How Agricultural Science Struggled to Defuse the Population Bomb

Another talk! So many talks recently… But this time I was back with the welcoming home crowd at the University of Leeds, finally presenting on my PhD thesis! I began this seminar by recounting an extraordinary speech at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s (NIAB’s) 1972 Seed Analyst Conference. Presented by the then vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) D.H Darbishire, the keynote address was littered with poignant phrases. The “undernourished of all mankind” were suffering as the “Doom debate” raged in industrialised nations, which were in turn a facilitator of the dichotomy between the “affluent minority and disinherited majority” of the global population.

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Edward S. Deevey, Jr. “The Human Population,” in Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren & Richard D. Holm, Man and the Ecosphere (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1971), p. 49. Original printing in Scientific American, 1960.

Why was Darbishire using a Seed Analysts Conference organised by a Cambridge-based agricultural institute to espouse these views with such urgency? Well, in the same year that Darbishire spoke out, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth published a computer simulation of human society and the environment, declaring that the growing world population was living beyond its means. This was only the latest in a series of “neo-Malthusian” themed texts, all of which declared that the globe was fast approaching its human carrying capacity.

Such a claim was by no means new in the post-war era. In 1948 ecologist William Vogt’s Road to Survival predicted that world population would crash under the weight of its own numbers, subsequently wiping out three-quarters of humanity. This claim was given new urgency by the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Here, the claim was made that in agricultural terms, “the stork had passed the plough.” In 1966 world population had increased by seventy million, with no compensatory increase in food production.

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Ecology teaching slides from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Robert McCabe Papers, 1971.

Agricultural science could clearly respond to this (perceived) crisis by endeavoring to increase global crop yields. Steps had been made in the right direction with the “Green Revolution,” high-yielding hybrid crops being passed onto developing nations – albeit with the associated package of chemicals, intensive irrigation and management. However, tracts like The Limits to Growth predicted these gains would soon be overrun by an exponentially growing human population. Higher yielding varieties had to become better, while regulatory institutions like NIAB had to test and promote them faster.

However, intensive monocultures of high-yielding crop varieties had vulnerabilities. Ehrlich had classed these setups as prone to ecological collapse, an opinion shared by many ecologists. Industrialised agriculture was certainly susceptible to common plant diseases like rusts and mildew. Darbishire blamed the practices of plant breeders, who sought to overcome pathogens by focusing on single, major genes. Instead, it might be better to concentrate on “a number of more humble genes.” A genetics arms race with disease strains would bring few benefits.

Clearly, the world faced problems in agriculture, genetics and the environment. How could one institution like NIAB go about responding to these problems? The Institute’s journal certainly carried multiple articles applauding increases in domestic food production across the 1970s. But actions speak louder than words. While NIAB was able to recommend crop varieties with high yields or disease resistance, its work was hindered by the increasing need for disease testing and changing regulatory standards via Britain’s 1973 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).

At NIAB, cereal yields were portrayed as falling from their peak in the 1950s, due to a mysterious “soil microbiological interaction.” presumably the 1970s equivalent of vital forces or phlogiston theory. Later in the decade, yields were considered to be rising, but at a slow pace. On the disease front, more progress was made, with genetic solutions stepping in for pesticide use (which had taken a battering since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). Genetic diversity was urged in fields by NIAB officers in a 1979 newsletter, the same year seeing the publication of geneticist Norman Simmond’s textbook Principles of Crop Improvement, which also called for genetic diversity and conservation.

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NIAB at work today! The 2014 Cereals Event, Cambridgeshire. Shoddy photography courtesy of the blogger.

In the event, an imminent Malthusian catastrophe turned out to be a false alarm. Although, such concerns continue to crop up (pardon the pun) in modern fears over food security – after all, the global community is still no stranger to famine. From the perspective of an environmentalist, the trend towards crop diversity and genetic conservation as the 1980s approached certainly sounds promising. However, against the background of all this, recombinant DNA  technology was making great strides. On June 16th 1980, in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court ruled five to four that manmade microorganisms were patentable inventions. Later that year, the prototype biotech company Genentech went public, experiencing a huge demand for its stock on Wall Street. A new chapter on food and environmental controversy was just opening…

Further Reading:

Ainsworth, G.C., Introduction to the History of Plant Pathology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1968).

Meadows, Donella H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (London, Pan Books Ltd, 1972).

Schoijet, Mauricio, “Limits to Growth and the Rise of Catastrophism,” Environmental History 4 (1999): 515-530.

Silvey, Valerie and P.S. Wellington, Crop and Seed Improvement: A History of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany 1919 to 1996 (Cambridge: National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1997).

Simmonds, Norman W. Principles of Crop Improvement (New York: Longman, 1979).

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