An editorial in this week’s issue of Nature “A charter for geoengineering” highlights the difficulties faced in the application of emerging technologies.
As we argue in ‘Using Emerging Technologies to Address Global Risks” the technology itself is the least of our worries, and the fact that a relatively simple geoengineering experiment involving spraying water from a balloon at an altitude of 1000m was scuppered “by intellectual-property rights, public engagement and the overall governance regime for such work” further reinforces that view.
It is safe to say the we are living through a period of rapid technological change. The power of information technology has been harnessed to speed up the flow of information between researchers, and to largely automate routine data collection allowing vast amounts of scientific data to be collected, modelled and tested without going near a lab bench. At the same time the huge investment in research in Asia over the past decade means that there is more and better science being done than at any time in human history.
So the science isn’t the problem, it’s what we do next. I’ve mentioned the problems of funding innovation plenty of times in the past, but that is only part of the issue. At a conference last week I was fascinated by Huw Jones‘ talk on the 2020 wheat project and why we need GM technologies, and the reaction from other speakers and the audience in trying to justify not improving agriculture. The arguments against included the oft quoted but widely discredited examples of GM corn harming monarch butterflies and suicides among Indian farmers. One participant even suggested a causal link between GM crops and childhood eczema in the UK. Balanced against this is the need to develop higher yielding crops, and to deal with new emerging crop diseases while avoiding an arms race with pests who also evolve.
Unfortunately rationality is often left behind when discussing high emotive subjects such as climate change and food, and this can have a disastrous effect on government policies where a scare story in a tabloid newspaper is given equal weighting with several years of peer reviewed research.
A major worry is that while we have the tools to address a wide range of global issues, water, food, heath etc, the implacable opposition to technologies, especially new and powerful ones that are remote from the daily experience of most people, will mean that some of the best chances we have to support nine billion people with a decent quality of life may be lost. It seems far easier to say no to deployment of emerging technologies rather than doing the hard work of ensuring that issues of governance and communication are addressed.
GM and geoengineering may prove to be vital tools in avoiding or mitigating future food shortages, but how can we ensure that they will be available, if needed?