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How technology can reduce our impact on the Earth

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“Le nuove tecnologie non devono essere perfette ma devono essere in grado di migliorare quelle attuali… That is why we support prudent use of agricultural biotechnology — another imperfect technology, but vastly superior to conventional technologies”.

Sir— William E. Rees, in his Concepts essay “A blot on the land” (Nature 421, 898; 2003), uses the ecological-footprint concept to argue that the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth has been exceeded because of technological and economic growth, and to counter some some economists’ claims that the carrying capacity can increase indefinitely. The critical point, unrecognized by either side, is not whether the carrying capacity can increase indefinitely but whether it can increase rapidly enough to accommodate the environmental and economic expectations of a world that grows wealthier as its population growth rate slows dramatically. Paradoxically, both technology and economic development provide the means to solve the very problems they create. Without technological development in the first instance, the human population would be smaller, because higher birth rates would have been offset by higher mortality rates. Dispensing with present technology now would undoubtedly be catastrophic in human terms — people would be hungrier, unhealthier and shorter-lived , without the world necessarily becoming ecologically more stable. Similarly, foregoing economic development, which helps to generate wealth, would also be calamitous (see I. M. Goklany, Case Western Law Review; in the press). Only wealthy countries can afford the scientific infrastructure to research, develop and put into use clean technologies that increase the Earth’s carrying capacity. For all of these reasons, the richest countries, not surprisingly, are also the most technologically advanced. They have the highest crop yields per hectare, which is inversely related to the demand for land, a primary element in the ecological footprint. Inefficient agriculture creates pressures for new agricultural land at the expense of virgin forest or marginal lands in countries with growing populations. If agricultural-technology development had been frozen in 1961, we estimate, using data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (see FAOSTAT 2003: apps.fao.org), that cropland would have had to increase from its present 11% to some 25% of the planetary surface to produce the same amount of food now. Accepting Rees’s estimate that we currently exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity by one-fifth, without technological development we would now exceed it by one-third. Virtually no natural forest would now remain and the rest of nature would be even more embattled. Yes, we recognize that current agricultural technology, with its reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, created many new problems even as it solved old ones, but that is exactly why we favour technological change. New technologies need not be perfect, but they should improve on current versions. That is why we support prudent use of agricultural biotechnology — another imperfect technology, but vastly superior to conventional technologies. The trick is not to sacrifice the present for the future, or vice versa. Without technological change and economic development, there can be no solution to the predicament of meeting human needs while containing human impact on the planet. Although neither technological change nor economic development is a panacea, they make a solution more likely.

How technology can reduce our impact on the Earth

Prudent use of innovations could avoid sacrificing the present for the future, or vice versa.

NATURE | VOL 423 | 8 MAY 2003 – p. 115| %0Awww.nature.com/nature


Indur M. Goklany*, Anthony J. Trewavas†

*US Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW,

Washington, DC 20240, USA (The views expressed

here are not necessarily those of any branch of the

US Government)

†Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology,

King’s Buildings, University of Edinburgh,

Edinburgh EH9 3JH, Scotland

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