Genetic Alteration? Farmers Have Done It For Eons
In His Quest To Feed Himself, Man Has Been Improving On Nature For Over Ten Thousand Years
March 18, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—The earliest signs of human plant breeding—cereal plants bred to hold onto their seeds instead of letting them scatter—were found in Israel's Jordan Valley. The plants date from about 9000 B.C.
These nonscattering seeds marked a turning point in history. For the first time, man had the power to reshape nature to suit his needs.
Humanity had already been walking upright for at least 2.5 million years when that first plant breeding was done. But 3 million humans living off hunting and gathering had little impact on the global ecosystem.
At a recent symposium on the origins of agriculture held in Aleppo, Syria, conferees learned man had probably been "farming" for at least a thousand years before he did any plant breeding.
FRANK HOLE of Yale University cited evidence of agriculture at least 1500 years before there was any evidence of plant modification. This included the collection of seeds from plants that flourished in the organic nutrients from the wastes around human campsites. Also, sheep, cattle and camels were herded from mountainsides in the summer to low plains in the winter.
In southwest Iran, evidence has been found of early livestock herding, and modified wheat and barley that may have been for livestock, not people. Later, other "founder" crops were grown, such as peas, lentils, vetch, fava beans, fruit trees and grapevines.
The entire cropping and livestock system began to spread out from its origins in the Mideast, up the Danube Valley into eastern Europe, down the Rhine into western Europe and eastward into northern India. It may have reached China around 1500 B.C.
EARLY FARMERS modified their crop plants. The 9th century Arabian writer Al-Jahiz noted 360 varieties of dates on sale in the market at Basra. In 1400, Al-Ansari wrote of a small town in North Africa with 65 kinds of grapes, 36 varieties of pears and 28 different figs.
But these early farmers also made mistakes. Early Near East farmers didn't realize that the lack of drainage in their irrigated fields was building up salt levels in the soil. Eventually, the salt ruined much of their limited arable land.
Early farmers were also prone to overgraze their land in order to get more meat and milk. In the semi-arid lands of the Near East, that often led to pasture destruction, and then ruinous erosion.
Farming fed far more people more reliably per acre than hunting and gathering. It helped raise the world's human population from less than 100 million to more than 6 billion today. Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, bigger crops have meant more and better food per person.
Eventually, food security meant a slowing of population growth. As the world has become more affluent and urban, births per woman in the Third World have dropped from 6.5 to 3.1. Birth rates are now falling below the replacement rate in more and more countries.
CAN WE SUSTAIN the food supply for an expected peak population of 8 billion affluent people?
The Soil and Water Conservation Society of the United States (often critical of farming systems), says humanity today is conducting the most sustainable farming in 10,000 years, through hybrid seeds, conservation tillage, chemical fertilizers and integrated pest management.
The origins of agriculture teach that it is certainly possible for mankind to degrade whole ecosystems with ill-conducted, shortsighted farming. But man has also used his powers of observation to produce more and better farming systems.
TODAY, it's not just farmers crossbreeding their own plants. Hybrid seed farms do it as well, and biotechnologists use enzymes to pick out useful genes from wild relatives of today's crop plants.
Instead of a farmer with a horse and plow opening the soil to erosion, farmers use conservation tillage, using the residue from the previous crop to feed subsoil bacteria and prevent erosion.
Instead of using a broad-spectrum pesticide that kills both the dangerous corn borer moth and the useful honeybee, farmers use a natural pest-killer that is genetically engineered into corn plants.
We've forgotten the concept of the "worn-out farm." We use animal manure and chemical fertilizers to replace plant nutrients the crops take out of the soil, so the soil never "wears out."
If we keep investing in agricultural research and gene conservation, one day we will probably farm with true sustainability. That way we can feel the satisfaction of knowing our high-yield agriculture has preserved room on the planet for kids and wildlife in the 21st century and beyond.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.