Utopia beats Dystopia

30/11/2011

Predictions Revisited

Let’s lay Malthus to Rest

After all that Halloween anguish about the global population reaching 7 billion, how refreshing to have an upbeat assessment of the world food situation! It comes from the retiring professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Hindsights in Perspective” was the title of Rudy Rabbinge’s farewell address, and you can see a press release about it here http://www.wageningenuniversity.nl/UK/newsagenda/news/RR_UK111129.htm

Two hundred years ago, Malthus predicted that the world would be unable to feed the growing population. The fact that he was manifestly wrong is illustrated by the current situation in which the population has increased seven-fold, but there is now more food per head available than in 1800.”

Other points from Prof. Rabbinge:

 

Rudy Rabbinge. Photo Wageningen U.

  • The notion of a present or future shortage is a misunderstanding – this is not the case anywhere in the world, except in China.
  • We do not need extra agricultural land in order to feed the world population in the coming decades.
  • The damage caused to the environment by farming has dropped considerably.
  • Ineffective policy, unequal distribution of production and poor food distribution still leads to a billion people going hungry — a disgrace that warrants a world-wide reaction.
  • Science gives cause for utopian thinking with good prospects rather than anti-utopian (dystopian) defeatism; whilst naive optimism is dangerous, unfounded pessimism is discouraging and frustrating,

Back in 1967, in The Environment Game (Secker & Warburg) I visualized an implosion of food production into small, intensive operations, such that most land could be restored to nature. This is a theme at Wageningen too:

Rabbinge refers to the energy-producing greenhouse (which could be operational in the coming years), energy-neutral buildings, and small-scale power generation by means of bio-solar cells. If agricultural production is concentrated at the well-endowed locations, geared up to high production, the world will be in a position both to sustain agro-biodiversity (the combination of natural disease control and biological control mechanisms in the fields) and to release areas of agricultural land for nature. This will require more energy per unit of area but less per unit of product.

Postscript: Prof. Rabbinge feels more affinity with the Malthus’s French contemporary, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who believed in dramatic change thanks to man´s ingenuity. You can see the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on Progress (1795, trs into English 1796) here http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1669&Itemid=27#toc_list Before getting too zealously utopian, please remember that Condorcet was a prominent supporter of the French Revolution but then died as one of its many victims. Failures are due to politics, not science and technology.

For earlier posts about Malthusian errors see: http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-population-bomb/ and http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/malthus-with-a-computer/


Sausages without the pig

14/11/2011

Predictions revisited

Food production by tissue engineering

This drawing by Nik Spencer shows an as-yet unrealised concept of Morris Benjaminson at Touro College, New York, It introduces the theme, rather than illustrating the work in the Netherlands noted below. The source is an article by Nicola Jones in Nature 468, 752-753 (2010) and you can see a larger and more legible version here http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101208/full/468752a/box/1.html

I’d still like to trace just where the idea originated. I know that In 1967 I was predicting “beef-steak without a cow” in The Environment Game, a book that visualized the land areas needed for agriculture being greatly reduced. In 1983, my contribution to The Future of a Troubled World, pictured “endless sausages growing by tissue culture of pork muscle”. But now I learn that Winston Churchill was talking about “chicken breast without the chicken” back in 1931. Where did he get it from? I’ll go on checking.

The Churchill quote comes in a segment in “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” on Channel 4 (14 November). It follows up stories of the past few years about developments, most notably in the Netherlands, that are gradually making it a reality.

Here’s what I wrote in 1967:

Tissue culture itself is one of the most attractive ideas for artificial food production. It is no longer far-fetched to think that we may learn how to grow beef-steak, for example, without a cow. Tissue culture, the technique for growing cells outside the organism from which they originated, is already used for special purposes in research and also for growing viruses in the manufacture of vaccine; the advent of polio vaccine depended on the successful cultivation of kidney cells. That in turn followed the introduction of antibiotics to preserve the cultures from the ravages of stray micro-organisms.

When cells are cultured by present techniques they tend to lose their specialized character. By deliberately letting specialized cells such as kidney or muscle revert to the undifferentiated nature of a newly fertilized egg, we can use them in a quite arbitrary way for a variety of synthetic purposes. If, on the other hand, we want to grow beef-steak we must simulate the conditions governing the growth and arrangement of the cells in the live animal, otherwise we shall finish up with something like finely divided mince.

The Netherlands launched a well-funded multi-university project in 2005, and in the Hawking show, Mark Evans visits Mark Post at Maastricht University who shows him muscle fibres forming artifically. Post has some commerical backing and declares himself “reasonably confident” that next year (2012) he’ll make a hamburger. But with a price tag on the burger at 250,000 euros it’s “still in the scientific phase”.

Besides reducing the land areas for meat production, eventual success with “in-vitro meat” will mean that astronauts bound for Mars can still have their burgers, sausages and chicken breast.

Added 15 November.

Suspecting that J.B.S. Haldane might have been an early predictor of synthetic food, I’ve dug out this 1923 lecture http://www.marxists.org/archive/haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm But he visualizes synthesis from scratch. “Many of our foodstuffs, including the proteins, we shall probably build up from simpler sources such as coal and atmospheric nitrogen.”

A step in the extrapolation to tissue culture seems to have come from Haldane’s evolutionist chum, Julian Huxley, in fictional form in a short story, “The Tissue-Culture King” (1927). There the tissue of an African ruler was proliferated in that way – but for power, not for food. So where did Churchill get his rather precise prediction from? En route I’ve found the Churchill source. In Fifty Years Hence, In Thoughts and Adventures, Thornton Butterworth (London) 1932, Winston wrote:

“Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

References

Nicola Jones, Nature, 468, 752-753, 2010

Nigel Calder, The Environment Game, Secker & Warburg (London) 1997

Ritchie Calder (ed), The Future of a Troubled World, Heinemann (London) 1983

Channel 4 (London), “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking,” Part 4, Environment, 14 November 2011. See http://www.channel4.com/programmes/brave-new-world-with-stephen-hawking/4od#3253407


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