Going Green and Frankenfood

Written by Klaus L E Kaiser PhD

The world is going green – literally, in all kinds of places that were desert-like beforeworld greener

Have you ever been in an airplane crossing the semi-arid foot hills of the Rocky Mountains and looking down at the ground? You’ll have seen large green, circular patches between the miles of dry brown land. Those patches are irrigated fields sprouting vegetables and fruits of various kinds. They are providing the ample food for the supermarket near you – and the world at large.

What Plants Need to Grow

Plants need just a few things to grow, water, nutrients, and sunshine. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is just one of those vital nutrients. However that CO2 has become more readily available, thanks to mankind’s combustion of fossil fuels.

Just a couple of hundred years ago, with atmospheric CO2 down to 0.02- 0.03%, the globe’s plants were nearly starved of that vital CO2 nutrient. Its natural sources, volcanoes and fumaroles, just could not keep up supplying enough CO2 to the atmosphere to even maintain a steady state between production and consumption. You might say the consumption side took over – somewhat reminiscent of today’s economics.

Luckily for life on earth, nature (in the form of anthropogenic “carbon” emissions) came to the rescue. Ever since, the world has been greening, all around. From the ancient sequoias in California, to the vineyards in Canada, agriculture has experienced hitherto unforeseeable increases in production on all continents (excluding Antarctica). Especially in previous dry desert- and shrub-lands, irrigation, (synthetic) fertilizers, and increased CO2 in the airhave turned those parts of the world green. For example, the Sahel (region south of the Sahara desert in Africa) has seen a steady greening. 

Apart from more stretches of arable land, the most significant agricultural gain is from increased yields.

Agricultural Yields

Back in the 1800s, agricultural yields had begun to improve with intensive selection of better cultivars, research on soil and nutrient requirement and related methods to increase yields. Gregor Mendelssohn’s research work was of paramount importance for that development. It was successful and provided a slow but steady progress towards higher yields. Increased yields, in turn, enabled the diversion of human ingenuity to (then) more “esoteric” ideas, i.e. like inventions, like the Jacquard loom (1801) and the high pressure steam engine.

Some of those 19th century steam engines and their large fly wheels were in operation for one hundred years or more. One great example is at the “water works” of the City of Hamilton, Ontario. The venerable buildings house an equally venerable steam engine with a humongous fly wheel that operated for over a century pumping water from Lake Ontario to the city. Today, the facility houses the Hamilton Museum of Steam & Technology National Historic Site and provides a venue for a variety of movie shoots, like the widely watched series Murdoch Mysteries.

Now, where did I go again; oh, agricultural yields. Yes, humans came up with another great advance to increase agricultural yields by leaps and bounds, namely genetically engineered varieties. By now, that invention has become so dominant that steadily more fruits and vegetables are becoming genetically engineered in some way.

Those genetically-modified (GMO) plants are commonly more resistant to adverse influences, from competition with all kinds of natural weeds (due to a higher resistance to herbicides), to insects or fungi that negatively affect the yields, storage and distribution of the produce. In fact, more than 90% of all corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. and Canada are now of that GMO variety. GMO organisms (not just plants), however, are still despised in many areas; some people call them “Frankenfood.”

GMO Organisms & Foreign Species

Despite its great increase in yields and established safety record for a couple of decades now, the German Agriculture Minister announced in August 2015 a ban on GMO crops. Some EU countries have opted out of that ban requirement, but the majority went along with it.

What’s so strange about all that, at least in my mind, is that Europe is absolutely dependent on plants originating from the American continents to feed their populations, with or without GMO-type plant varieties. Prior to the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, widespread famines were common place.

Without the introduction of potato, tomato, corn (in Europe called maize) and other plants from overseas, Europe’s population would still be starving and certainly not in a position to welcome millions of migrants from other continents. For example, the great (potato) famine in Ireland (in the 1840s) was caused by virus and fungus infections of the potato plant, by then a local staple, resulting in the death of a million people. But the list of introduced species does not end with important food plants; there are also other organisms of increasing importance.

Other introduced species include a variety of carp, i.e. “mirror carp.” Served in many restaurants especially around Easter, it also is an introduced species in Europe, having arrived there already a few centuries ago from Asia. Another (intentionally) introduced fish species, the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) also does well in many European creeks and rivers. Even a tree species currently planted in many “managed” forest plots in Europe is from the Americas, like the “Douglasia” spruce (Pseudotsuga menziesii), also known as Oregon pine. In short, Europe is full of alien species of various kinds and has become heavily dependent on them.

It should be recognized that the new abundance of food and fodder in the world is not only a result of introduction from other continents or the result of genetic modifications. Indeed, the greening of the world is also the consequence of the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide level that’s beneficial to plants worldwide.

Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser — Bio and Archives