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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Technological advancement often has a sting in its tail

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari made the somewhat controversial statement that human beings have been domesticated by wheat. While this might be hard for us to swallow, given our anthropocentric sense of self-importance, the argument itself is difficult to dismiss. After all, it was not long after we learnt how to farm wheat that the entire species pretty much gave up the hunter-gatherer life it was physiologically suited to—for the much harder life of farming.

Agriculture not only altered human existence, it transformed the planet. Having learnt to create stable and easily-accessible sources of food, human beings gave up their nomadic way of life so they could settle in one place and cultivate crops. But as small towns grew into cities, the demand for enough food to support burgeoning human populations far exceeded the land’s capacity to fulfil it.

This is where science stepped in. Through a series of innovations, we kept extracting more out of the land than was previously thought possible: the Haber-Bosch process allowed us to artificially enrich the soil with nitrogen-based fertilizers, agricultural automation made it possible for machines to do the work of many men, and genetic engineering improved crop yields by making them resistant to pests and disease.

And yet, every science-driven improvement in agriculture has come at a price. Take fertilizers, for example. While our ability to artificially infuse nitrogen into the soil so significantly improved food yields that we were able to stave off a global hunger crisis, today more artificial nitrogen is being used in farming than the plants we grow can absorb. As a result, nitrogen is washing off the soil, entering our waterways and eventually rising up into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide with deleterious consequences for the ozone layer. Even though genetic engineering has made plants resistant to pests and more bountiful in volume, concerns remain around the allergic reactions they could cause, the toxins they might produce and their reduced nutritional value.

Today, the enormous demands of feeding 8 billion people has transformed agriculture into an industrial activity. While half the world’s habitable land area is farmland, if we combine the pastures used for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for as much as 77% of arable land the world over. Given that only 18% of global calorie supply and 37% of global protein supply comes from meat and dairy food, questions are being raised over this disproportionate utilization.

More recently, this discussion led to increased interest in developing plant-based alternatives to meat. In a previous article, I wrote about how these technologies have advanced to the point where these products not only have the nutritional equivalent of animal meat, but have also achieved the same taste and mouth feel. It goes without saying that if these plant-based alternatives can help wean us off our current dependence on animal meat, we would be able to address the inefficiencies (not to mention ethical cruelty) implicit in the animal farming industry.

But even this technological evolution of agriculture is unlikely to take place without serious consequences. While leaders in the space claim that their products offer significant environmental benefits over the meats they seek to substitute, sceptics argue that we will only know this for sure once these products become mainstream. One of their concerns centres around soy, a plant upon which most artificial meats depend for their flavour. Given the high interest in meat substitutes, there has been such a surge in demand for soybean that it has already resulted in an increase in deforestation and displacement around the globe—consequences that will only heighten as plant-based meats are more widely consumed.

Science has enabled humankind to overcome many of the challenges we face as a species. Had we not industrialized our agricultural processes, we would not have been able to stave off the threat of global hunger. And yet, the consequences of that industrialization are evident for all to see today. Most technological innovations that made our life better also made it worse in new and different ways—to the point where many of the problems that science is solving for us today were caused by technology itself.

Current research at the bleeding edge of science is evidence of this, and in ways that will seem disturbing to many. For instance, the work that is underway right now on how to ease the process of death is only relevant because science has ensured we live twice as long as before, our lives extending to a point where the notion of ageing is so terrifying that many are keen to avoid it. Or take the increased interest in ectogenesis—the process of bringing babies to term in a plastic bag so they can be monitored in ways impossible within a mother’s body. This is only relevant because medical knowledge has advanced to the point where we know just how risky gestation within the human body can be.

If these areas of research seem disturbing, it is only because scientific progress always challenges our notions of what is right—right up to the point where their benefits are acknowledged widely enough to be ethically and legally acceptable. Which itself will last until the problems these new technologies will inevitably throw up have to be solved by yet another new morally disturbing scientific advancement.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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