One of the most successful movie genres in Hollywood is the “end of the world” movie. These are formula movies that feature some fantastic event that threatens to destroy the world. There is always a love interest and lots of special effects. The movie always ends in one of two ways: either the world ends in a fiery blast as the two lovers are locked in a final embrace, or the hero saves the world from destruction and wins the love of the heroine. The reason these are so popular is that nobody believes for a minute that the world is going to end. We sit in a theatre enjoying the fantastic story safe in the knowledge that, when we walk out, the world we know will still be there and that the chances of being hit by an asteroid or squashed by a massive alien monster are pretty remote. Few of us give much thought to the much more discomforting fact that the destruction of life as we know it is much closer than we think.
Most apocalyptic movies feature a supernatural threat from outer space or a manmade event such as a nuclear explosion or a biological event such as an unstoppable Virus. Very few films have been made about the far more likely apocalyptic scenario: worldwide food shortage. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, people starving to death does not make for a very exciting movie. Second, most people in the developed world cannot conceive of what it is like to run out of food. Yet this has occurred several times in history with significant consequences.
Until recently, food systems tended to be regional; that is, food from one part of the world was consumed in that part of the world. When the potato crop failed in Ireland, the rest of the world did not go hungry. When the dust bowl days came to the Western U.S., the rest of the world hardly noticed. But today’s global food system is much more interconnected and dependent. Recently, when weather killed 30% of the wheat crop in the Ukraine, there were food riots in the Middle East and U.S, wheat prices went from $4 a bushel to $7 a bushel. Consider what would happen if 80% of the U.S. corn crop failed. The U.S. economy would crash, food riots and possibly food wars would break out, and starvation on a global scale would ensue. While corn is grown in other places in the world, no other nation has the land and weather resources to produce anywhere near the amount of corn the U.S. produces. But before you get paranoid and start storing food in your basement, there is a secret weapon that dramatically lessens the likelihood of a world food shortage.
This secret weapon is located in a nondescript building on a 230 acre campus just outside St. Louis. It is the research labs of Monsanto. The amount of money, technology, and human brain power being used here — all focused on growing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and fruit and vegetables — is incredible. During a recent tour, I saw DNA sampling, MRI images, and a highly sophisticated worldwide network of research projects all focused on improving the crops that produce food.
Some will be frightened by all this technology and say we need to go back to a simpler more natural way. Yet the work being done here and at other companies round the world is moving us closer to crops that are immune to disease and insects and produce food that is healthier for us to eat. This technology will help us grow more food on less land and with fewer chemicals. Locally grown and organic food production systems cannot meet the challenges of world food demand over the next 50 years.
While our food production and distribution system is not perfect, it is getting better. More people in the world are food secure than100 years ago or even 50 years ago. This is due to the technology and research of companies like Monsanto. So, go rent a copy of the movie Soylant Green, and take comfort in the knowledge that research is on going to improve our food supply and forestall the likelihood that the world will run out of food anytime soon.
by Gary Truitt