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0 Comments | May 15, 2017

Iron Law

hail-stripped soybean-late-season-F1The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter VII, p 44


There was nothing terribly frightening about it at first. There were no boils or sores like you see in TV movies, no one coughing up blood like an Ebola victim. The assault began in slow motion—seemingly random fields that were so spread about that no one thought to do any sort of forensic analysis to determine if perhaps something systemic might be taking place. Cornfields in Iowa, wheat in Russia, soybeans in France. Just ordinary crop failures, easy to blame on lack of rain, a bad batch of seed, climate change. An actual blessing for some farmers, at least in the early going, since a reduced crop meant higher commodity prices and, if the failure was complete enough, crop insurance payments kicking in. It wasn’t until the fourth consecutive year of the failures that analysts began to realize that the percentage of failed crops was rising, and that the rate of increase was not linear but exponential. It was also in this fourth year that scientists began conducting genetic assays of samples from a wide range of crop types and a broad disparity of locations. In a scientific paper presented at the 2015 International Conference on Agriculture and Biological Sciences, it was stated for the first time out loud that nearly all of the failures of the recent half-decade had been due to precisely the same cause, a cause no one yet understood, much less had any idea how to control. It was forecast, based on a statistical analysis of these first four years, that next year’s total global agricultural production would be fully eleven percent lower than the peak of five years earlier.

The way it worked was remarkably consistent, crop to crop, location to location. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a wonder people didn’t see a connection sooner. Regardless of whether it was corn, wheat, cotton, or soy, the progression occurred the same, or very nearly so. The sprout appeared in the requisite number of days after planting. It continued growing in a more or less normal manner for the next three to four weeks, achieving the first six to eight inches of growth, depending on the specific plant type. Then, at around a month into the cycle, a rusty tint began appearing around the edges of the young leaves, a tint that quickly worked its way toward the core of each leaf. Within eight to ten days of the blight’s first appearance, the young plant drooped and fell to the ground. If you looked out across a vast verdant field of new seedlings, you could watch the color progress from bright green, through yellow, to brown, as far as you could view in every direction. Once farmers and agricultural researchers around the world began comparing notes and discussing these developments at academic conferences, people who knew the details began to get scared. The rest of us noted the occasional news story, griped at having to pay a bit more for our produce at the grocery store, and went on with our lives. As the famines began springing up in Somalia and India, no one took much notice. Those far flung places were always having problems of one sort or another. We lost another year because once the scientists realized something was going on, they chose to focus their research efforts on the plants. What they should have been doing instead was having a look at the soil.

“What’s the latest, Doctor Pendergrass? Any progress at all?”

“There’s progress on understanding, Senator. But none on actually controlling the blight, unless, that is, we can find a way to stop the wind from blowing … globally.”

Wilfred Pendergrass was the foremost expert at MIT on agricultural genetics. He was also Professor Emeritus in the agricultural science department, and had retired just eighteen months prior, expecting to enjoy a long and well-deserved retirement at his oceanfront home on Cape Cod. Things had been going pretty much according to plan up until the moment he had received the call from university President Clayton Crocker. Getting that call at this point in his life was a relatively rare event. Having the senior senator from the state of Massachusetts, Mark Felder, on the line with Crocker was without precedent. A month had now passed since Pendergrass had been so unexpectedly drawn out of retirement, and in that month he had met with Crocker or Felder (or both) on no fewer than half a dozen occasions to discuss what was now globally regarded as the greatest agricultural threat the planet had ever encountered short of the Chicxulub comet that ended the dinosaurs’ reign.

“The mechanism is the same as what happens when a pathogen enters the human bloodstream,” Pendergrass said. “It is quickly carried throughout the body by the body’s own circulatory system. In our case, that circulatory system is our planetary weather system. The culprit is a virus—a surprisingly tenacious virus, whose origin we have no clue about. It impregnates the soil, is drawn up into the plant’s circulatory system, and is then exuded somehow by the plant into the atmosphere. That last bit is the part we don’t yet full understand.”

“Can the virus be killed?” Felder asked. Felder was the senior congressional representative on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hastily assembled working group that was endeavoring to understand and address the impending calamity. There were by now plenty of other nations with research and exploratory groups of their own, and the leading dozen of these met by conference call every Thursday evening to discuss progress, or, more often than not, the lack thereof.

“The virus can be killed, Senator. Any virus can be killed with the right approach. Our problem is that we cannot kill it without also killing the affected plant, which, of course, does us no earthly good.”

“Which leaves us exactly where?” Felder pressed.

“It leaves us with a conservatively projected global crop output for the coming year that will be twenty-seven percent below what we would have expected had none of this occurred.”

“Jesus…” Felder said, not quite quietly enough.

“Yeah … Jesus,” Pendergrass echoed.

The senator sat back in his chair and said nothing further for a moment. He then rose and stepped toward a liquor cabinet discreetly built into one of his bookcases. Extracting a green bottle and a pair of highball glasses, he gestured in the professor’s direction.

“Drink to the end of civilization, Professor?”

“I’ll accept the drink, Senator, but you’ll forgive me if I decline to join you in that particular toast.”

Felder poured two generous glasses and walked back to his desk, handing one to Pendergrass.

“Do we know anything at all about what started this shitstorm? … If I may employ the technical vernacular.”

“Our best epidemiological analysis says it began in western Turkey, maybe six, six and a half years ago. There was a failure of a large soybean crop there whose characteristics match what we see now—same timing, same appearance of leaves, same everything. It spread quickly from there. If there’s a trace of good news in this whole thing, arrival of the virus at an already growing field—one that’s, say, more than ten weeks along, has no effect until the next growing season. It only does its damage on new young shoots.”

“So,” Felder spoke up, “if there was a way to protect the young plants—immunize them somehow for the first couple months of their lives—we’d be good after that?”

“I expect that you’re right about that, Senator, though we’re nowhere near having such a scheme devised yet.”

“One more question I’ve not heard addressed by anyone yet. If a plant matures in the presence of the soil virus to the point of creating edible fruit or vegetables, do those foods then pose any health hazard to humans or animals?”

“Not based on our analysis so far,” Pendergrass replied. “One more small bit of good news, I suppose. No, our problem is the killing of the plants in the first place.”

“So what’s worst case projection on how this thing progresses?”

“That,” said Pendergrass, “is the sixty-four-million-dollar question. Depends on whose mathematical opinion you believe, but the range to zero year is eight to twelve years.”

“Zero year?”

“The first year in which no new crops are successfully cultivated anywhere on the planet,” Pendergrass said. “Needless to say, millions—actually billions, come to think of it—will have starved long before we reach that auspicious date.”



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