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James A. Haught: Food science can keep humanity thriving (Opinion)

When I was born in 1932, the world had 2 billion people. Today, the global population has swelled to 7.7 billion. The United Nations projects 11 billion by the end of this century.

How can the planet feed the mushrooming manswarm? Here are some thoughts:

I grew up in a meager farming region of West Virginia: the Big Fishing Creek valley of Wetzel County. We had no electricity. Small-town families had gaslights, and everyone else used kerosene lamps.

The valley was mostly a string of dirt farms, horse-operated, like in medieval times. My boyhood was during World War II, when most men had gone to combat. My aging uncle ran his farm with two mismatched horses and a crew of granddaughters, plus a scrawny pubescent nephew, me.

We milked cows by hand, plowed and mowed by team, found arrowheads in corn rows, cut creekbank weeds to feed pigs, straightened bent nails to save money — long days of manual work. It seemed like torture. Other family farms along the valley were little different.

As soon as I graduated from a little country high school (13 in my senior class), I fled to Charleston and urban life. In decades after the war, when I returned home, I found most of those old farms abandoned, overgrown in thickets. I guess parents died and children went to city jobs, as I did.

(When back-to-the-land urbanites came to rural West Virginia farms in the 1960s, I told them they were rushing toward the life I had spurned. One was former Gazette reporter Bob Schwarz, who farmed temporarily on Eight-Mile Ridge, near my Wetzel County homeplace. Many of them didn’t last long at hoeing and shoveling.)

Most food production shifted away from skimpy family farms to big commercial operations capable of much greater output. But even those huge farms couldn’t keep pace with the soaring human population.

In the 1960s, alarm spread that the manswarm was exceeding the food supply and famines were likely. Stanford professor Paul Erlich wrote a 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” warning that mass starvation seemed certain in the 1970s. Some Charleston church groups held public discussions of the impending crisis. Erlich wrote:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... . In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

But, out of the spotlight, Norman Borlaug had unleashed the Green Revolution in Mexico, Pakistan and India, using high-yield crops and heavy fertilization. Massive food increases resulted. His technique spread around the world. Borlaug got the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. He was credited with saving a billion lives.

Yet the population upsurge didn’t stop. Before he died in 2009, Borlaug said his Green Revolution had peaked and couldn’t keep up with the growing need.

Worse, ravages from global warming are expected to ruin some cropland and reduce the food supply.

So, what’s the future regarding hunger? I’m an ardent believer in science. I hope that genetic engineering will make breakthrough after breakthrough, producing ever-better plants and animals to feed humans.

A technique called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) snips a plant’s own DNA as needed — rather than inserting bits of foreign DNA, as in past gene-splicing. The revised genome duplicates itself endlessly as new generations of crops ensue. National Geographic says it has potential to “help feed the world.”

Here’s hoping that gene science spawns a second Green Revolution and keeps humanity thriving.

James Haught, the Gazette-Mail’s

editor emeritus, can be reached at

haught@wvgazettemail.com.

Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.