Since we cannot beat Nature…

September 9, 2010

It is convenient to paraphrase the saying “if you cannot beat them, join them”. This applies to our dealing with Nature just as well.

As a species, we have been very successful in conquering our environment and exterminating what threatens us. Actually, we have been successful up to a certain point. The very success that generated the current pace in human population increase brings the next challenge. Sustainability is just as much about the population increase as about how we use the resources. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion humans on Earth. Compared with almost 7 billion today and the expected 9 billion in 2050, it sounds almost like a desert. How does this relate to sustainability? When 2.5 billion people behaved badly, from an environmental point of view, it had consequences, but there was room and time to correct the situation. When 7 or even 9 billion people consume, possibly waste precious resources, damage the environment and pollute beyond what is acceptable, the consequences are a lot more serious and a lot faster to hit back at us.

Sustainability is not just about production techniques, but it is at least as much about our attitude. Sustainability is even more a moral and behavioral necessity than one of a technological nature. The natural instinct when facing a problem is to look for the fastest and easiest way of solving it. This preference of the present tends to make us forget about the long-term effects of our actions. This behavior also tends to ignore how Nature works.

The first rule to remember is that Nature simply does not care whether we exist or not. Nature was there long before us, and it will be there after us, too. The calls to “save the planet” are in fact calls to save humanity. Nature is an open field where evolving life forms compete and fill the spaces left available. This is also what mankind has done since the beginning of its existence: compete, fight and conquer new habitats.

Nature does not care whether a particular species goes extinct. Only some people do. When a species disappears, others compete to take over the vacuum left, and life goes on. Nature is all about creating balances between species. This is why when a species’ population grows fast because of favorable conditions, it always becomes victim of its success. Even insects deplete food resources beyond what could have sustained them. When the food is gone, they simply die by the millions. As far as Nature is concerned, if climate changes, if the nitrate content of drinking water is too high, if soil is eroded, it does not matter. Let the best species win!

This ability of Nature to constantly adjust to changes in populations of life forms also explains why our efforts to kill threats in agriculture and food production will never be quite successful. Farmers may kill lots of pests and weeds thanks to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and now genetically engineered crops, they also create a vacuum for others or better organism to conquer. This is why we face antibiotic-resistant bacteria or herbicide-resistant weeds. This is simply the result of natural selection and evolution happening right before our eyes. Organisms mutate constantly and when a trait helps them survive some of our techniques and products, they thrive. The problem for us is that if forces us to find more specific treatment products as we go on, and this is getting more and more difficult. Are we going to have to fight ever increasingly resistant and strong superbugs, super bacteria and super weeds? If so, we are facing an uphill battle, because we are always at least one step behind new mutations and natural selection. It is not impossible for us to keep the upper hand, though, but the margin of error when looking for solutions will become thinner and thinner.

To stay ahead of the game, farmers and all the people involved in food production need to thinks like ecologists. Science and technology will be the basis for progress, but thinking only like chemists is too limiting. Managing ecosystems is one of the underlying principles of sustainability in food production. We will succeed only by understanding the big picture and thinking like chess players, and anticipate what the several following moves will be, as well from Nature’s side as from ours. We cannot make Nature checkmate, but Nature can do that to us.

The secret ingredient is long-term responsible thinking, even if this goes against the short-term interests of shareholders.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Science taken hostage (cont’d) – The genetically engineered vines

August 27, 2010

Another example of what I had presented in my previous post about the “killer canola” is the case of the genetically engineered vines in France.

Last week, a group of opponents to GMOs went into a trial field of the French Agricultural Research INRA and pulled out vine plants. Two associations reacted strongly to this act of vandalism. The French Association for Scientific Information and the French Association for Plant Biotechnology stated that this act demonstrated that “science and technology are the targets” of such action groups. Of course, this statement is “colored” with some bias, and a little bit of paranoia always adds to the dramatic effect. What I see here is just that instead of a constructive debate about the use of genetic engineering, the rhetoric slides into partisanship and name-calling. Clearly, science does not really weigh much in this. The reality is that two groups with different views on how the world’s future should like oppose each other. The debate is more about politics than science. The people who pulled out the vines just do not want GMOs. Period. Nothing will convince them otherwise. The scientists and technicians see such an act as a threat to their jobs and to their beliefs as well. They will fight back. You can find more details in the article from the French agricultural magazine La France Agricole.

Interestingly enough, the French Minister of Research spoke during an interview about the matter. One of the arguments she brought up was that the “vandals” should be fined the value of all the work involved, meaning all the materials and salaries of the researchers. INRA is a state-owned research institute. As such, that is an interesting idea. Although, she is the Minister and she could use her position to press charges. However, there is no mention of such action from her part, at least explicitly. Would her indignation be only for political reasons? Another interesting aspect of this story is that France, although conducting research on GMOs is one of the fiercest opponents of the use of GMOs in agriculture. Where does science fit in all this?

The thing with science is that it does not take sides. Science is not biased. The same statements apply to Nature, too. It only serves to explains why things are the way they are. Technology, on the other hand is man-made, and therefore assists their users to pursue their agenda and goals. Another aspect about science, especially research is its cost. Conducting research is quite expensive and requires large amounts of funding. Since getting funding is quite similar in its process as selling a service or a product, researchers need to convince. Using drama and even fear works rather well and “polishing” scientific results and conclusion to get the yes to funding is not an unusual practice. The “climategate” story using the emails from researchers telling that they overstated the consequences of climate change is just an example of what extremes scientists sometimes need to go to be able to continue their research and in some cases keep their jobs. Sometimes, scientists are just so convinced about their own conclusions that they also report slightly beyond the truth. Mendel, the “father” of modern genetics supposedly “improved” the results he got with the crossing of his peas to demonstrate how characteristics were passed on through genes.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Is science being taken hostage? The “killer canola” example

August 11, 2010

In the debate between environmentalists and industry, science is a word that comes regularly in their arguments. However, scientific “evidence” seems to be used to support an agenda instead of making us all wiser.

The recent example of the “killer canola” that has been widely spread in the media over the past week illustrates the concerns we should have about the use of science for non-scientific purposes.

To sum up the story about canola, researchers from the University of Arkansas found herbicide-resistant genetic traits included in the plants through genetic engineering in canola growing in the wild in North Dakota. They even found traits from two different GMO producers. This does not exist in commercial varieties. They claimed that they demonstrated these GMO escaped into the USA.

Of course, all media, internationally, with a bias against GMOs jumped on the occasion to make their point about the risks of genetic engineering.

Very quickly, media favourable to the GMO industry, actually funded by that industry reacted to undermine the finding of the researchers. In particular, I enjoyed this column in AG Network. To counter the results of the researchers, the author claims that most scientists reject their theory. He names only two, one in the UK and one in Canada. Is a sample of two scientifically representative? I think not. He does not review the protocol of the research. Does that mean it was in order? I would tend to think so; otherwise, he would surely have attacked it. His main argumentation is about canola not being able to thrive in the wild; therefore, the “gene escape” is about a non-event, so let’s not talk about it anymore. Case closed.

What really disappoints me in this process is the bias. The opponents of GMO see this research as a proof of their point of view without really looking into the research and challenging it, or at least asking a few questions to the researchers. The proponents of GMOs, at least this one, elude the conclusions of the research by shifting the debate to the survival chances of wild canola. The real questions that arises from this survey is to find out how a genetic trait introduced by people (therefore, not the result of natural evolution and selection) can spread outside of our control (nature does not care about intellectual property), and what can be done to have more control on this. What all participants in this debate should do is to join their science and collaborate. It deserves the necessary attention.

The purpose of science is to help us understand our world so that we can take the proper measures to stay in control of what we created. If science tells us something that we do not like, that is too bad, but what we can learn is for our best interest. In the end, it would serve nobody to take chances with food security. The long-term interests must come before the short-term ones. The example of the canola is just one out of many. I could have chosen other food production sectors with similar cases.

Selectively picking the science that suits one’s agenda is not scientific. It does not serve anyone on the long run. On this blog, I posted a poll asking what should come first between morals and science. Although, this poll has no scientific value, it shows an interesting trend that I had not expected.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What should come first: Morals or Science?

March 7, 2010

In the debate about agriculture and production systems, critics and lobbyists of all sides claim both morals and science in their attempts to gain support of the public opinion.

What do you think more important: morals or science?