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The ‘Silent Spring’ Revisited

Food, survival, and technology

Food and water are absolute essentials for life, so it is not surprising that we have always tried to improve our supplies using ever more advanced technology. We have often succeeded, and developments have been apparent for several thousand years with obvious improvements in selecting strains of crops or breeding larger cattle. Ploughs and agricultural processes also steadily moved ahead in design and effectiveness, so that with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, heavy work and power moved from humans, oxen, and horses to machinery powered by coal and oil. This has usually cut the numbers of workers needed on the land, and most recently the role of humans has reduced even more as farm equipment for planting and harvesting can sweep across the fields without a human driver, relying instead on automated control and highly accurate positioning by the input of satellite navigation.

Similarly, within the last hundred years, science and technology have opened up many new opportunities, with chemicals that act as fertilizers, and herbicides that (at least in principle) target specific bugs and crop diseases. The more recent examples include biological-level changes where humans have actively modified the genetic structure of the plants that we are growing. The aims of this genetic engineering include improved crop strains with higher yields and disease resistance; at first sight, many of them are successful. My caveat, ‘at first sight’, is necessary, as we are moving into modifications where we have very limited knowledge of an extremely complex genetic area. We have only a beginner’s understanding of the subject. Therefore some ‘successes’ may carry with them changes we are unable to predict, that will have unexpected consequences emerging at a later stage.

This tinkering and invention without detailed knowledge is a typical human characteristic, so there is no point in suggesting we should not do it (we will). Nevertheless, experience in other areas, such as medicine, is littered with unexpected consequences, as I will mention in the next chapter. For example, drugs used for specific purposes have often resulted in apparently unrelated side effects that at the time of their invention were not considered. A truly negative example was the formation of birth defects from thalidomide, whereas the unexpected side effects of Viagra (intended for a heart condition) will be seen in a more positive light. In medicine and genetics, the scope for long-range secondary influences, unrelated to the original objective, is considerable. Many will fall within my definition of the dark side of progress.

As ever in our innovations, we are invariably focussed on a specific problem and rarely have the breadth of vision, or knowledge, to step back and consider side effects. This is very obvious in agriculture, as food is the very essence of our survival. We have made many mistakes along the way and continue to be remarkably inept at learning from the blunders that we made in the past. Instead we continue to assume we should attempt to manipulate our environment on an ever grander scale, and that chemical controls of planting will suffice. We also actively try to remove all inputs of diversity, despite the benefits of insects and other creatures in fertilization and stabilization of our crops and fields.

These are not just examples of stupidity in a technocentric twenty- first century, but are typified throughout the growth of farming over several millennia. Precisely because we have made huge steps in the relevant technologies, such blinkered vision of instant profit and easy farming means we all too easily lose our long-term objective, and in doing so the results are likely to be catastrophic for future generations. Economic and industrial patterns have become global, so our lack of concern is no longer limited to some small localized farm, but impinges directly on farming across the entire world, because now we farm, and transport produce, on a truly interdependent, international scale.

This realization of our shortcomings has been made by many people, so this chapter is intended as both a reminder and a stimulus to recognize the types of error that have persistently been made, and to encourage us to sense the best way to redress the problems, without losing the benefits of high yield and international diversity of foodstuffs. Failure to do so will mean starvation, if not for us, then for future generations.

Underlying reasons we will always struggle to consistently produce enough farm products include changes in climate (not only on the scale of weekly variations in weather patterns), shifts in seasonal features such as rainfall, and also the appearance of new pests and diseases that enjoy the same crops we do. These are often interlinked difficulties, as local climate fluctuations influence the territory covered by insects, and the global contacts mean we do not just import crops and other products, but simultaneously bring in the bugs, plants, and diseases of other countries. Mostly we do not see their arrival, but with imported food and plants, those working in the industry say it is not rare to find not just stray crops and seeds, but also small creatures attached to the produce. Newsworthy items are rare, but arachnophobia is common, so the media will report large banana spiders or even black widow spiders with grapes—but mostly such travellers are unnoticed or unreported.

A more bizarre news item told of a religious group in the UK that purchased a large quantity of crustaceans. The group took them out to sea and released them on the grounds that they should not be captured for food. The group was unaware that the creatures had been imported from Canada, and that this particular species is seen as a problem in the local UK waters.

In general, if the new arrivals like our climate, this is particularly unfortunate, as we rarely manage to simultaneously import the other creatures that have maintained a balance and population control in their host countryside. Hence, they can proliferate here, and we are ignorant of how to deal with them. Introducing the other creatures and insects that prey on our imported pests can be effective, as long as they have a highly specific diet, but if they adapt to the new conditions, then we have merely multiplied the range of the problems.

 
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