I found the coolest list the other day (wow, that sounds so cheesy!), it is a site called Science Heroes. There is one page in particular that had me floored: the general gist of it most important contributions to humanity via lives saved. (I know, I know, lists suck, but this one doesn’t!) The answers might surprise you.
Fritz Haber takes the list with 2.72 billion lives saved. How did he do it? Synthetic fertilizer. If I had to take a guess before seeing such a list, I would’ve guessed Edward Jenner, who came up with the concept of vaccination when he noticed that milk maids who had been exposed to Cowpox did not succumb to Smallpox. Jenner, it turns out, is number 5 with an estimated 530 million people saved. Haber solved, it turns out, a century-long problem that had vexed humanity’s growth: how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to be used in farming. It is safe to say that industrialized farming exists in a long chain of cause-and-effects because of this man. His successful discovery of this problem (later industrialized by Carl Bosch, #2 on the list) is what earns him the top spot of the greatest scientists list. The number of people that he saved is hard to understand at an emotional level: 2,720,000,000. Almost 40% of the population of Earth today! Or, 2.72% of all the humans that have ever lived in Earth’s history (100 billion people). Second, as I alluded to earlier, on the list, is Carl Bosch who duly shares in this discovery by mass-producing the process; something which Haber was not able to do. (It’s not all roses, however: Faber was instrumental in the chemical warfare that become the defining feature of WW1 on the German side, so there’s that.)
Yesterday, Vani Hari (the Food Babe) wrote a long reply concerning detractors explaining why and how they got her all wrong to her readers. (I encourage you to read it here.) She does so mainly by doing in reverse what she accuses them of doing to her, and mistaking her subjectivity for objective truths. I haven’t really got that involved with the Food Babe and her subjective meanderings into the food industry, but I thought that now is as good a time as any.
I recently finished reading Robert Greene’s marvellous book, The 33 Strategies of War. The book is essentially a 33 stage journey in destroying your enemies on the battlefield, politics, the office, and other scenarios as explicated in the book and explained via fascinating historical example. As I was reading this delightful compendium of strategy, history, bloodshed, and intrigue I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the strategies seemed strangely familiar. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself, “last time I checked I wasn’t a warmonger.” Yet, with this strange sense of deja vu, and due to the absorbing nature of the material, I continued reading…until, at last, it hit me. About halfway through the book I realised that “I didn’t know these strategies, I had seen these strategies…” From where is a very good question? From theanti-GMO brigade.
“War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society.” ~ Robert Greene
At first, that struck me as an odd realisation. Yet the similarities in tactics and strategy were just too uncanny…the pieces just…fit, and continued to fit as I progressed. And I remembered that, often times, the antis proclaim themselves as waging a war so it’s not much of a leap, then, to using the strategies of war. It is interesting to note that a recent study published in the Environmental and Development Economic Journal of Cambridge early in 2014 calculated the lost life years due to opposition to genetically modified golden rice (Wesseler et al, 2014). All in all, it estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost as a direct result of anti-GMO opposition. Collateral damage?
A few months ago I wrote a post titled What Would it Take? In it, I asked both proponents and opponents of GMOs what it would take to change their minds on their current position. Much to my disappointment only the PRO camp responded—which tells you something there.
Granted, I don’t have the biggest audience in the world, but I know I have Julee K, perhaps the only person whose mind I was instrumental in changing on the dicey issue of GMOs in a piece I did titled The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist—though, it is probably more fair to say it was Dr. Kevin Folta—and ask her a few questions on how it felt to change her mind on so visceral and emotional an issue, and you can find our back and forth below.
Hi Julee, before you changed your mind, I’m sure that you had read other pro-GMO pieces from other scientists, yet it was me, a non-journalist, non-scientist conducting a Q&A with plant geneticist Kevin Folta that actually began the unwinding of your philosophy. What was it about this particular interview that instigated such a deep change in your outlook?
I’m going to have to set up my answer to this question with a little backstory so please bare with me.
It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.
The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.
This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:
In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.