Articles, Blog

Modern Agriculture vs. Magical Thinking

This is RTP, this is #RTP180.Thanks a lot,
Wade. I work for Syngenta, and we develop both seeds
– novel seed varieties – everything from soy and corn to watermelon and tomato. Those are not in the same seeds, those are
separate. As well as crop protection chemicals to help
farmers feed the world. And that’s a real exciting motivation to
get me to go to work in the morning. But growing food, agriculture is a really
tough business. Less than 2% of the current population is
involved in agriculture, so most of us have a big disconnect from agriculture. And so one of the challenges is that the population
is increasing; our farmland is not. So we have to grow more food on the existing
acres. We’ve made a lot of progress from 1960 to
2005. We’ve been able to double productivity. By 2030, we need to have another 25% increase
in productivity, and it’ll have to keep going. If that’s not enough challenge, as much
as we like to eat our food, there are a whole bunch of insects, diseases, nematodes that
are just licking their lips, getting ready to eat our crops in the field. And one I want to point out: the fall armyworm,
which has been a big problem in the Americas as long as we’ve been growing crops. It is recently, a couple years ago, it moved
over to Africa where it is actually causing biblical, plague-level destruction of the
corn there. And just this year it’s been found in Asia. So it’s a real big problem. Now the good news is, though, a company like
ours is developing a number of crop protection chemicals that help farmers grow, and defeat
these pests. Unfortunately, pesticides have a really bad
rep. They have bad PR and to a lot of people, it’s
a bad word. And this is really unfortunate because the
pesticides that we develop are very effective for controlling the pests, they’re safe
for human food, they’re safe for animal feed and they’re safe for the environment. Now we’re getting to the magical part. I want to ask a question: How many people
think that organic agriculture or organic food does not use pesticides? I know you’re not that smart. I want to see hands up. That is completely wrong. Organic agriculture uses a lot of pesticides. This is what I call the “great misconception.” Most of the consumers, most people in my family,
think they don’t. The definition for organic agriculture: you’re
supposed to use a natural extract – like from a plant, a fungus, a bacteria – or
from using inorganic salt. There is no reason, from a scientific standpoint,
that a natural chemical is any better than a synthetic one. And really, it’s interesting, I looked into
this because I’m very passionate about agriculture. I don’t know if Maria teaches in her class
about vitalism. I remember, this is the one thing I remember
from organic chemistry from when I took it. There was this concept that the chemicals
in living bodies, in our bodies, had a vital principle – a vital energy – and that’s
why we are alive. The way you can think about it is Dr. Frankenstein
used electricity to animate his monster in Mary Shelley’s immortal, classic novel. And this energy was thought to be what gave
life. This was disproved with the synthesis of urea
over 200 years ago. But this same philosophy pervades a lot of
our culture still today. Now it’s kind of nonsense because natural
doesn’t mean safe. I wouldn’t want to eat a poison ivy salad
or be bit by one of the copperheads that migrate around my neighborhood when I’m walking
my dog. So really, the question in modern agriculture
that we use is not where the product comes from, it’s how effective is it and how safe
is it. At this point, Charles Dickens is probably
turning over in his grave with my title here, but I want to compare two insecticides. On your left is pyrethrin, and pyrethrins
are an organic insecticide. It’s very effective – it kills a lot of
pests. We call that broad-spectrum pesticide. It is also toxic to people in high doses,
but it’s a very effective pesticide. The problem is that it degrades very rapidly
in sunlight. On the right is permethrin, which is one of
what we call the pyrethroids. The pyrethroids are synthetic molecules based
on the structure of the pyrethrin, but then we’ve modified them to make them more effective. And permethrin that I show here, also very
broad-spectrum – kills a lot of pests – and it’s very stable in sunlight. So you can spray it on your crop, it lasts
longer, you need fewer treatments – so a very great advantage to the farmers. Another really interesting application that’s
newer for permethrin is they’re actually embedding it into clothing so that it will
repel and kill the pests of people that we are really familiar with around here – ticks
and mosquitos, which cause a lot of disease and a lot of death. It’s not just for agriculture, it gets actually
a consumer use. Really, for modern agriculture as opposed
to the magical thinking of vital nature and natural compounds, we need to feed the world. My pitch is, I want to go with modern agriculture. Magical thinking is great for love or for
Wade’s fantasy football team, but if we want to feed the world, we want to go with
what’s effective and safe. Thank you.

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