radically different though they are.

The situation of the human race changed radically with the development of crop agriculture, and we have never looked back. Plants were domesticated independently in the Fertile Crescent, in eastern Europe, Africa, India, China, Mexico, and Peru, and doubtless in a number of additional places, over a period of several millennia starting about 10,000 years ago. The ample supplies of food that these early crops provided gave those who possessed them security, but competition for these stored riches led to warfare and conquest as well as to the many threads of civilization that make up our modern world. Written language was developed by about 5,500 years ago, the Great Pyramids built about 5,300 years ago, Solomon's temple some 4,000 years ago, and human history has unfolded to give us the world that we know today. Human population levels worldwide reached several hundred million people by the time of Christ, remained grew slowly for more than 1,000 years, and then continued their growth onward, as ecological systems throughout the world were altered progressively by human activities and for benefit.

Just over two centuries ago, the Reverend Thomas Malthus made a dire prediction about the future of humankind: he considered that our numbers were growing so much more rapidly than our ability to produce additional food that widespread starvation would be the inevitable result. At the time Malthus was making this prediction, the human population stood at about 850 million people; now it amounts to approximately 6.3 billion. Although tens of millions of people have died of starvation over the intervening nine generations, famine never reached the apocalyptic levels that he projected. The Reverend Malthus was speaking in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, a time when first wood and then fossil fuels -- coal, oil, natural gas -- were employed on what eventually amounted to a gigantic scale to power the steam engines and other mechanical devices invented during this period. The amount of arable land worldwide was increased greatly by the application of powerful plows to previously uncultivated soils; by the development of irrigation systems on an even larger scale than had been in place earlier; and by the manufacture of artificial fertilizers that could be used to enrich soils previously unsuited for crops.

At very nearly the same time, English and other farmers began modern plant breeding, hybridizing and selecting improved crops and using them to make their fields more productive. There had been a great deal of selection earlier, as becomes so evident for example by turning the pages of Besler's 1613 herbal, or considering the breeds of dogs -- all derived from an Asian wolf over the course of approximately 15,000 years. Although when Malthus spoke, it was to be another century before the application of Gregor Mendel's findings, together with other basic relationships discovered during the early 20th century, came together to provide our first glimpse of the science of genetics, plant breeders, operating on a statistical and scientific basis to combine genetic material from difference sources and thus produce improved crops had been at work for a century by that time, and the results of their labors were evident in fields throughout the temperate regions of the world. With the full application of the principles of genetics and of improved methods of cultivation, and of course by enlisting farmers in forming more productive agricultural systems, the Green Revolution that has been described so well by my colleague M.S. Swaminathan came into existence and saved the lives of many additional hundreds of millions of people during the second half of the 20th century -- a time when the global population was growing explosively from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to 6 billion in 2000.

What kind of a job is agriculture doing, and how well fed are people today? Although poverty is declining steadily in Asia and Latin America, approximately 1.2 billion people are living on less than $1 per day; and in sub-Saharan Africa, almost half of the people have an income at or below this level. About 800 million people in developing countries are chronically undernourished, a reduction of approximately 40 million since 1990 but still a very large number; and worldwide, the World Health Organization estimated that about half the population is malnourished for at least one critical dietary element. From 1970 to 1999, average food consumption per person increased in all regions, from 2100 to 2700 calories in developing countries, and from 3000 to 3400 calories in industrialized ones. The world population may become stable at a level of approximately 9 billion people during the course of this century, but even that conservative estimate, combined with expectations for more affluence and consumption everywhere, poses enormous challenges for the world agricultural system.

In an effort to supply these needs, about 11% of the world's land surface is used to produce crops, a collective area about the size of South America, and only limited potential remains for expanding the area of land under cultivation. Most of the additional gains will be made in South America and in sub-Saharan Africa, and they will be made only with the full application of all the tools available to agriculture. At the same time, about 20% of the arable land in 1950 has been lost subsequently, to salinization, desertification, urban sprawl, erosion, and other factors, so that we are feeding 6.3 billion people today on about four-fifths of the land on which we were feeding 2.5 billion people in 1950, this being possible though a combination of selection, breeding, improved irrigation systems, soil conservation, and the judicious application of fertilizers. Modern agriculture scarcely resembles the agriculture of the 1940s, and yet it is not adequate, partly for political and social reasons, to feed all people well.

Beyond the land consigned to crop production, an additional 20% of the world's land surface is used for the production of animals, very critical in a world that is increasingly shifting to animal proteins. On this fifth of the world's land surface, approximately 180 million people are grazing flocks that collectively amount to 3.3 billion sheep, goats, and cattle; in almost every case, the lands on which they are being grazed are being progressively degraded to such an extent that they are unlikely to be able to maintain their present levels of productivity, much less of biodiversity, in the future. Therefore, about a third of the total land surface is used directly for agriculture and grazing, and a great deal more for forestry, gathering miscellaneous natural products, and other human activities. Most of the land used for agriculture and grazing, especially in the tropics and subtropics, is being degraded by these activities and is therefore becoming less sustainable and productive in the face of increasing worldwide demand for high-quality food.

In the world as a whole, human beings are estimated to be using, wasting, or diverting nearly half of the total products of photosynthesis, which is essentially the sole source of nutrition not only for humans, but for all of the other organisms on Earth. Thus we, one of an estimated 10 million or more species, appropriate for ourselves half of the total biological productivity of our planet, while our numbers, our increasing levels of affluence (consumption), and our use of inappropriate technologies all increase our share of the total with every passing year. In addition, we are consuming more than half of the total renewable supplies of fresh water in the world, our use of water growing at about twice the rate of our population growth. Our demands for water are growing rapidly, while water tables across north China, India, and other critical, densely populated regions are dropping rapidly. Agriculture accounts for about 90% of the total water actually consumed for human purposes (about 70% of the water that we withdraw from natural sources), and it is not clear how we shall be able to find water for a human population 50% larger than at present, one with greatly increased demands for affluence. As it is, about half the human population, some 3.5 billion people, will be living in regions facing severe water shortages by 2025.

In terms of human impact, we can think in terms of the Worldwide Fund for Nature's Ecological Footprint (EF) measurement, which can be applied to any human population. In the words of the WWF, a population's EF is the total area of productive land or sea required to produce all the crops, meat, seafood, wood and fiber that it consumes, to sustain its energy consumption and to provide space for its infrastructure. Viewed in these terms, the Earth has about 11.4 billion hectares of productive land and sea space. Divided by the current world population of 6.3 billion people, this amounts to about 1.8 hectares per person. The actual Ecological Footprint of an individual, however, is very unequal around the world: 1.3 hectares per person in Africa or Asia, about 5.0 hectares in Western Europe, and about 9.6 hectares in North America. The world consumer's average EF in 1999 was 2.3 hectares per person, so that we are about 22% beyond the planet's capacity to support us on a sustainable basis. We support ourselves, in a world in which 800 million people receive so little food that their brains cannot develop normally and their bodies are literally wasting away; three billion people are malnourished; and 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day, by means of a gigantic and continuing overdraft on the world's capital stocks of water, fossil energy, topsoil, forests, fisheries and overall productivity. We use the world, its soils, waters, and atmosphere as a gigantic dumping ground for pollutants, including the pollutants that render much surface water unusable, the carbon dioxide that is contributing directly to global warming and the atmospheric pollution that kills millions of people around the world annually.

It is estimated that the world's Ecological Footprint was about 70% of the planet's biological capacity in 1970, reaching 120% by 1999. And our population growth, demand for increased consumption, and continued use of inappropriate technologies are rapidly driving the ratio upward, indicating that we are already managing our planet's resources in an unsustainable way, much as if we used 30% of the funds available in our bank account each year with the expectation that they would somehow be replenished, or because we just didn't care. We continue to assume that developing countries will somehow reach the level of the industrialized ones currently, while our good senses should tell us that that cannot be the case without making extraordinary changes in our assumptions and in the ways that we live. In fact, Wackernagel and Rees have estimated that if everyone lived at the standard (rate of consumption, equivalent technologies) of the industrialized countries, it would take two planets comparable to the planet Earth to support them, three more if the population should double, and, if worldwide standards of living should double over the next 40 years, twelve additional "Earths." It's simply not going to happen, and we can clearly find our way to a sustainable future only by achieving a sustainable population, finding a sustainable level of consumption globally, accepting social justice as the norm for global development, and finding the improved technologies and practices that will help us make sustainable development possible.

One of the most serious pressures on the world's long-term sustainability is the loss of biodiversity. Terrestrial biodiversity -- life on land -- appeared about 440 million years ago, with the nearly contemporary appearance of the ancestors of land vertebrates, plants, fungi, and arthropods (insects and their relatives). After billions of years of earlier life in the seas. A massive extinction event occurred about 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, and, judged from the fossil record of the time, drove about two-thirds of the terrestrial species in existence at that time to extinction. After a period of about ten million years of recovery, species numbers began to rise again to the estimated 10 million or more eukaryotic species, together with an unknown number of bacteria, that exist today.

We can estimate the global rate of extinction of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms by comparing species longevity in the fossil record, an average of one
species per million per year becoming extinct, with the observed extinction rates. Over the past few centuries, extinction rates for well known groups of organisms such as vascular plants, butterflies, and vertebrate animals provide a basis for estimating the overall rates. For example, over the past thousand years in the Pacific, the period of Polynesian and later European colonization, at least 1,000 species of birds, approximately a tenth of the world's total, have disappeared forever. With the estimated destruction of perhaps 95% of the world's tropical moist forests over the course of the 21st century, it is projected that as many as two of every three terrestrial species that exists now may disappear permanently, or be reduced to populations too small to insure their long-term survival, before the dawn of the 22nd century.

Striking is the fact that we are likely never to have seen, or to be aware of, the existence of most of the species we are driving to extinction. In tropical moist forest, we have catalogued so far probably fewer than one in twenty of the species present -- which is one reason that the losses are so tragic. The loss of so many species clearly will have a negative impact on future human prospects. We derive all of our food; most of our medicines; a major proportion of our building materials, clothing, chemical feedstocks; and other useful products from the living world. In addition, the communities and ecosystems that it comprises protect our watersheds, stabilize our soils, determine our climates and provide the insects that pollinate our crops, among many other ecosystem services. In addition, we are early in the age of molecular discovery, when living organisms hold much of the promise for the development of currently unknown sustainable systems in the future. We are, however, losing the diversity of organisms at an unprecedented rate just as we are staring to appreciate it, and while knowing only a very small fraction of the species that exist. And finally, these organisms are simply beautiful, enriching our lives in many ways and inspiring us every day. By any moral or ethical standard, we simply do not have the right to destroy them, and yet we are doing it savagely, relentlessly, and at a rapidly increasing rate, every day. Many believe, and I agree with them, that we simply do not have the right to destroy what is such a high proportion of the species on Earth. They are, as far as we know, our only living companions in the universe.

Among all human activities, agriculture, grazing, and forestry are the most destructive of biodiversity, accounting for the exploitative use of more than half of the world's land surface. As Gordon Conway has pointed out, the single most promising way to avoid habitat destruction is to increase farm yields in a process that he has termed "The Doubly Green Revolution." If we wish to stem the widespread extinction resulting from these practices, we must learn to make them as productive as possible on the lands that are being used; otherwise, a relatively unproductive, unfocused agriculture will lead to the destruction of many more species and more widely than would be possible if our existing systems were sustainable and as productive as possible. Surprisingly, relatively little information is available on the sustainability of different agricultural systems around the world, and we must have a great deal more in order to make the best possible choices. But the overall lesson is clear: agriculture itself is highly destructive to biodiversity, and deliberately so. We eliminate biological diversity in order to build agricultural productivity; as agriculture has become more productive, it has become more uniform and larger-scale, and the damage to biodiversity has increased proportionately, and deliberately over the centuries.

In the years following World War II, the application of relatively large amounts of synthetic pesticides, introduced in 1947, is considered to be an essential element in productive agricultural systems. Despite applications at this level, there is an estimated global loss of $244 billion per year, which amounts to 43% of total global production; pesticides save an estimated further 30% of total production, but have highly negative environmental consequences. Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring" (1962) was an early warning of the ecological problems that accompany the widespread application of such chemicals, and the warning she sounded has been heeded in several ways. Integrated Pest Management, involving the introduction of parasitic insects that would control pest species, is ecologically sound and thankfully widely applied. Organic farming, collectively an attempt to lower the inputs to agricultural systems, is not necessarily sustainable, and does generally lead to a yield reductions as well, judged, for example, from the long-term studies by the Swiss Research Institution for Sustainable Agriculture and comparable bodies. Certainly lowering chemical inputs to agricultural systems is in itself highly desirable, but productivity must be enhanced if even the huge areas now under cultivation are to meet human needs. The system of practices followed in organic agriculture do contribute remarkably to the maintenance of soil fertility and the reduction of pesticide use, and include many features that are of importance in the attainment of agricultural sustainability worldwide.

Where do we go from here? A wide variety of new approaches have been developed that will combine well to produce the more productive, sustainable agriculture of the future. What this new agriculture will look like will vary widely from region to region, and its attainment will require a high degree of imagination and a willingness to test many possible directions. Organic agriculture is essentially what is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa today, and half of the people are starving; so it is clear that more is needed. To meet the real challenges of the intensive agriculture that has been deployed widely in the modern world and improve productivity and sustainability throughout, all available methods, certainly including GM technology, must be applied where they will be useful.

Taking into account the general purposes of this panel, I now turn to the subject of the present and future role of GM technology in improving the productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems. We have heard about some of these earlier this evening. Here I emphasize the role of these technologies in achieving reductions in pesticide applications. Even by the year 2000, the use of GM soybean, oilseed rape (canola), cotton, and maize had reduced pesticide use by 22.3 million kilograms of formulated product, and the reductions have gone far beyond that level subsequently. Worldwide, there are at least 500,000 cases of pesticide poisoning and 5,000 deaths from this cause annually. In the United States alone, approximately 110,000 cases of pesticide poisoning are reported each year, together with an estimated 10,000 cases of pesticide-induced cancer. Approximately 35% of the foods in supermarkets in the U.S. have detectable pesticide residues, residues that everyone would like to avoid. In the agricultural fields of the United States, an estimated 70 million birds are killed each year by pesticides, along with billions of both harmful and beneficial insects. Against this background, it is clear that the huge reductions already achieved constitute a major positive contribution to the environmental soundness of the agricultural systems in which these crops are being grown. They provide a major benefit to the health of consumers wherever they have been employed.

Routine applications of pesticides in Europe are much higher than in the United States. It has been estimated that if half of the maize, oilseed rape (canola), sugar beet, and cotton raised in Europe were genetically modified to resist their pests that there would be a reduction of about 14.5 million kilograms of formulated pesticide product (4.5 million kilograms of active ingredient). The reduction of 7.5 million hectares of crops sprayed as a result of growing GM crops would save approximately 20.5 million liters of diesel and prevent the emission of 73,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the light of these figures, it is obvious that agriculture in Europe and throughout the world is neither being managed sustainably nor productively. In order to meet human needs adequately and safely, agricultural practices need to be improved everywhere. Certainly the use of Integrated Pest Management and organic agriculture are useful parts of our striving towards the creation of productive, sustainable agricultural systems, but the application of modern plant breeding methods through GM technology clearly have significant contributions to make also. Why are these methods viewed with such skepticism, when the gains following their widespread use are so evident, and their promise for much greater contributions so great?

Other recent problems with food safety have contributed to the widespread public perception that foods produced as a result of GM technology may somehow be unsafe in principle. In fact, no scientific theory exists as to why this should be so. Despite the fact that such foods have been consumed in large quantities for many years, not a single case of sickness has been attributed to them. Many of our medicines, virtually all of our cheeses, much of our beer, and in many regions, a large proportion of the other foods consumed have been produced as a result of the application of GM technology, so that billions of people have been consuming them or injecting them into their bodies for many years: not a single case of sickness has resulted, and there is absolutely no scientific reason that it should be expected. If there were some reason that GM technology was dangerous in itself, people presumably would fear their doses of insulin, interferon, or other drugs regardless of how helpful they might be. But there is no such reason. In consideration of the facts, many learned bodies, including the Royal Society and the academies of sciences of many other countries, including the United States, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Third World Academy of Sciences, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, have, considering the evidence, pointed out consistently over the years that there is no scientific basis for considering such foods unsafe for human consumption. Concerning food safety, it is time to stop dealing with phantoms and address reality for the benefit of human beings generally.

Why then does a general ban on the import of some GM foods exist in Europe? With no scientific reasoning presented in support of such a ban, it is clear that the reasons for maintaining it are emotional, personal, and political. Although some of these reasons are understandable, the ban is certainly not justifiable scientifically. It is therefore welcome that earlier this month, with the U.S. on the verge of filing a WTO complaint against the EU, that EU commissioner David Byrne, who is in charge for food safety for the Union, emphasized that strong steps were being taken to end the moratorium. The major drop in research in this area in Europe over the past five years both threatens to deprive the world of beneficial applications of European science to improved crop production and also poses an economic threat to the continent's future development. Undoubtedly the unsubstantiated idea that GM foods might in principle be harmful to human health have contributed to this malaise.

In the area of plant breeding, it is important to emphasize that when modern methods are used to study to production of individual characteristics in relation to the genes that are involved in them, the knowledge obtained can be applied to the improvement of crops all over the world, regardless of the commercial benefit obtained. It is general knowledge, of great common value. In contrast, in traditional plant breeding, only the specific crop involved is improved, and no general principles or specific facts are gained that can be used for less profitable crops that may be essential to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries. At the M.S. Swaminathan Research Institute in Chennai, India, for example, scientists for many years have be transferring genes for salt resistance from mangroves to rice in order to produce new strains of rice that can resist the brackish water infiltrating the coasts of India and still remain productive. These genes can in principle be used to improve the salt resistance of any crop, anywhere, and will be made available for that purpose.

Whatever policy might be adopted for Europe, persuading governments responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of starving people in Africa to forego food aid on the basis of politically or economically motivated disinformation seems to me to constitute a serious crime against humanity. I maintain that those responsible for the misinformation bear a serious responsibility for the lives of the people who are dying, and urge the world as a whole to return to rationality in dealing with this humanitarian crisis. For some who live in industrialized countries to accept medicines produced through GM technologies because them seem necessary for them and at the same time to deny foods produced in a similar way to starving Africans seems to me to pose a moral dilemma that deserves more serious consideration. As Per Pinstrup-Anderson has pointed out, to a mother in a famine-struck region in Africa, the disease she and her children suffer from is hunger and the medicine is food. He then went on to point out that the world's poor spend 60 to 80 percent of their incomes on food, and there often isn't enough to alleviate starvation. So Europe's strong stand against GM crops, which has the potential to make more food available, may seem ill-advised to hungry people in
developing countries who need food and not unsupported arguments about why it might not be safe. Serious discussions of the appearance of large-scale agriculture, the corporatization of food systems, or the globalization of trade are clearly necessary, but it is not GM crops that are driving these trends, which they are sometimes used to represent.

Last month, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of America's most venerable and respected civil rights groups, confronted Greenpeace at a public event and accused it of ''eco-manslaughter'' through its support of international policies limiting development and the expansion of technology to the developing world's poor. ''But well-fed eco-fanatics shriek 'Frankenfoods' and 'genetic pollution,''' CORE said in a statement announcing their intention to confront Greenpeace. ''They threaten sanctions on nations that dare to grow genetically modified crops, to feed their people or replace crops that have been wiped out by insects and blights. They plan to spend $175 million battling biotech foods over the next five years. Not a penny of this money will go to the starving poor."

Apart from food safety, the fears concerning the cultivation of GM crops are primarily environmental. Clearly, transgenes, like all the other genes that they possess, move regularly from crops to any wild or weedy relatives that may be growing in the vicinity of the cultivated fields. This process has been changing the characteristics of crops and their wild and weedy relatives since the beginnings of agriculture, and is in fact a major feature of plant evolution generally. For some crops, as maize and cotton in Europe, there are no wild or weedy relatives, and consequently no danger of any genes spreading. For others, such as oilseed rape (canola) and sugar beets in Europe, the consequences of any genes moving into weedy populations, or genes moving from the weeds into the crops, should be taken into account. How would the role of the genetically modified weeds or wild plants differ from that of their unaltered relatives in agricultural systems or in nature, and would that constitute a problem? Are some of them likely to become weeds? Again, there is nothing intrinsic about the characteristics of the GM process itself that poses a threat. In the hands of those who wish to cripple the application of scientific techniques to the solution of human problems around the world, "gene transfer" has become a threat in itself, and so emphasized as such that people have not paused to ask "What is that threat?"

In conserving biodiversity throughout the world, we must improve the productivity and sustainability of all human activities, especially including agriculture. Nothing has driven more species to extinction or caused more instability to the world's ecological systems than the development of an agriculture sufficient to feed 6.3 billion people. The less focused and productive this agriculture is, the more destructive its effects will be. Measures of sustainability must be introduced widely to complement those of productivity, and forms of agriculture appropriate for individual regions must be designed and implemented. Drought and stress resistance, lowered inputs of all kinds, improved productivity, and improved characteristics of the resulting foods must all be stressed in developing a wide variety of sound agricultural systems. Rational approaches to this field should lead gradually to the acceptance of GM and other technologies and to their widespread use to help solve the many problems of agriculture. All parts of the process of acceptance by the public need to be transparent and verifiable, with questions addressed as they arise; only by a rigorous process of disclosure and investigation will a majority of people ever be comfortable with any new kind of technology.

New public sector efforts are needed to benefit poor farmers in developing countries, where in general neither the most important crops nor the conditions of cultivation have been the subject of much international effort. Whatever approaches might be taken to the development of these agricultural systems, the precise modification of the organisms in them by modern genetic techniques seems a rational way to move toward the desired outcomes. To assert that GM techniques are a threat to biodiversity is to state the exact opposite of the truth. They and other methods and techniques must be used, and used aggressively, to help build sustainable and productive, low-input agricultural systems in many different agricultural zones around the world. Properly applied, they will provide major assistance for the preservation of biodiversity, and to the productivity and sustainability of ecosystems everywhere. They are, and will remain, an essential ingredient in building global sustainability.

In a fundamental sense, however, the only way to build a sustainable world is to change both that world and our way of thinking about it. A new industrial revolution and a new agriculture are clearly required to attain this goal. Population, overconsumption, and the use of appropriate technologies must all be brought into the equation to achieve it. Social justice must be extended to people everywhere, and their right to security, which underlies their ability to contribute to the formation of a world that will support both their children and ours, must be nurtured and expanded. In the words of Kai Lee, we must continue to engage in a "search for a life good enough to warrant our comforts."