Opinions
Markus Somm

More pesticides, more genetic engineering: How we are overcoming hunger.

Around 1800, almost everyone was still living just above the subsistence level. When I say everyone, I mean everywhere: in Africa and South America, in China and India, in North America and yes: in Western Europe - even in Switzerland, which was already considered comparatively "rich" at the time. Most people had lived from agriculture for a good 10,000 years, they worked as farmers and therefore depended on their seeds, the land and the weather. One bad summer, one bad harvest, one war was enough to cause hundreds of thousands to die. They starved, they died like flies.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The facts: Fewer and fewer people are poor, fewer and fewer die of hunger.

There are three reasons why this is important. 1. innovation. 2. innovation. 3. innovation.

Many Swiss people probably don't realise how poor we all used to be:

  • Back in 1800, almost everyone - I emphasise: everyone - lived just above the subsistence level. When I say everyone, I mean everywhere: in Africa and South America, in China and India, in North America and yes: in Western Europe - even in Switzerland, which was already considered comparatively "rich" at the time
  • Most people had lived from agriculture for a good 10,000 years, they worked as farmers and therefore depended on their seeds, the land and the weather
  • One bad summer, one bad harvest, one war was enough to cause hundreds of thousands to die. They starved, they died like flies

This has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years

First in the West - i.e. Western Europe and North America, then in Japan, Korea and the whole of Asia, and finally all over the world, prosperity increased almost year on year. Not even the two world wars, the most devastating wars ever, or the economically pointless arms race during the Cold War could change this.

If millions were still dying of hunger in China in the 1950s (and because of the communists, who were responsible for this wrong agricultural policy); if poverty still seemed so persistent in India in 1970 that serious Western scientists thought it was solely due to "exaggerated" population growth there, which gave rise to dark fantasies, then we are in a completely different place today:

  • In 1928, the League of Nations (the predecessor of the UN) estimated at the time that more than two thirds of humanity suffered from malnutrition: they were constantly starving. Two thirds!
  • Since then, this death rate has fallen spectacularly: in1970, according to the FAO, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, "only" a quarter were starving
  • In 2017, 8.2 per cent of humanity was still affected by malnutrition. However, this figure has since risen again due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine: in 2022, it stood at 9.3 per cent

Even if we look at the global development of poverty, which is of course closely linked to nutrition, the same picture emerges:

  • In 1820, around 90 per cent of humanity was considered poor
  • Today, according to the World Bank, this proportion is less than 10 per cent

And even that doesn't have to be the case, as Björn Lomborg explains in his latest book: Best Things First. It was published a few weeks ago. (See the three-part article by Alex Reichmuth, here, here and here).

Lomborg, a Danish political scientist and statistician, can perhaps be described as one of the most creative thinkers of our time. On the assumption that we are setting the wrong priorities worldwide when it comes to the challenges facing humanity, he and a think tank associated with him (Copenhagen Consensus Centre) are trying to calculate in francs and centimes which measures will do the most good.

To this end, he has called on renowned scientists from all over the world to analyse this question in scientific papers: What is the best thing to do first?

As far as the plague of hunger is concerned, he and the experts are convinced that an investment of $74 billion - spread over the next 35 years - would be enough to largely eradicate hunger. How?

  • The money would have to flow mainly into research and development, in short: into innovation
  • Everything should be done to ensure that the best genetic engineers, chemists, molecular biologists and agricultural engineers search for new technologies for agriculture in order to increase yields per hectare
  • Specifically: even higher-yielding seeds, smarter farming methods, more effective irrigation systems, more efficient pesticides, etc.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is not, especially as technological progress in agriculture and nutrition is often hindered for political reasons - opposition to genetic engineering is just one of the grotesque, esoteric examples (there is no scientific evidence that genetically modified plants are harmful to us).

If we look at the past - and in particular the success story since 1800 - there is no getting round it:

  • It was primarily innovations in agriculture that pushed back hunger
  • By farmers (especially in the West) getting more and more out of every hectare of land, so that more and more people can be fed
  • Without using much more land: global grain production has increased by 249% since 1961, while the area under cultivation has only increased by 12% at the same time

This was the "Green Revolution", as it was soon called, when better fertilisers, new pesticides and more productive seeds performed a miracle the like of which had probably not been seen since the legendary multiplication of bread on the Sea of Galilee.

Back then, a certain Jesus Christ was responsible for this. Today, we have it in our hands to trigger a second Green Revolution. At a cost of $74 billion.

Or to paraphrase an old German proverb:

"If you have no bread, you'll probably make do with a pasty."

Kindly note:

We, a non-native editorial team value clear and faultless communication. At times we have to prioritize speed over perfection, utilizing tools, that are still learning.

We are deepL sorry for any observed stylistic or spelling errors.

Reorientation in «genetic engineering»

Raphael Bühlmann

Raphael Bühlmann

Agricultural and business economist FH.

Politics seems resistant to facts

Beat Keller

Beat Keller

Beat Keller ist Professor für Molekulare Pflanzenbiologie an der Universität Zürich

«Plant breeding calls for liberal rules»

Jürg Niklaus

Jürg Niklaus

Jürg Niklaus has a doctorate in law and is an advocate of plant breeding.

More pesticides, more genetic engineering: How we are overcoming hunger.

Markus Somm

Markus Somm

Journalist, publicist, publisher and historian

«The fear of genetically modified plants is unwarranted»

Anke Fossgreen

Anke Fossgreen

Head of Knowledge Team Tamedia

«Politicians must avoid pushing prices up even more»

Babette Sigg Frank

Babette Sigg Frank

President of the Swiss Consumer Forum (KF)

Seizing the opportunity of green biotechnology

Roman Mazzotta

Roman Mazzotta

Country President Syngenta Switzerland

«Sustainability means more»

Hendrik Varnholt

Hendrik Varnholt

Journalist at Lebensmittel Zeitung

«One-third organic farming does not solve the problem»

Olaf Deininger

Olaf Deininger

Development Editor-in-Chief Agrar-Medien

«Ecological methods alone won’t cut it»

Saori Dubourg

Saori Dubourg

“Ecological methods alone won’t cut it”

«Most fears about pesticides are misplaced»

Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller

Columnist at Genetic Literacy Project and AGDaily

Agriculture needs new technologies

Erik Fyrwald

Erik Fyrwald

CEO Syngenta Group

«Modern pesticides can help fight climate change»

Jon Parr

Jon Parr

President of Syngenta Crop Protection

«Who is afraid of the evil GMOs?»

Jürg Vollmer

Jürg Vollmer

Editor-in-Chief of «die grüne» magazine

Content in German

«What plant breeding brings us»

Achim Walter

Achim Walter

Professor of Crop Science, ETH Zurich

Content in German

«Research and work place needs impetus»

Jan Lucht

Jan Lucht

Head of Biotechnology at Scienceindustries

Content in German

«Agriculture plays a major role»

Jan Grenz

Jan Grenz

Lecturer in Sustainability, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL

«Understanding nature’s mechanisms better»

Urs Niggli

Urs Niggli

Agricultural scientist and president of Agroecology Science

«For food security, we need genuine Swiss production»

Jil Schuller

Jil Schuller

Editor «BauernZeitung»

«Lay people completely disregard the dose»

Michael Siegrist

Michael Siegrist

Professor of Consumer Behaviour, ETH Zurich

Content in German

«Is organic really healthier?»

Anna Bozzi

Anna Bozzi

Head of Nutrition and Agriculture at scienceindustries

Content in German

«Genetic engineering and environmental protection go hand in hand»

Dr. Teresa Koller

Dr. Teresa Koller

Researcher at the Institute of Plant and Microbiology at the University of Zurich

«The «Greta» generation will rigorously dispel paradigms.»

Bruno Studer

Bruno Studer

Professor for Molecular Plant Breeding, ETH Zurich

Content in German

«Overcoming the urban-rural divide with constructive agricultural policy»

Jürg Vollmer

Jürg Vollmer

Editor-in-Chief of «die grüne» magazine

Content in German

«We protect what we use»

Regina Ammann

Regina Ammann

Head of Business Sustainability, Syngenta Switzerland

Content in German

Related articles

Precarious situation for potato farmers
Media

Precarious situation for potato farmers

Potato farmers in Switzerland are sounding the alarm. Due to all the rain, late blight is spreading and destroying their harvest. There is talk of disastrous conditions or a "fateful year" for Swiss potatoes. 300 hectares of potato fields have already had to be abandoned - and more could follow. In the meantime, the federal government has also drawn the first conclusions.

In plant breeding the music plays elsewhere
Politics

In plant breeding the music plays elsewhere

Switzerland is a centre of innovation, but unfortunately this promise has not yet been kept when it comes to the more modern methods of plant breeding. Openness would be a good thing for innovative Switzerland here too.

How can biodiversity be protected effectively?
Knowledge

How can biodiversity be protected effectively?

Biodiversity is essential to life. And it is currently a very topical issue. The obligation to set aside areas of Swiss farmland for biodiversity promotion has clearly not achieved the desired objectives. Recently published studies indicate that species diversity remains under pressure. This is what prompted swiss-food, in the latest of its series of talks with three established experts, to focus on the tensions between biodiversity and agriculture and to shed some light on the reasons for these.

«Organic in this country, banned in the Philippines»
Media

«Organic in this country, banned in the Philippines»

In the Philippines, Greenpeace has obtained a ban on Bt aubergines and golden rice. Incredibly, the same bacteria that the environmental organisation defames as dangerous there is being praised as organic in Switzerland.