‘Tis the season of “summer blockbusters” here in the U.S., including the usual deluge of superhero movies. Back in May, “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” stole the show – and has since raked in more than $850 million worldwide at the box office, making it one of the ten highest-grossing superhero movies of all time.
In “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” the Guardians are pitted against a genetically-engineered race of super-beings (of course the bad guys are genetically engineered!) who attack them with a fleet of drones. I won’t give away the plot, but I think it’s safe to say, like in most superhero movies, the good guys win.
What a lot of these movie-watchers don’t know is that our planet – and mankind – face real-life threats that could literally destroy the Earth one day if there aren’t any heroes who take action now. The real “evil forces” in our world are hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Here’s the storyline:
By 2050, the United Nations predicts that global population will expand to nearly 10 billion people – an increase of more than 2 billion – which will require a significant increase in the food supply. In addition to many more people to feed, growers will have fewer acres of farmland to grow that food and less water available to irrigate the crops.
Farming uses 70% of annual fresh water withdrawals today and more than 90% of its consumptive use. Water scarcity is already an issue facing the farming industry, particularly in presently water-stressed regions like China and India where the constraints of large and growing populations are expected to intensify; nearly half of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2050. In addition, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that climate change represents a significant challenge to future food security due to changing temperature and weather patterns, increases in insect pest pressure, and the spread of plant diseases, among other issues.
The “special powers” in this story are the new scientific innovations that farmers will need to continue to adopt to use their land and resources as efficiently as possible, while continuing to produce more food on each acre. There’s simply no other way – any farmer will tell you that yields don’t dramatically increase on their own without the benefit of new technology – whether it’s genetically modified seeds that have increased tolerance to drought or built-in resistance to pests and diseases; enhanced chemistry for seed and crop protection; or improved data analytics that allow farmers to make better, more informed decisions than ever before.
Unfortunately, the people who are working to develop the tools and technology that will help protect the world from the “evil forces” are often villainized. For instance, “anti-GMO” activists make it their mission to thwart advances in crop protection or biotechnology by attacking scientists and academic researchers with online smear campaigns, and scaring consumers, companies and government policy-makers from funding, accepting and using the technology – even when the alternative is hunger or higher food prices.
In Africa, for example, an insect pest called the fall armyworm, has caused billions of dollars in damage to key crops in more than 20 African countries since January, raising fears of imminent mass food shortages. Monsanto scientists have developed a fall-armyworm resistant maize seed that has been genetically modified to contain a naturally occurring soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringienisis , or Bt, within the plant itself. The Bt gene produces a protein that breaks down the stomach lining of the caterpillars, killing them and protecting the crop, while having no effect on humans or other vertebrates.
In fact, these Bt proteins are the same ones used in organic farming as an insecticide that is sprayed over the crops. But because the GM maize seeds produce the Bt gene, anti-GMO activists want to prevent them from being grown. NGOs such as Greenpeace andFriends of the Earth and their affiliates and allies in Africa have urged countries not to commercialize GM crops. As a result, thousands of smallholder farmers and those who depend on them pay the price.
This has become a serious humanitarian issue that is forcing some parents to choose which child to feed because there isn’t enough available food. These families need real heroes. They need tangible solutions, like drought- and insect-resistant crops. There is a large friendly force of us that wants to be able to give them those tools. And I’m not just talking about Monsanto. There are thousands of researchers at Universities and other public institutions, startups and other private companies who understand that “big ag” isn’t the bad guy – because we’re all on the same team. We may be working on different projects, but we have a shared mission. We just need to do a better job of helping society understand the storyline. We need a stronger and more unified voice on the environmental benefits of modern agriculture and the importance of public investment in basic agricultural research and development. Increasingly effective communication around these topics is key to building public trust in scientific information.
We also need more public funding for science education, and programs that teach students how to communicate about science. I think if we can just get the facts in front of kids at an earlier age – explain the challenges the world is facing and how we’re using science and technology in modern agriculture to create solutions – they’ll get it. They may even decide to join the force. After all, the world of 2050 is the one they and their children will have to navigate.
There is nothing on earth more important that making sure future generations have enough food, water and natural resources – and right now, even as we look forward to the next superhero movie release, there is a team of non-fiction heroes working on a noble mission to help save the planet. We are scientists, farmers and scientific communicators. We are the real Guardians of the Galaxy.