Monday, September 26, 2016

Bringing the plant into the lab

This line of thought is shared in several works on sustainable agri,
but sharing my own impressions here; trying to fill in an explanation
of why the Green revolution happened the way it did:

The scientists who worked on the green revolution made a structural
decision in their research.

Scientific procedues are deductive : cut out all possible factors that
can influence the experiment, bring things to isolation.

They brought the plant into the lab. They cut the plant off from
mycorizzha, soil micro-organisms, earthworms, trace minerals,
bio-active forms of carbon, airborne compounds secreted by companion
plant species, effects of insects, animals and birds.

After depriving it of everything that had made it productive, they
started figuring out how to make it productive.

They found that when they gave it powdered / solvent forms of
nutrients N,P,K etc, the starving plant lapped it up. Kind of like if
you give a starving person a pack of french fries, you're not going to
find him asking you whether its good for him in the long term. And for
some time you'll find him living thanks to the french fries, so you
can then conclude that all humans need to be fed french fries to live.

Compared with a control of another plant in the lab, these junk food-,
sorry, fertilizer-fed plants performed far better. The control sample
wasn't a plant that was back with its biospheric companions. See, that
would have been an "out of control" sample. Controls are supposed to
be under full control. The control specimen was another plant growing
in equally artificial circumstances.

For the first consecutive generations, they got the plant to give
bigger sizes and/or higher number of products, much the same way a
person constantly fed french friends will successfully yield larger
belly size than average. Didn't really bother carefully measuring the
contents of these new products though. Following the standardization
paradigm of industrial society, one product (like a tomato) was
assumed to be identical to every other tomato. If they got a plant to
yield twice the weight now, they didn't bother checking if any of the
constituent nutrients were depleted. Or maybe it didn't really matter
when compared to the more attention-grabbing higher yield statistic.

So it was declared that these plants, strengthened by fertilizers,
will feed the world.

Upon trying to grow them out of the lab, though, pests made quick work
of these plants. Most couldn't make it to harvest stage; those bugs
were relentless in a way not seen in any other wild plant. Some even
suspected the plant was attracting them, like how kids at a party are
drawn towards the cake instead of the veggies.

Now it was the scientists' turn to get desperate. Imagine developing a
product that's so amazing in the lab, but when you bring it to real
world testing it falls prey to things that you hadn't accounted for.
It's like making the perfect robot for IIT's competition and on the
big day it rains and you realize you'd never bothered water-proofing
its electronics as you were always operating it indoors.

Around the same time, companies that had produced poisonous gases and
sprays for use on people during WW2, had their products now banned by
a wiser world, and were now looking for ways to keep themselves
useful. They found their next market opportunity in the fertilizer-fed
crops. They diluted and adapted their warfare products down so they
work on insects, but not on people. Well, not immediately at least.
Over the next decades they left it to native populations to figure out
what was wrong with DDT, endosulphan etc and stopped making only when
mandated.

The promise of science was that at some point Science will invent
something that properly kills only pests and doesn't have any
side-effects on humans. That promise has never been fulfilled because
insects and humans inconveniently come from the same planet, and share
a common biochemistry particularly in matters of life and death, but
science people like staying hopeful. They also assumed their
scientists will be quicker than Evolution and will forever keep on
inventing something new to kill the bugs that the bugs won't evolve
out of. We might also have some creationists in that lot.. at least
the BT-crop developing guys don't seem to believe in Evolution at all.

And so hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides became the products to
sell to the largest consumer segment on the planet : farmers. It also
created higher yields, at least for the time being. With the active
enrollment of governments we had the green revolution. Incidentally
they didn't bother checking what happens to the soil : maybe it's just
too dirty to be brought into the lab.

And so we have a situation where the planet's soils are degrading and
even the seas are getting dead zones where the fertilizers/pesticides
run off (aka mouths of major rivers that used to be the most
biodiverse places for sea life), because scientists like to separate
things out to maintain proper scientific rigour in their research. And
because they know better we should all trust them to solve the
problems they have created. :P

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