What would 'Malthusian years' bring?

SAN FRANCISCO — It seems like a science fiction novel: Near-starvation of much of the world's population results in the development of patented seeds and widespread livestock cloning.

But that scenario is not pure speculation. Rather it is a possible future envisioned by analysts for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a new report titled "The Bioeconomy of 2030.”

The report, which extrapolates current trends into the year 2030, deals with every aspect of biotechnology from medicines to plant-based chemicals, and projects their impacts on the world economy. It raises the fictional starvation scenario to prod the public and policymakers into considering biotech agriculture in a new light.

“Two consecutive years of extreme drought and high temperatures in the major grain growing regions of the world between 2016 and 2017 ... caused an explosion in food prices,” says the report published last month. “The 'Malthusian years', as they were quickly called by journalists, fueled further investment in agricultural biotechnology.”

Thomas Malthus, a British economist and demographer, famously predicted that population growth would outpace food production, resulting in famine. But over the past two centuries, a series of technological advances — the Industrial Revolution, for example — have greatly expanded the world's ability to produce food and his theory has been largely discredited.

The report's sections on agriculture stand out because they evoke provocative concepts to revive the policy debate over what opponents have sometimes call “Frankenfoods.”

There has been public opposition to the genetic modification of foods, particularly in Europe, since herbicide-resistant soybeans were introduced in the mid-1990s. Consumers have questioned the health and environmental risks of the products.

The genetically modified crops currently on the market have been designed to resist insect damage and viral infections and to tolerate certain herbicides, according to the World Health Organization. They are widely grown in North America, South America and China, but only a handful have been approved in the European Union.

The report says that overcoming this unease will require some policy response — possibly driven by an unwanted disaster.

"The goal is to get people thinking about the way the world is changing (population, consumption patterns, climate change, etc.) and encourage them to take a hard look at how society is going to cope,” OECD analyst and report co-author David Sawaya said in an e-mail exchange from Brussels.

In the sections focusing on agricultural issues, the report anticipates that growing middle classes in China and India will increase demand for meats and grains. It predicts a global trade pattern in which manufactured goods flow from the East to the West, while edibles flow back from bread-basket regions such as North and South America.

The report envisions that population growth, coupled with trends like water scarcity, will increase the pressure to obtain greater yields from arable lands. The OECD planners also think that an increasing demand for biofuels and biochemicals will lead to the development of non-edible plants designed to be grown on arid or other marginal lands.

All of these trends, they say, will increase the need for genetic modifications to design drought-tolerant crops, optimize non-edible plants for fuel and chemical production, and improve livestock through advanced breeding and cloning techniques. “The use of biotechnology in primary production is therefore likely to be pervasive by 2030 for the production of plant and animal food sources and for plant sources of feed and fiber,” the report suggests.

Biotech-skeptic Michael Sligh, director of the sustainable agriculture program for the U.S.-based Rural Advancement Foundation, said such a technology-centered view of the future ignores the social, economic and environmental issues that should be considered when planning how to feed the world.

“There's always been a great deal of rhetoric and promise around agricultural biotechnology but issues of hunger are far more complex than any technological fix,” Sligh said. “Do farmers have access to fair credit, good roads, open markets? All of these are factors that have to be taken into account.”

Among other objections, Sligh said biotech agriculture will increase the number of patented seeds and other inputs that farmers will have to purchase year after year, making them more dependent on global trade and credit flows and decreasing self-reliance.

“When you shift from a very long tradition of 12,000 years of farmers saving seeds to a technology that is patented that is a fundamentally different paradigm,” Sligh said.

Biotech advocate C.S. Prakash, a plant geneticist at the University of Tuskagee in Alabama, thinks the OECD report correctly predicts that global warming will increase the need for genetic modifications.

“The whole geography of farming is going to change,” he said. “You will have more water in some places and less elsewhere, and we will need to redesign crops quickly to meet these new stress factors.”

Prakash said he hopes the report's fictional scenario spurs debate, especially in Europe, where opposition to genetically modified foods is strongest.

“Unless Europe changes in a big way I don't think the rest of the world will follow,” he said.

In addition to the public opposition that could impede biotech agriculture, the authors of the OECD report noted another issue that could diminish its usefulness in avoiding the Malthusian possibilities.

In a follow-up email to GlobalPost, they noted that mass-market crops like corn, soy, cotton and canola have been the focus of biotech development because they are most profitable. There has been far less development of the niche crops and local adaptations that are sorely needed.

“This will often be in areas without huge (in a monetary sense) markets,” the OECD authors wrote, suggesting that research subsidies and public support would have to be part of the scenario for “fulfilling the promise of biotechnology.”

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