The Law of Unintended Consequences
I’m bringing back a Wheat Belly Blog classic from several years ago, updated to today’s sensibilities and context. The creation of high-yield semi-dwarf wheat, intended to feed the world’s hungry, is a perfect illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences on a massive worldwide scale.
It’s 1961. Jack Kennedy has been inaugurated as President, the Cuban missile crisis dominates headlines, and Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies are the rage in school kid’s lunch boxes.
I was 4 years old, playing with toys on the floor while my mother ironed shirts, Divorce Court droning on the television, the scent of bread baking in the oven wafts through the living room.
Let’s try and recast this common domestic scene in 2021. Well, I might be surfing on my computer going to battle against Facebook misinformation, the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic news on the TV in the background. New faces, new technology. But, beneath the surface, human life hasn’t changed all that much in 50 years. But if bread baking remained part of the picture, it would yield something different than the stuff our mothers used to make. The bread would look much the same with brown crust on the outside, the same alluring scent, the same texture, though ours might be a darker, heavier, fiber-rich variety than mom’s white flour product. But probe beneath the surface and you will find something entirely different than mom’s proud loaves.
In the late 1960s, a valiant agricultural breeding effort was launched in then Third World nation, Mexico, complete with noble intentions of feeding the world’s hungry. Dr. Norman Borlaug, an agricultural scientist with the moral commitment of a Minnesotan Lutheran and the work ethic of a Norwegian farmer, understood that grains, in particular, could be genetically manipulated into the service of providing calories for hungry humans.
Thousands of genetic experiments, mating different breeds of plants, coupling wheat with other grasses, and Borlaug’s prize creation resulted: high-yield, semidwarf wheat, a plant that required enormous quantities of nitrogen fertilizer to flourish, with fewer nutrients required to grow the short, 18-inch long stalk (unlike the 4-foot or longer traditional stalk) and more nutrients diverted to grow the unusually bulky seeds. But flourish it did, yielding more per acre than any wheat strain preceding it.
Introduced into India and Pakistan, and yield doubled within the first year. In Mexico, yield-per-acre quadrupled over the first few years after its introduction, yields climbing higher every year over the next 10 years in cultivation.
Borlaug, who vocally preached a better-life-through-science message, became the hero of Big Agribusiness, persuading governments and farmers that, though it looked different and had unique needs, this creation of genetics research could save the world by casting crop diversification aside in favor of vast monoculture fields of grains. Borlaug did have to repeatedly answer criticisms over the greater nitrogen requirements and herbicide and pesticide inputs, but he defended such practices as necessary evils in the quest to feed the world’s hungry.
Borlaug’s semi-dwarf wheat delivered on his promise of greater yields, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the World Health Organization estimating that as many as one billion people were saved from starvation by more readily available and inexpensive chapati, himbasha, Barbari and other breads, variant ethnic staples on the wheat product theme. Starvation was replaced by surplus in some regions of the world, earning Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize for his creation.
Borlaug’s success whetted the appetite of agribusiness to continue the quest to “improve” on nature’s design. Demand for greater and greater yields, coupled with increased susceptibility to pests and diseases, paved the road to the methods of genetic modification, or gene splicing to insert specific genes, with promises of solving such issues with targeted genetically programmed features. The world of agriculture and nutrition has never been quite the same.
Though Dr. Borlaug’s efforts now seem primitive in light of new technologies that create, for instance, strains of corn that express their own pesticide (Bt toxin) and are resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate, his vision of a world surviving on agribusiness generated fare of high-yield grains, millions of tons deliverable wherever and whenever needed, has materialized. It has proven a catalyzing force in allowing continued human population growth. Indeed, world population of 3 billion people inhabiting the world in Borlaug’s time has now expanded to 7 billion in ours, U.N. projections of 10 billion by 2050, permitted in large part by the proliferation of high-yield monoculture grains to yield plentiful inexpensive calories. It is politically incorrect to talk about world overpopulation and so we talk about it as its proxies, such as overfishing and acidification of the world’s oceans, soil erosion and salinization, endocrine disruption via industrial chemicals in food and water, even global climate change.
Back to mom’s bread. Noble intentions or no, the stuff of modern wheat today not only looks different with it’s short knee-high stature, large seeds, and large seed head, but it is different.
If I mate a goldfish with a piranha, I will surely obtain an entire range of unique hybrids, some deformed, some viable, some docile, some deadly, given the unpredictability of such an unnatural convergence. The offspring of this peculiar theoretical mating would likely look different than either parent, behave differently than either parent, likely have genetic and biochemical idiosyncrasies of either, both, or neither parent. Such an experience, repeated over and over again, introducing the seed of other fish species, repetitive mating to select for specific characteristics, such as large carnivorous teeth or bright orange color, will, over time, yield something a genetically far cry from our original and naturally-selected two fish.
This is precisely what Borlaug and his successors have done, creating new breeds using methods that extend beyond the traditional farming methods of choosing, say, a tastier or hardier cucumber from the patch to save for next year’s seeds. While conducting such genetics manipulations may raise accusations of God-playing or unnatural engineering when animals, even fish, are involved, such responses are less likely when it comes to plants, including ones we eat. What might be the effects of such never-before-consumed-by-humans sorts of grains such as high-yield, semidwarf wheat?
Well, we certainly can’t ask agribusiness nor the geneticists who continue to tweak, mate, and genetically manipulate such things, as they adhere to the USDA’s loose policy of don’t ask, don’t tell: create a new strain using traditional techniques, or even using extreme and bizarre techniques—it makes no difference in the USDA’s book—sell it as the newest ciabatta at the supermarket tomorrow, no questions asked.
Such a laissez-faire policy is paralleled at the EPA, an agency that puts the burden of proof of the safety of industrial chemicals on the public, not on industry, allowing chemical and other manufacturers to introduce hundreds or thousands of new chemical creations every year without having to demonstrate safety first. As it goes at the EPA, so it also goes at the USDA.
In the cause of unrestrained free enterprise, we now have exposure to an impressive array of industrial compounds in drinking water, produce, livestock, toiletries, cosmetics, even baby formula, just as we have exposure to unique components of newly created grains with allergenic, immunogenic, digestive, and neurological effects, all occupying the widest part of the USDA MyPyramid, largest segment of MyPlate.
Yes, Dr. Borlaug deservedly received the title of Father of the Green Revolution, a revolution from which we may never recover.
Dr. William Davis