Inspirational Story for the Holidays: Wheat and Civilization

|

The Economist has published a superb article that neatly encompasses the history of wheat, the development of fertilizer, the Green Revolution, genetic modification, and the end of human population growth. Fun facts:

(1) Wheat is an ancient cross between 3 different grasses producing a triploid genetic "monster," the genome of which contains a massive 16 billion base pairs of DNA, 40 times as much as rice, six times as much as maize and five times as much as people.

(2) Half of all of the nitrogen molecules in all people alive today are derived from artificial ammonia fertilizer.

(3) Virtually every variety of wheat and barley you see growing in the field was produced by "mutation breeding" in which plant scientists bombard food plants with radiation and chemicals to produce mutations that are then crossbred back into commercial varieties.

(4) Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, has saved more human lives than any other person in all of human history.

(5) Human beings, unlike any other animals, do not automatically turn more food into more offspring. In fact, fertility rates are lowest where food security is highest.

Whole thing here.

Kudos to C.S. Prakash for the lead.

NEXT: Feh. Must Be Domestic.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I can’t be bothered with any history of wheat that doesn’t include an anthropomorphized cartoon pitchman.

    http://www.lileks.com/institute/bread/index.html

  2. I guess Dr. Atkins wouldn’t be inspired. 🙂

  3. To die before the harvest. . . .

    The crops, the grains.
    Fields of rippling wheat.

    Wheat. All there is in life is wheat.

  4. Oh My God it is genetically engineered food. Didn’t primiative man have the Sierra Club to tell him it is better to starv to death than face the menace of “Frankenfoods”. This is a travesty. Clearly, there needs to be a world wide ban on Wheat.

  5. Are we all in agreement that Norman Borlaug was a more deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize than Rigoberta Menchu?

    And Bailey, Am I correct in believing that by and large, those in the developing world have welcomed Genetically Modified crops, or is there ambivalence or ignorance or hostility or what in the countries that stand to benefit most from this technology?

  6. Mr. Ead,
    Thank you. That was Hi-Larry-us. I remember coming across the gallery of regrettable food years ago. That was jus wonder… I mean SunBeamifull. Love the bit about “did you get the gazelle I sent you out for?”

    What a great solstice this is turning out to be.
    Joyous Solstice Everyone.

  7. “Human beings, unlike any other animals, do not automatically turn more food into more offspring.”

    does this mean that it is improper to love the bowl of minestrone soup while sharing it with the blow-up noam chomsky?

    P&T do a great show where they talk about Borlaug and the vestiges of the racist paternalistic society that some here still advocate.

    Vitamin A rice (amber rice?) would be a goodie, but alak, that’s “bad”.

    Warren: and to you and Yours. and detto about the link…

    ” Wheat lead to farming, which lead to settlements, which lead to time for cross dressing.

    As well as disco, and a game called ?Oh You Silly Bitch I am SO Going to Scratch Your Eyes Out.?”

  8. And how am I to face the odds
    Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
    I, a stranger and afraid
    In a world I never made.

  9. Mr. Ead,

    Corn has more fun.

  10. Hi Herrick: Season’s Greetings. Unfortunately, many developing countries are reluctant to approve genetically modified crops because they fear that their agricultural exports would be banned by the European Union. However, you are quite correct that genetically enhance crops will be a major benefit for poor developing country farmers. One study found that genetically enhanced cotton boosted Indian farmer yields by 80% and cut their pesticide use.

    One story from the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development: According to one of my British colleagues, at the youth summit, one 16 year old Kenyan boy said that he objected to genetically modified crops because he had heard that they were designed to weaken African immune systems so that they would die sooner from AIDS.

  11. I haven’t RTFA yet, mostly because I haven’t received the print edition yet, but is wheat really the result of selective breeding as some here are suggesting?

    I’ve heard that corn is. Supposedly ears of corn were miniscule and unappetizing when Native Americans first reached this hemisphere. But tens of thousands of years of selective breeding have produced the corn that we know today.

    Must…resist….corn…syrup….joke.

  12. thoreau: pretty much all of our crop foods are the result of selective breeding.

    Ron Bailey: perhaps the reason that humans don’t automatically turn more food into more humans like other animals is that humans, unlike other animals, have access to highly efficient chemical methods of birth control?

  13. One study found that genetically enhanced cotton boosted Indian farmer yields by 80% and cut their pesticide use.

    this is a fact on which i and environmentalism (which i am generally sympathetic toward and promote when it makes sense) part ways. i don’t like consuming pesticides and if genetic modification were capable of reducing a crops reliance on them and the subsequent contamination that pesticides bring, then how is this a bad thing?

    likewise, genetically modified food creates higher yields which in turn reduces the land required to be cleared for agricultural purposes.

    i consider myself an environmentally minded person – and i think borlaug contributed to society in saintly proportions in this respect.

  14. ” Wheat lead to farming, which lead to settlements, which lead to time for cross dressing.

    Nah, wheat led to BEER, which led to farming to make more BEER! …which, yes, led to cross-dressing.
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/04/0424_kurtbeer.html
    “Beer Theory of Civilization”

    (VM: pretty sure past tense of lead is led. :-))

  15. This thread has inspired me to Haiku

    Fertilize the wheat
    Genetic engineer it
    Fat people don’t breed

  16. Fun Fact number 2 bothers me a bit in the way it is worded. The implication is that our bodies are full of artificial-fertilizer-nitrogen-molecules as contrasted with ‘regular’ nitrogen molecules. It’s an idiotic comment, sounding vaguely like homeopathy; like somehow the nitrogen ‘remembers’ where it was before we ingested it. Nitrogen is nitrogen. Before it was used in artificial fertilizer it was somewhere else.

    Okay, now everybody stop breathing near me. I choose only to breathe oxygen molecules exhaled by ancient Roman emperors. Those are the best.

  17. “Malt does more than Milton can to justify god’s ways to Man”

    L: pretty sure it is, too. would you like to tell Mr. Lileks or should I 🙂

  18. I was bothered by the nitrogen “stat” in #2 as well. Haven’t RTFA, but exactly HOW does one conduct a study to prove an assertion like that?

  19. V: Ahh, sorry. Wasn’t clear that was a direct quote.

  20. more on increases in food not equaling increases in humans:

    1st: this is a correlation, possibly but not necessarily a causation. therefore, increasing food supplies in the third world might or might not result in human population increases. I say, let’s genetically engineer food to increase yields and also the food produces birth control chemicals. we’ll be up front about it: here’s a bunch of free food, but it will cause you to not have kids. an antidote/ agonist to the birth control is also made available, but it is sold. so if you have the money to buy the antidote, you have the money to raise kids, then you can have kids. this will cut the birth rate dramatically until the population is sustainable by the local resources available.

    before Jennifer attacks me for racism, I’d also like to point out that IIRC a major reason for overpopulation in, say, Africa, is the result of colonialism encouraging Africans to abandon tribalism and become urbanized. very likely, the small tribal groups were a behavioral adaptation to the limitations of the local resources. additional contributions to overpopulation in Africa are from the use of chemical fertilizers which do produce higher crop yields, at least temporarily, but require more water (often more than is available long term) and make the soil unusable long term because of increased salinity. the American midwest is starting to experience just this problem of increased salinity of the soil reducing crop yields in some areas. the fertilizer-increased yields in Africa are akin to a highly addictive drug: first taste is free, after that you have to pay. they had increased crop yields, increased birth rates, and reduced death rates because of Western medicine, then suddenly had an unsustainable large population and no money to purchase more fertilizer or medicine or food. Western countries are largely responsible for the disruption of aboriginal human ecology in the developing world and needs to be responsible for fixing it, even if the choices are hard ones.

  21. Herrick,

    Borlaug did get a noble prize. You’d have known that (and all about ol’ Norman) if you watched everyone’s favorite (and only) libertarian TV show — Penn and Teller’s Bullshit.

    They had about half’a show on Borlaug and his crazy, life-saving antics. I’m not sure when the show airs because I — shh — downloaded the episodes, and I suggest you do the same. It almost seems fitting.

  22. biologist, I like your plan for birth-control food, but only if we can start by using it in America.

  23. biologist: The point is that it’s not necessary to put birth control in food–food is birth control.

    Also, demographers generally agree that urbanization in fact reduces fertility rather than increases it.

  24. taktix,
    I love P&T’s Bullshit. I wait for it to come out on DVD and rent it. meh

    I have to put in a word for M&T’s Southpark. Very libertarian.

  25. (2) Half of all of the nitrogen molecules in all people alive today are derived from artificial ammonia fertilizer.

    All well and good, but are these molecules safe? I think they should be suspended until we can prove they don’t cause any harm.

  26. biologist: Africa is not overpopulated. It appears that way to people who never leave the balcony of the Hilton because all they can see is all those people wandering the streets. If you never saw anything of American but Manhattan, you would guess the US is dangerously overpopulated, too.

    In fact, most of Africa is quite empty and Central Africa is becoming depopulated by war, famine, and urbanization. Your analysis applies more to South Pacific Islanders than it does to Africa, but that was always more limited land area and population, easier for the colonizers (in this case, the US) to access.

    Incidentally, I read recently that coca growers are breeding herbicidal-resistant strains of coca. After a spraying attack, there are always a few survivors and they are exchanging examples (via the free market, natch) and cross breeding them. Some experts believe that such a coordinated network, formed because of the intense profits possible, could develop survivable strains of coca faster that genetic engineering could. Faster than they can develop new herbicides to keep up with them.

    I think they went to gene-splicing simply because it was easier to register and enforce their patents. The Third-World farmers will continue to resist because of their general economic uncertainty. They prefer to save seed for next year’s crop rather than rely on having the money to buy it. It’s long been noted that the closer to the edge of starvation you live, the more conservative you are, simply because you cannot afford even one mistake.

  27. Birth control in food – eh? Well there those estrogenic based pesticides. Despite, much talk, they don’t seem to be doing much good yet though. The population keeps increasing. So I figure we just got to pump up the volume. Yea, I’m tongue in cheek.

  28. one 16 year old Kenyan boy said that he objected to genetically modified crops because he had heard that they were designed to weaken African immune systems so that they would die sooner from AIDS.

    As always, the problem isn’t science, it’s politics. GMO vs. Non-GMO is a minor issue when millions of people are convinced AIDS came from American labs and everything from the first world is just another tool to crush the Africans.

    European colonialism and racism created this problem. The corruption of African leaders sustains it. “Amber Rice” does nothing to solve the non-agricultural problems at the heart of Africa’s food problems.

  29. Qbryzan:

    ok by me. let’s start the program in the states that went for Bush.

    Ron:

    you still didn’t address how increases in food result in decreases (or no increase) in population increases in humans. it is still a correlation without a causal mechanism. as to your new assertion, that urbanization decreases fertility rates, that is also a correlation without a causal mechanism explicitly stated. what is the mechanism? I propose that it is the availability of chemical and mechanical birth control methods being freely available in urban areas. nonetheless, high population densities in areas of low productivity are likely to result in local food shortages. food must be imported, either from outlying areas (as we do in the US, bringing food from Kansas to NYC) or from other countries. in developing areas of the world, even that often isn’t enough to sustain the country’s population and food is imported from other countries, resulting in economic debt. from the abstract of the article you cite, local population age structure differences also play a role. I only could read the abstract, but I see only correlations, no mention of causal mechanisms.

    James:

    I assert that certain areas of Africa are overpopulated, not because the average human density is particularly high over the whole continent, but because certain areas don’t have enough natural resources to either (1) sustain the local human population with food or (2) produce enough goods for sale that would permit the local human population to afford to import food into their region. If that isn’t the case, why are we regularly subjected to video on the TV of fly-covered African children with swollen bellies and emaciated limbs?

    Mike:

    also good points

  30. Some experts believe that such a coordinated network, formed because of the intense profits possible, could develop survivable strains of coca faster that genetic engineering could. Faster than they can develop new herbicides to keep up with them.

    So now left-wing enviros can be co-opted in the US’ crusade to rid the world of la coca.

  31. We’ll all be saved when the quadro-tricale harvest comes in from Sherman’s planet, unless the tribbles get to it first.

  32. If that isn’t the case, why are we regularly subjected to video on the TV of fly-covered African children with swollen bellies and emaciated limbs?

    Corrupt governments misuse of funds? (strictly guessing here)

  33. NoStar:

    exactly!

    Qbryzan:

    that guess would explain why donated food and money doesn’t get to where it is needed. it doesn’t explain why the local population can’t sustain itself through its own efforts at hunting, gathering, agriculture, etc. my hypothesis is that the local resources aren’t enough to sustain a human population that has grown too large, or how the population got larger than local resources could support to begin with. a drought that reduced the local food supply is one explanation that is probably true in many areas, but artificially maintaining a human population that is larger than the local carrying capacity by supplement the food resources is just prolonging the problem. it is akin to treating the symptoms without treating the disease.

  34. I read somewhere (maybe here?) that the problems of African farmers are due in large part to the fact that they don’t possess title to the land they farm.

    Without owning title to the land, they can’t use it as collateral for loans to buy better seed, make capital improvements on the farm, buy new equipment, etc.

    Lack of clear property rights and the rule of law are two big obstacles to Africa’s progress.

  35. biologist:

    (1) Alas, correlations are all that demographers have, yet they are pretty strong. Outside of Marxist or Asimovian fantasies there are few causal theories of human collective behavior.

    (2)Availability of birth control is important but can’t explain all of the amazing recent declines in places like Bangladesh. Increasing urbanization, older ages at marriage, more women working out of the home, and so forth also contributed. Interestingly the first country in the world to experience a sustained decline in its fertility rate was late 18th century France (which hardly had access to modern contraception).

    You also write: “overpopulated… because certain areas don’t have enough natural resources to either (1) sustain the local human population with food or (2) produce enough goods for sale that would permit the local human population to afford to import food into their region.”

    Actually it’s not so much lack of natural resources, but lack of human capital and high quality social and political institutions as I argued last week.

  36. taktix,

    I thought my post was saying that of Nobel Laureates, Borlaug was more deserving than Menchu and probably all but perhaps a couple. Sorry if you implied my post to say I thought he didn’t win one.

  37. artificially maintaining a human population that is larger than the local carrying capacity by supplement the food resources is just prolonging the problem

    This is a joke, right?

    You are aware, of course, that probably 90% of the people who live in the United States constitute “a human population that is larger than the local carrying capacity”, and are kept alive only because “[local] food resources” are “supplemented” with food delivered via truck, ship, and air?

    The problem in Africa isn’t that any given locality has more people than can grub “food resources” out of the local landscape. The problem is that the governments prevent the kind of supplements to the local food supply that keep the vast majority of the rest of the world’s population alive.

  38. RC Dean, I am aware of that, as I stated clearly in one of my comments that food is moved from Kansas to NYC. However, Kansas isn’t donating the food to NYC, NYC has money, which Kansans want, and they trade. NYC gets its money from its products, many of which are intellectual services and other intangibles. so, it’s not just food resources but any economic resources such as products that could be sold to purchase food.

    Ron, I’ll have to read that and get back to you later, I actually need to do some work now, but one final thought: correlations need causal mechanisms associated with them to explain how the two variables being compared came to be correlated. these mechanisms can be tested by observations. I’ll agree that birth control isn’t the only method of lowering birth rates, and one factor you cite, higher ages of marriage (or more accurately, higher ages of first reproduction) contribute strongly to decreasing birth rates, a fact I first learned from my ecology professor. also, this isn’t human collective behavior, it is the behavior of individuals converging on the same result. neurophysiological, evolutionary and ecological hypotheses can be proposed to explain these human behaviors, and can be tested.

  39. Biologist, read the interview with Borlaug linked at item number 4 above. It answers some of your questions about difficulties feeding populations in Africa. Borlaug attributes it to infrastructure deficiencies more than anything else.

    Also, your idea about creating crops designed to make humans less fertile then extorting populations with hunger to use it is pretty loathsome.

    Read what Borlaug has to say. He has, after all, some experience in providing food to people on the edge of famine without resorting to such … morally questionable actions.

  40. Don, you’re right it is loathesome. the question is, is it more loathesome than (a) not providing food and infrastructure, etc. for free, and allowing people to starve to death? (b) giving them just enough food not to starve but not enough to live a meaningful life, just allowing them to languish? (c) killing starving individuals quickly with poison, guns, etc. so they won’t suffer? (d) providing them with enough food, etc. to live and reproduce, knowing that we will also have to feed their offspring in perpetuity if they don’t choose to cut back their population growth?

    anyone can reproduce as much as they want, as long as I don’t have to subsidize it. if we’re going to give food away for free, then it should come with certain strictures, whether the food is being given away in Africa, Asia, Europe, South/ Central America or the US

    I understand that Ron Bailey is advocating a solution that he finds least ethically sticky, but it suffers from a serious chicken-and-egg problem.

    Don, I’ll have to read the articles suggested and get back to you and Ron tomorrow

  41. “Asimovian fantasies?” By Seldon’s name I curse thee, Ron Bailey!

    Actually, when do we move into the Caves of Steel, anyway? I’m ready.

  42. Don’t have time to RTFA, however I have a silly question. What qualifies as “Genetically Modified”? I am personally all for selective breeding. It is how we get big corn, big horses and little poodles. I am not, however, for taking the genes of an organism that lives either symbiotically with, or completely separate from another and combining them.

    Call me a stick in the gene pool, or a tree hugger or, the ID creator forbid, a Democrat, but I just don’t feel comfortable with combining things that would never have come into contact with each other.

  43. Kwix: I’m with you, which is why I roll my eyes a bit at the “GM is a gift from the gods” crowd. Simply having the tools to map genomes would make cross-breeding that much more efficient. Grafting animal proteins onto cereals seems like asking for trouble.

    biologist: “starving and swollen bellies” are usually attributable to one of two things. The first is a local phenomena in which previously fertile land is suddenly rendered unusable. The usual mechanism is drought, but sometimes Nature likes to mix it up with flooding or, in rare cases, volcanoes. This accounts for notorious Ethiopian famine of the 1980s which constitutes the primary impression everyone in the Western world has of Africa.

    The second cause of famine is the traditional war. War brings famine, famine brings disease, disease brings death. Specifically, warlords (both in and out of “government”) draft local men who ought to be farming, give them weapons and set them against villagers of the opposing side, driving them off the land into refugee camps. Crops don’t get planted, valuable capital equipment (donkeys, plows, and granaries) is destroyed, the survivors cluster around MSF teams begging for food. I don’t think you can really blame excessive lovin’ for that.

    I maintain that “Africa,” as a continent, is a net exporter of agricultural goods and that most local areas are capable of being self-sufficient in the absence of war and drought. Since you were using “Africa” in the collective, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to note that “Africa” exported 11 billion in agricultural goods last year. Hardly the work of a continent incapable of feeding itself.

    Thus we are left with your assertion that “certain areas” are overpopulated, which is certainly true. It’s also true that New York City is incapable of producing enough food to feed itself. It relies on trade with neighboring regions. Famine is, in fact, quite rare in cities. The usual mechanism of such is war. Mogadishu experienced it during its war in the early nineties.

    There are certainly hungry people in Africa. The AIDS epidemic has certainly reduced the population but this, oddly enough, has not reduced hunger. It tends to kill the more productive members of the society, leaving the very old and the very young to starve. Others are hungry because of overoptimistic assumptions about employment opportunities in the city. There is unworked land, even in densely populated countries like Uganda, because the people who lived there went to city to look for a cash job.

  44. Beats there the heart of a serial killer in which there is no trace of cereal?

    Bread and water are acceptable only after subjects are in the dungeon.

    By the way, who here has the longest staff of life? (Be still, Herrick.)

  45. “Don’t have time to RTFA, however I have a silly question. What qualifies as “Genetically Modified”? I am personally all for selective breeding. It is how we get big corn, big horses and little poodles. I am not, however, for taking the genes of an organism that lives either symbiotically with, or completely separate from another and combining them.”

    yeah you are a retard…how the hell do you think wheat got so many gene pairs? gee i don’t know maybe a virus came in and inserted itself into the wheats gene pool…gee maybe that happened many times…oh yeah and this happens all the time with all sorts of orginisms…and what happens when a virus takes genetic material from one orginism and then inserts itself into another orginism?

    looks like a good example of genes moving between gene pools

    jesus christ man where the hell do you think genetisists got the tools to insert genes from one orginism into another?? from the natural world becouse the natural world already mixes the genes between gene pools.

  46. yeah you are a retard…how the hell do you think wheat got so many gene pairs? gee i don’t know maybe a virus came in and inserted itself into the wheats gene pool…gee maybe that happened many times…oh yeah and this happens all the time with all sorts of orginisms (sic)…and what happens when a virus takes genetic material from one orginism (sic) and then inserts itself into another orginism (sic)?

    Comment by: joshua corning at December 22, 2005 02:57 PM

    modern wheat probably got so many gene pairs either by cross-breeding between closely-related-but-not-fully-genetically-compatible ancestor species of wheat (nondisjunction resulting in allopolyploidy). another possibility is that during cell and nuclear division, all the chromosomes got duplicated, but failed to separate (such as happens to only chromosome #21 in humans in Down syndrome), a phenomenon known as nondisjunction resulting in autopolyploidy.

    what happens when viruses move genes from one species to another species, whether those species are closely related or not? it depends. could be bliss, could be death. specifically, could cause cancer.

    way to keep it civil, joshua

  47. “such as happens to only chromosome #21 in humans in Down syndrome”

    And I wonder where that transposing codon came from??? hmm could it be from a virus?? probably…seeing as how it is nearly identical to the codons used by viruses.

    “it depends. could be bliss, could be death. specifically, could cause cancer.”

    well presumably we would be talking about the ones that survived…it is a little thing some people call adeptation through natural selection.

  48. what transposing codon? I’m talking about an entire chromosome occurring in more copies in one cell than normal. (Down syndrome = trisomy 21 = 3 copies of chromosome #21 instead of the normal 2 copies). if you’re referring to transposons (“jumping genes”) or a codon (a set of 3 mRNA bases that code for an amino acid) I can’t tell, and I suspect you don’t know. I agree that viruses move genetic information between different species, but not an entire set of chromosomes, much less a single chromosome.

    actually, we call it adaptation by natural selection, not adeptation . selection acts by causing differential mortality of genotypes, specifically by reducing fitness, the number of offspring an individual leaves over his lifetime. since cancer often doesn’t affect individuals until late in life (after they’ve reproduced), selection isn’t very effective against oncogenes. also, not every characteristic of an organism can be assumed to be adaptive, despite what the nature channel would have you believe.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.