With another school year about to start, it’s a good time to reflect on the basic sciences: physics, chemistry and biology, and how important our understanding of them can be in dealing with what have become substantial threats to our existence.
A relatively small change in the mixture of gases that constitute our upper atmosphere has altered an obscure physical property known as its radiative transmissivity. The additional gases are the byproduct of the fossil fuel energy sources that have made our modern way of life possible. The result is that heat emanating from our planet that formerly passed into space is now being reflected back to Earth, resulting in a warmer planet. While this might sound benign, it’s is causing massive melting of polar ice, releasing tremendous amounts of moisture into the ocean and atmosphere, and dramatically altering our climate. That’s physics.
Synthetic fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, primarily produced from natural gas and ammonia, have powerfully enhanced our ability to grow food to feed our ever-increasing population. However, as soils have changed their composition in response this modified diet, their ability to hold moisture has lessened. This means that heavy rains produce runoff, allowing large amounts of these chemicals to be washed into streams, rivers and lakes, altering their composition and, in some cases, making the water unfit to drink. That’s chemistry.
Micro-organisms that survive by invading animal hosts in the wild sometimes evolve to live on human hosts as well. These new diseases can appear suddenly, as in the most recent Ebola outbreak, and given the speed and intensity which we now travel and interact, can also spread rapidly before any treatment or cure can be developed. Massive epidemics that can threaten the existence of entire populations are now increasingly possible. That’s biology.
These existential threats underscore the need for increased emphasis on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines that have been in decline here in the U.S. in recent decades.
Each of these threats acts differently. The physical threat of climate change acts across the entire globe — disrupting agricultural patterns with a mixture of flooding and drought as atmospheric moisture, driven by increasing masses of warm air and ocean water, is redistributed. While the entire planet is at risk, effects will be felt differently in different areas. The threat will continue to grow over the years and decades to come, building pressure on food supplies and on social and political stability with consequences that could potentially be catastrophic.
The chemical threat of pollution is also quite serious, considering how essential water is to the existence of all living things. Typically this is more of a localized effect, though the use of these chemical fertilizers and other dangerous chemicals has become widespread across the globe.
The biological threat, however, could be the most frightening, because of the rapidity and the specificity with which it could strike. A disease can lie hidden in its host for some time before becoming symptomatic. In today’s world with millions of people traveling internationally every day, an epidemic could become widespread before being discovered. That could be disastrous.
The biological world is constantly changing and evolving in ways that are difficult to predict. That is why there is such concern over efforts to tamper with the basic building blocks of life in the laboratory and then massively release them into the environment without the kind of rigorous long-term testing that agencies like the American Medical Association have proposed. As the above examples have shown, our history of technological innovation, which has been largely successful in making our lives safer and more fulfilling, has also been a history of unintended consequences — many of which are only catching up with us now.
Government policy can be a powerful tool in controlling the spread of some of these risks. The European Union, expressing concerns over the possible risks associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has established a legal framework to restrict the importation and cultivation of genetically modified food products. Their position stands in stark contrast with the U.S., which, perhaps due to the number of high-ranking government officials who are former executives in the biotech industry, is a strong supporter of the technology.
This has caused a stumbling-block in the attempts to forge a trade deal between the two, as the U.S. has asked for relaxed restrictions on GMOs as a precondition for the agreement while the EU has refused.
Now, a court decision in Mexico underscores the way that deterrents can spread across borders, almost as easily as rogue organisms: The judge ruled that the Yucatán region’s honey trade, which is crucial to the local economy, could not co-exist with the cultivation of Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans. That’s because the honey, which is almost exclusively sold in Europe, containing the GM soy pollen, is considered contaminated, and therefore can no longer be sold. The judge has therefore revoked Monsanto’s GM soy permit.
Proponents claim that GM crops can help increase production to meet the demands of a growing population. Studies have shown that yield increases from GMO’s have been modest at best, and that hunger is more a result of unequal distribution than of inadequate supply. The U.N. food agency’s chief of research, Andrea Roberto Sonnino, has said that total food production at present is enough to feed the entire global population. The vast majority of improvements in productivity to date have come from traditional breeding techniques rather than biotechnology.
Image credit: Anna Verdina (Karnova): Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.
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