Sunday, March 31, 2024

Biofortification: The latest technical fix for depleted soils

Many health-conscious people already know that the nutrient value of foods has been dropping since the introduction of industrial agriculture. The causes include loss of nutrient-rich topsoil due to erosion brought on by frequent plowing and therefore loosening of the soil. Farmers also often fail to plant cover crops to hold soil in place when the growing season is over. Another cause is the reduction in the biological diversity and density of the soil brought on both by frequent plowing and by the constant barrage of synthetic chemicals, both fertilizers and pesticides, used in industrial agriculture.

Now, the same people who brought you the industrial food system want to bring you biofortification, a term which refers to a set of approaches to boost nutrients in food—nutrients lost due to the very techniques used in industrial agriculture.

It should come as no surprise that one approach being discussed is genetic engineering of crops to increase nutrient levels. For those of us who find the idea of yet more genetically modified crops in the food supply unappetizing as well as dangerous, there is an alternative. This one encourages conventional plant breeding, the rebuilding of soil, and the planting of a more diverse set of crops. The reasoning is that part of the nutrition problem is that people don't get a rounded diet that includes the diversity of foods which have the diversity of nutrients their bodies need. (This piece in The Guardian provides a reasonably good summary of the discourse around biofortification.)

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Why don't humans respond to extinction-level risks?

The perils that threaten the continuity of human civilization are so obvious that it is puzzling that so little is being done to counter these perils. In fact, much is being done to hasten their arrival. Climate change, nuclear war, toxic pollution leading to complete loss of human fertility, solar storms and electromagnetic pulse weapons that could take down the entire electric grid, designer viruses against which none of us have defenses, and energy and resource depletion are just some of the extinction-level risks that we face.

Now, none of these possibilities are certain to wipe out humanity altogether. But they might very well end modern technical civilization and leave behind only a few scattered groups of humans around the globe. And, then there is the recent hoopla about artificial intelligence (AI) taking over the world and extinguishing human beings or, at least making decisions without consideration for whether those decisions will lead to the demise of the human race. What the hoopla actually seems to be about is what people will do with AI, making this an all-too-human disaster rather than merely a technological one.

Given all that is known about these threats, what is stopping human societies from taking definitive action to prevent them? Let me offer a few ideas: