Class Warfare Blog

May 20, 2018

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

I read a comment the other day that set my head spinning. The comment pointed out that up until around 1970, the only way to increase agricultural output significantly was to put more arable land into production. Basically that had been done to all effective extents by well before 1970. We now note how people are trying to put very marginal lands into production with predictable disastrous results. (Hey, let’s cut down that jungle and raise crops! … jungles have notoriously poor soils.)

But right about that time came the Agricultural Revolution, sometimes called the Green Revolution. We managed to increase crop yields for our staple grains (rice, wheat, corn, barley) by the simple expedient of growing these grains on shorter stalks. Shorter stalks are stronger and they can support heaver seed heads without falling over from being too top heavy. We practically doubled our yields per acre of these grains.

This I already knew. What the comment pointed out that the old “acreage limited” model of agriculture, which took about 10,000 years to run out, supported a global population of about three and a half billion people. The Green Revolution doubled our grain supplies and, if you are not aware, those grains also feed our cattle and other livestock, so represent fairly well the entire food supply of the world. (You will find grain of some type in 90% of the foods you can find in a local market.)

So, we doubled our food supply starting in 1970 or so and now the world population is about seven billion people. It is an axiom of population biology that organisms expand their populations up to the limits of their food supplies. The fact that our doubled food supply (from 1970 levels) matches our now doubled population (3.5 to 7 billion) supports the idea that we are at the end of the effects of the Green Revolution.  This second phase took less than 50 years. (Think about it! Three and a half billion more people in just fifty years.)

So, what is next?

Since there is no intelligence in charge of humanity, it is likely that corporations that are exploring the genetic engineering of food crops will work up a solution. I have written before that these shortcuts to different organisms have more risks associated with them than the procedures used before (up to and including the green Revolution). But let’s say they whip up something that works and it again doubles the yields of these grains, what then?

Well, history and biology indicate that we will double our population again, this time to 14 billion people. Imagine the impact on food distribution and electricity distribution networks, on transportation systems (cars and roads, subways, air travel, on the lives of us all.

What is really scary is that the reliance on the plants created under the Green Revolution has shrunk the number of species under cultivation to a very small number. When there is a much wider diversity of crops, crop failures are not widely catastrophic, but when they are but a few kinds of crops being depended upon, well, think of the Irish Potato Famine.

Nobody predicted the Bubonic Plague, otherwise know as the Black Death. This disease killed over a quarter of the population of Europe. So, what happens if some new agricultural blight, on the order of a plague, wipes out rice or wheat. Since there are only a few types of rice or wheat under cultivation it means that such a blight may wipe out all of the rice or all the wheat or very large fractions of those crops. The repercussions would not be pretty: massive famines, food riots, insurrections, whole countries destabilized, etc. (Take a look at what is happening in Venezuela currently, being a manifestation of just bad management.)

I guess my question is not “what is next?” so much as “to what end?” We haven’t developed enough political maturity to determine a fair and equitable distribution of resources. We still operate on a “get what you can” basis. (Exhibit No. 1 President Donald Trump) Is there any upside to doubling our food supply again, other than corporate profits for Big Ag Science corporations? Do we need another seven billion people on this planet? Are we prepared to handle the changes associated with such an event?

All of the answers to these questions are, of course, no. Herds of lemmings running off of cliffs is a societal meme we created. Lemmings are not so stupid as to do that. So, basically we, as a people, are projecting that behavior onto those animals. And, we seem quite capable from doing just that.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Note The word stupid is used as a pejorative meaning lacking in intelligence. Rather, it means “slow” as in “slow on the uptake” or slow to learn (it has roots similar to those of stupor). Really bright people can distract themselves in sophisticated ways so that what is glaringly obvious gets missed for a long, long time. That stupid, that’s the one I mean.

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