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Stuff of Progress, Pt. 7: GE Foods

Blog Post | Food & Hunger

Stuff of Progress, Pt. 7: GE Foods

Genetically modified foods are safe and nutritious, but still face opposition from extremists.

Genetically engineered (GE) foods, alternatively known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), have been around since the dawn of agriculture. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals, first inadvertently, and later through primitive selective breading, for nearly 30,000 years. Nearly the whole pantry of food and animal products we think of as natural and historically unchanged would be unrecognizable in their original prehistoric forms.

Let’s be clear: eating genetically engineered food is safe, healthy and nutritious. Hundreds of millions of people buy and consume GE foodstuffs daily, to the betterment of themselves and their families. While GE crops and derived foods have been extensively and successfully safety-tested for decades, the anti-GE movement still rails against the research, production and consumption of GE food crops. This academically unsupportable dissent has historically retarded, and will continue to retard, human well-being and growth. That is particularly true for the world’s poorest people.

In developing countries and regions, where many millions subsist mainly on ordinary rice, a lack of Vitamin A can result in crippling disability or death. According to World Health Organization (WHO) figures, Vitamin A deficiency results in the blindness at least 250,000, and as many as 500,000, children annually. At least half of those children die within 12 months of becoming Vitamin A deficient.

A lack of Vitamin A in the diet is a problem exclusively confined to the world’s poor. It is a technical problem for which there is a readily available solution. The solution in question was first postulated by Peter Beyer, the professor of Cell Biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland. Beyer and his team utilized genetic engineering to insert the beta-carotene-producing genes into the DNA of normal rice. The result was rice modified in such a manner as to produce beta-carotene in situ within the plant – the so-called Golden Rice. The color of the rice is a clear indicator of the Vitamin A contained within. In many regions of China, India and Bangladesh, a daily serving of Golden Rice could prevent millions of cases of blindness, save an equal number of lives, and improve the economic prospects and general well-being of countless families in the decades to come.

Many NGOs and extreme environmentalists, such as Greenpeace, continue to prohibit, delay and restrict human ability to deploy genetic engineering in modern agriculture. A strictly GE/GMO-free organic lifestyle may well be enjoyed without deleterious consequences by a minority of wealthy individuals in developed countries. But forcing such a lifestyle upon the world’s poor is unjust, unethical, unproductive and unnecessary. Improvements in agricultural technology have saved hundreds of millions of lives, and will undoubtedly save hundreds of millions more in the future.

The irrational fear and abhorrence of genetically engineered crops has deep roots in human evolution. More than a hundred thousand years of trial and error allowed our species to laboriously work out which plants and animals were edible and nutritious, and which were dangerous or low in nutrients. This information was collected and handed down through oral instruction from parent to child, family to family and merchant to merchant.

While many factors have contributed to the delay in the research, production, distribution farming of key GE crops, the root cause is all too often an irrational fear of the unknown hazards and risks of GE products. A recent study—aptly titled, “Extreme Opponents of Genetically Modified Foods Know the Least But Think They Know the Most”—captures the current state of play perfectly:

“Genetically modified (GM) foods are judged by the majority of scientists to be as safe for human consumption as conventionally grown foods, and have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind, such as increased nutritional content, higher yield per acre, better shelf life and crop disease resistance—yet there is substantial public opposition to their use around the world. In the United States, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 88% of scientists thought GM foods were safe to eat, while only 37% of lay-people thought so, the largest gap for any of the issues tested.”

Every month of delay in the development of higher-yielding, more nutritious, more extreme environment-tolerant crops that require less fertilizer and pesticide is another month that future generations will look back on in embarrassment. Over the next 25 years, the development and successful use of genetic engineering in the production of agricultural crops will play a key role in the enhancement of human flourishing. It will save and enrich the lives of millions. That, however, will only be possible if people support the research, development and use of GE technologies in a rational manner.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

Blog Post | Food Production

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 1: Norman Borlaug

Introducing the "Father of the Green Revolution," Norman Borlaug.

Today marks the inaugural launch of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org named: The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of unsung heroes of progress who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. The Hero could be anyone from a scientist who invented a vaccine that saved millions of people, to a politician whose policies lifted a nation from poverty to prosperity.

Today, on the 9th anniversary of his passing, our first Hero of Progress is Norman Borlaug, the man commonly dubbed the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

Norman Ernest Borlaug was an American agronomist and humanitarian born in Iowa in 1914. After receiving a PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to work on agricultural development for the Rockefeller Foundation. Although Borlaug’s taskforce was initiated to teach Mexican farmers methods to increase food productivity, he quickly became obsessed with developing better (i.e., higher-yielding and pest-and-climate resistant) crops.

As Johan Norberg notes in his 2016 book Progress:

After thousands of crossing of wheat, Borlaug managed to come up with a high-yield hybrid that was parasite resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight hours, so it could be grown in varying climates. Importantly it was a dwarf variety, since tall wheat expended a lot of energy growing inedible stalks and collapsed when it grew too quickly. The new wheat was quickly introduced all over Mexico.

In fact, by 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat was Borlaug’s variety and Mexico’s wheat harvest grew six times larger than it had been when he first set foot in the country nineteen years earlier.

Norberg continues, “in 1963, Borlaug moved on to India and Pakistan, just as it found itself facing the threat of massive starvation. Immediately, he ordered thirty-five trucks of high-yield seeds to be driven from Mexico to Los Angeles, in order to ship them from there.” Unfortunately, Borlaug’s convoy faced problems from the start; it was held up by Mexican police, blocked at the US border due to a ban on seed imports, and was then stalled by race-riots that obstructed the LA harbor.

Eventually Borlaug’s shipment began its voyage to India, but it was far from plain sailing.

Before the seeds had reached the sub-continent, Indian state monopolies began lobbying against Borlaug’s shipment and then, once it was ashore, it was discovered that half the seeds had been killed due to over-fumigation at customs. If that wasn’t enough, Borlaug learnt that the Indian government was planning to refuse fertilizer imports as they “wanted to build up their domestic fertilizer industry.” Luckily that policy was abandoned once Borlaug famously shouted at India’s deputy Prime Minister.

Borlaug later noted, “I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.” Amid the war, Borlaug and his team continued to work tirelessly planting seeds. Often the fields were within sight of artillery flashes.

Despite the late planting, yields in India rose by seventy percent in 1965. The proven success of his harvests coupled with the fear of wartime starvation, meant that Borlaug got the go-ahead from the Pakistani and Indian governments to roll out his program on a larger scale. The following harvest was even more bountiful and wartime famine was averted.

Both nations praised Borlaug immensely. The Pakistani Agriculture Minister took to the radio applauding the new crop varieties, while the Indian Agriculture Minister went as far as to plough his cricket pitch with Borlaug’s wheat.  After a huge shipment of seed in 1968, the harvest in both countries boomed. It is recorded that there were not enough people, carts, trucks, or storage facilities to cope with the bountiful crop.

This extraordinary transformation of Asian agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s almost banished famine from the entire continent. By 1974, wheat harvests had tripled in India and, for the first time, the sub-continent became a net exporter of the crop. Norberg notes, “today they (India and Pakistan) produce seven times more wheat than they did in 1965. Despite a rapidly growing population, both countries are much better fed than they used to be.”

Borlaug’s wheat, and the dwarf rice varieties that followed, are credited for ushering in the Green Revolution. After the Indo-Pakistani war, Borlaug spent years working in China and later in life, Africa.

In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishments. He is only one of seven to have received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize. It is said that he was particularly satisfied when the people of Sonora, Mexico, where he did some of his first experiments, named a street after him.

Norman Borlaug’s work undeniably changed the world for the better, and in saving approximately one billion lives, he truly deserves to be our first Hero of Progress.

version of this article appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Food Production

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 2: Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch

Introducing the inventors of the "Haber-Bosch process," Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.

Today marks the second installment of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column gives a short overview of unsung heroes, who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 1st part of this series here.

Our second Heroes of Progress installment features two German Nobel Prize-winning scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. The two have created the “Haber-Bosch process,” which efficiently converts nitrogen from the air into ammonia (i.e., a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen). Ammonia is then used as a fertilizer to dramatically increase crop yields. The impact of Haber and Bosch’s work on global food production transformed the world forever.

Throughout the 19th century, farmers used guano (i.e., the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats) as highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium – nutrients that are essential for plant growth. But by the beginning of the 20th century, guano deposits started to run out, and the price of the fertilizer began to increase. If a solution to the depletion of guano hadn’t come soon, famine would have followed.

Enter, Fritz Haber. Born in 1868 in Breslau, Germany (now part of Poland), Haber began studying chemistry at the age of 18 at the University of Heidelberg. By 1894, Haber worked at the University of Karlsruhe, researching methods to synthesize nitrogen. Nitrogen is very common in the atmosphere, but the chemical element is difficult to extract from the air and turn into a liquid or solid form (a process known as “fixing” nitrogen).

After thousands of experiments over almost 15 years, Haber succeeded in producing ammonia on July 3rd, 1909. That proved that commercial production was possible. However, Haber’s breakthrough occurred in a small tube, 75 centimetres tall and 13 centimetres in diameter. At the start of the 20th century, large containers that could handle the pressures and temperatures required for industrial scale production of ammonia did not yet exist.

That is where Carl Bosch enters the story. Born in Cologne in 1874, Bosch studied metallurgy at the University of Charlottenburg in 1894, before transferring to the University of Leipzig to receive his doctorate in chemistry in 1898. Bosch met Haber in 1908 and after finding out about the latter’s breakthrough the following year, Bosch took on the challenge of developing suitable containers that could manage Haber’s process on the industrial level.

Within four years Bosch was producing ammonia in 8-meter-tall containers. The Haber-Bosch process was born. By 1913, Bosch had opened a factory that kick-started the fertilizer industry that we know today.

The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process meant that for the first time in human history it became possible to produce synthetic fertilizers that could be used on enough crops to sustain the Earth’s increasing population. It’s nearly impossible to say how many lives this breakthrough saved, but the expansion of the world’s population from 1.6 billion in 1900, to more than 7.3 billion today, “would not have been possible without the synthesis of ammonia,” claims the Czechian scientist Vaclav Smil.

After their revolutionary contribution to human progress, the two scientists worked to help Germany during World War I. Bosch focused on bomb making, while Haber became instrumental in developing chlorine gas. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Haber fled Germany to teach at Cambridge University, and he died shortly after in 1935. Meanwhile, in 1937, Bosch was appointed President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute – Germany’s highest scientific position. Being a staunch critic of Nazi policies, Bosch was soon removed from that position and died in 1940.

Today, more than 159 million tonnes of ammonia are produced annually, and while ammonia is also used for cleaning and as a refrigerant, 88 percent of ammonia is used for fertilizer. It is estimated that if average crop yields remained at their 1900 level, the crop harvest in the year 2000 would have required nearly four times more cultivated land than was actually cultivated. That equates to an area equal to almost half of all land on ice-free continents – rather than just the 15 percent that is needed today.

Without the combined efforts of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the world’s population would be much smaller than it is today. The two have truly changed the world for the better. Their lasting contribution to the wellbeing of humanity means that they rightly deserve to be our second Heroes of Progress.

PS: Carl Bosch is on the left of our cover picture and Fritz Haber is on the right of our cover picture

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

The West's Role in Africa's Day of the Locust

Anti-pesticide activism has facilitated disastrous infestations of African crops.

Two weeks ago a Boeing 737 on final approach to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, flew into a massive cloud of locusts swarming above the airport. The insects were sucked into the plane’s engines and splattered across the windshield, blinding the pilots to the runway ahead. Throttling up to climb above the swarm, the pilot had to depressurize the cabin so he could reach around from the side window and clear the windshield by hand. Diverting to Addis Ababa, the plane was able to land safely.

The locusts that almost brought down the 737 are part of the worst infestation to hit Africa in 75 years. Swarms of locusts can blanket 460 miles at a time and consume more than 400 million pounds of vegetation a day; and the grasshopper-like insects increase logarithmically, meaning locust swarms could be 500 times bigger in six months.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls the threat “unprecedented,” but attempts at aerial spraying have been too little, too late — largely because of FAO’s own politically-driven agenda to limit pesticides — and experts fear Africa may once again be tilting toward widespread famine.

As poor farmers futilely shoo the voracious insects away with sticks, this modern plague highlights the urgent need for pesticides to protect crops and save lives. It also casts into stark relief the tragic consequences of UN, European and environmentalist campaigns to deny these life-saving chemicals to developing nations.

Over the last decade, development organizations and activist NGOs have increasingly pushed organic-style agriculture on the poorest nations, making assistance dependent on a highly politicized version of “agro-ecology” that arbitrarily limits pesticides, bans advanced hybrid crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and extols the virtues of “peasant” farming. The result is that Africa has been left virtually defenseless against successive natural assaults to the continent’s ability to feed itself.

The locusts arrive on top of Africa’s on-going struggle with the Fall Army Worm (FAW), which has already spread to some 44 countries. It feeds on a range of plants, but prefers corn, the staple food for most Africans, and has reduced yields by 50% in many regions.

In the Americas, FAW is kept in check by a combination of insect-resistant GMOs and modern pesticides. Yet most African countries have not authorized GMOs because of well-funded environmental propaganda campaigns demonising the technology — claiming GMOs cause everything from impotence to cancer and autism — and fear of losing their primary export market in Europe, which has arbitrarily restricted critical pesticides used in every other advanced, developed region of the world. The FAO, while discouraging pesticides and GMOs, advises farmers to pick off the insects one by one and crush them with their hands.

Add to this epidemics of Wheat Rust (potential crop loss 100%); Banana Wilt (50% crop loss); and Cassava Mosaic Virus (up to 90% loss). There are thousands of pests around the world that attack agricultural plants, and they don’t just kill crops. Moulds that can only be controlled with pesticides produce highly poisonous metabolites called mycotoxins that, if they don’t kill you immediately, can give you cancer and destroy your immune system. They probably constitute the number one food health threat even in wealthy nations, but we keep levels safe with pesticides, GMOs, and expensive food inspection regimes — all things Africa is being denied or can’t afford.

Then there are the insect-borne diseases like Malaria, Zika, Dengue, and countless other parasitic and viral infections. When Zika or West Nile threaten our cities, we haul out the spray cans and ignore the griping of environmentalists. In Africa, however, the anti-pesticide groups hold sway. At their urging, Kenya may soon ban over 200 pesticides that evidence-based regulatory agencies around the world have deemed safe and that Kenya’s farmers desperately need.

Those who think small-scale organic farming is friendlier to mother nature are wrong. Organic farmers use lots of pesticides. They’re simply “natural” ones, like copper sulfate or neem oil, which are highly toxic to people and wildlife. They’re also less effective against pests, so they have to use more of them. Modern pesticides are among the most carefully tested and regulated chemicals in use, and they are used increasingly in targeted, precise ways to limit wider environmental impacts.

Most importantly, modern farming allows us to produce more food on less land. According to Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel, US corn production has quintupled on the same amount of land.  He estimates that if American farming techniques were to be adopted globally, an area the size of India could be returned to nature over the next 50 years.

“Better Living Through Chemistry” was the catchy DuPont slogan of the 1960s. The slogan rings true for those of us living longer, healthier lives of plenty, with more food than at any time in human history. But if the campaigns against chemicals and the demonisation of modern agriculture are successful, these gains may well be reversed.

Perhaps that’s the plan. Radical environmentalists have maintained that human beings are the problem. “Fewer Living Without Chemistry” might as well be the slogan of the modern environmentalist movement.

This originally appeared in CapX.