Human sustenance and genetic engineering

Paul King pking at
Wed Aug 14 09:57:17 EST 1996

ttha at (Tom Thatcher) wrote:

|In <4ubnru$7t4 at> schauf at (Brian J Schaufenbuel) writes:

|>What I'm getting at is:  couldn't we add DNA to simple bacteria (maybe
|>cyanobacteria) to produce all the proteins that humans need to be
|>healthy?  Supplement that with mineral-enriched water, and wouldn't it
|>be easy to feed billions and billions of people?  Why not engineer
|>bacteria to utilize the sun's energy to transform earth's nitrogen,
|>carbon, etc. to food for people as efficiently as possible?

|>I envision huge seawater gardens baking in the sun filled with loads of
|>engineered bacteria that breakdown rocks, fix nitrogen, etc., making 
|>food for people.  And how about a bacteria to desalinize?

|>What problems am I overlooking?  Does anybody know of any good books to
|>help me get started or answer my questions?

|Well, there are also certain essential fatty acids and essential
|carbohydrates necessary for growth; these would have to be synthesized
|as well, plus the need for fiber and other non-nutrient food components
|I may be overlooking.

|But the main problem you are overlooking is...blech!  You expect
|people to voluntarily eat genetically engineered sewer sludge.

I know that this sounds rather morbid, but this "crap" that no-one wants to eat
may be successfully marketed in the third world. There is a story of how
something similar happens a couple of decades ago in Peru. Peru's population at
that time was very well-fed, and mostly agrarian. There was wheat, livestock,
and in general enough food was made to keep Peruvians self-supporting. Then, as
multinationals slowly took over the farms, they grew a mono-crop of wheat, and
what resulted were the usual fare: farmers displaced by technology moving to
shanty-towns around Lima, destitution, hunger, water shortages, cholera. Well,
one of the multinational wheat growers involved in the takeover of farms there
came up with this reportedly God-awful slop (read "cost-effective food
supplement" ;-) to feed the hungry Peruvians in the shanty-towns. It was a grain
based, high-protein concoction, supposedly to be consumed in lieu of a day's
meal. But, of course it was consumed because these people had no choice. I think
that story comes from Susan George, but I may have the countries mixed up. I
know this "cruel gruel" was sold widely somewhere in South America beginning no
later than the mid-'70s.

|You could get the same effect (unlimited, nutritionally balanced,
|eco-friendly food source) if you banned the raising of animals for
|their meat; used the land to grow fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.;
|and then mashed all the veggies together in the right proportions
|to make a vegetarian paste that contained all the essential amino
|acids and fats, plus vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  

Us food scientists are always theorizing! There's a market for it! Let's get on
with it, and just produce it and sell it! ;-)

|[soap-box mode ON]
|But more importantly, why would you want to do either?  Feed all the
|world's hungry and remove the disincentive to ever greater population

Firstly, allowing poverty to take over and famine to follow is the *reason* we
have overpopulation in some countries. A child raised in third-world squalor has
less than a 50% chance of living beyond their 5th birthday. Rural peasants, weak
from hunger, need more hands to tend the farm, and the breeding is ever more
incessant to offset the infant mortality. So, removing food, unlike your
hypothesis, has the opposite effect in practice.

Secondly, Overpopulation and famine are not correlated. Holland is more densely
populated than, say, Ethiopia, but which country has more malnutrition? China
has a higher population density, but it is the former Soviet Union that had the
enormous famine in the Ukraine, with hundreds of thousands dying. It is
interesting to note that China and Holland have something in common: both are
good at managing land resources. The USSR didn't care about their ecology (the
critics being punished as dissenters and sent to the Gulags), and Ethiopia had
no control over theirs, being virtually owned by foreign interests, and the IMF.

|Most nations with large starving populations are that way 
|because of war, of course, so you ought to outlaw war while you're at it.

Outlaw the IMF, and multinationals too.

|And unless all these people who you want to feed can pay you for it,
|you need to institute world-wide socialism (which removes the incentives
|for anybody to try to be more productive than his neighbor).
|[soap-box mode OFF]

World-wide socialism? mmm... that's going a tad too far, I think. We know that
capitalism works well for those of us living in nations that can afford to
support it. But it is not right to say that it will work for every nation. Say
what you want about China's corrupt and incompetent leadership - a
densely-populated country must adapt or perish, so it socialises the
distribution of land, which is probably the best avenue for China. I don't know
how Holland does it - a capatalist answer may be that it sets limits on how much
land one can own. That's still a kind of socialisation when you think about it.
Perhaps someone from Holland may like to contribute here.

Socialism isn't the answer to everything and every nation's problems. But
neither is capitalism. Competition is deadly if water and land are scarce. In
third-world nations there is no manufacturing sector, and so landless peasants
must flock to the cities, where only the lucky will find work. Sharing the land
mass would certainly mute the competitiveness factor. But at least the peasants
would have enough to eat.

|The most practical use for your suggestion would be to feed inhabitants
|of space colonies or long-haul spaceships, as a way to convert available
|ship's energy into digestible calories as efficiently as possible.

There you go! Another captive audience! ;-)

|Tom Thatcher                          | You can give a PC to a Homo habilis,
|University of Rochester Cancer Center | and he'll use it, but he'll use it
|ttha at           | to crack nuts.

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