5 November 2016 10:10AM
Mark Scherzer


Human ingenuity can do wonderful things, as one story in the New York Times about how the first farmers changed history recently reminded us. But progress isn’t always what it appears to be, as another article about very minimal benefits provided by genetically modified crops also instructs. The early farmer article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/science/ancient-farmers-archaeology-dna.html?_r=0; the GMO article is at (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-falls-short.html).

The lesson I took from both articles, one about the development of agriculture between 10,000 and 23,000 years ago in the Near East and the other about developments in agriculture in the last few decades, was remarkably the same. Change most often comes in fits and starts, usually in tiny increments, and only occasionally in great bursts like the Green Revolution of a half century ago. So many seemingly great innovations are disappointing, and so many experiments are dead ends. Those innovations that appear to prove themselves move quickly from the innovators to others, but sometimes we want to adopt innovations out of a human instinct to grab on to what’s new rather than basing our judgments on scientific proof. Those who develop new ideas often take full commercial advantage of this instinct.

I have in my mind somewhere, probably derived from a junior high school world history text book, the history of an agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East. Some keenly observant guy (it was always a guy in these images) several thousand years ago, wearing a leopard skin pelt, realized one day that one could take the seeds of plants, place them deliberately in the soil, nurture the resulting plants and then harvest the bounty. Communities that adopted this technology went into competition with hunting and gathering societies and their spiritual successors, the nomadic pastoralists, but the farmers won out because of their ability to produce large food surpluses, enabling the creation of cities, central governments, armies, empires, etc. In this cartoon version, the arc of human history was set by agriculture and civilization was in many ways, up until the industrial revolution, seen as connected principally to agricultural success.

Archaeologists are still debating whether agriculture was a singular invention in one place that quickly spread to other communities, or was the result of parallel experiments across different communities. The picture emerging from the research described in the Times strongly suggests it was the latter. That is, the agricultural concept was arrived at not from a single person’s insight one day but from the collective insights and experiments of various communities in a region including what is now southeastern Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel over a period of close to 15,000 years. The communities engaged in this process were not ever exclusively agricultural or pastoral/nomadic or hunter-gatherer, but engaged in food production and collection by all available means.

The food security resulting from agriculture can be overstated. As any farmer will tell you, agricultural production is not a sure thing. Drought, storms, pestilence and other risks can wipe out production. But the ability to produce massive surpluses in good seasons (oh, our cascading tomatoes) and to process and store that production for lean times, particularly through cereal crops, undoubtedly contributed to the adoption and spread of agriculture to most of the known world over a period of 15,000 to 20,000 years.

The concepts used in developing domesticated crops and agricultural techniques were not confined solely to planters. Peter has written about this in his book, Antique Kilims of Anatolia. In neolithic times, humans began to assert dominion over a creature called Ovis Orientalis, a hairy goat-like animal. Nomadic tribes originally domesticated them for meat, but then over millennia, through selective breeding, created the wool-bearing critters we know today as sheep. They were operating on the same scientific model as the nomads of eastern Turkey who, beginning with a grass-like plant, transformed it into early varieties of wheat. Their practice was to plant patches of wheat in what are known as ova (the clefts between mountains where rich soil deposits had collected through erosion. They planted just before they moved to their summer yayla (campgrounds) and harvested when they returned for the winter. Though they were pastoralists, they were the ones who developed, through selective breeding, the grains that became our modern varieties of wheat.

In a sense, the progress of human society has always been built on genetic modification. Indeed, both our cereal crops and our domestic livestock are actually human inventions.

Fast forward to the 21st century and our more recent experiments with genetic modification. Sure, there are people like us who still engage in the old methods of selective breeding. We on our farm select rams with big, floppy ears, black faces and legs and large bodies. But science has created far more targeted means of genetic modification, manipulating the individual genes directly to select for very specific characteristics. Many environmentalists and consumers have expressed concerns about the safety of foods produced with such manipulated genes, fears which the Times suggests are exaggerated. The European Union has banned their use. But still there is fascination with the new plants and animals created

The trouble is that in many instances the GMO plants have not necessarily turned out to be what they were supposed to be. The Times story suggests, for example, that in recent years crop yields from GM seeds have not increased as the proponents of these technologies, companies like Monsanto, have promised. Indeed, yields on some crops in France — where GM seeds have been banned — are now ahead of those in the U.S. where such GM seeds are widely used for some important staple crops. While it is true that crops genetically altered to resist certain insects do show marginal productivity improvement, those modified to be resistant to herbicides, permitting heavier use of such agents against weeds in the fields where these crops are grown, have not led to increased crop yield, which was the goal. Instead, their development has led to strong increases in sales of pesticides (often made by the same companies who sell the genetically modified seeds).

Ironically, despite the lack of proven benefits, some farmers in France are agitating for the right to use these GM seeds. Farmers are always game to try new techniques, especially if the benefits promised are substantial. In their zeal to always do better, however, they may be highly susceptible to unsubstantiated claims of companies with sophisticated marketing operations seeking to convince them there are ways to improve their production. Think of how many of our region’s orchardists became so heavily dependent on their pesticide salesmen.

The disappointing failure of GMOs to achieve the goals set out for them confirms that progress in agriculture continues to come in fits and starts, rarely resulting from an individual’s overnight brainstorm or a single company’s invention. New techniques can only be evaluated through years of experimentation and observation of side effects. Today’s farmers should be very wary of those who promise miraculous and revolutionary progress.

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