The impact of bio-sciences on the human health and principles of global food systems

PAS Academician Werner Arber

According to archeological studies, life on our planet Earth must have started about 3,500 million years ago with single-cellular microorganisms. By stepwise ongoing biological evolution, a rich diversity of microorganisms and multicellular living organisms resulted in populating nowadays our planet. All these different organisms find their required nutrition in their environments. We are aware that biological evolution is steadily ongoing by various natural mechanisms. These act in part internally in the genome of each species, whereas other specific mechanisms act by occasional horizontal gene transfer between different kinds of individuals. In order to secure an ongoing successful evolution for future developments of living organisms, it is essential to prevent impacts on our planet leading to a stepwise loss of the currently available rich biodiversity.

As far as we know, Homo Sapiens became a highly intelligent organism on our planet by its stepwise biological evolution. This allowed our ancestors to reflect by so-called thought experiments on the possible origin of their environment and of their own existence. This resulted at different sites on our planet to formulate still available creation myths. An example is the Genesis chapter in the Old Testament. At the same time, about 10,000 years ago, some tribes started to domesticate some animals and some plants as means to facilitate their daily need for nutrition. This was the start of agriculture. We can view this development as the beginning of today’s human civilization.

During the course of the last few centuries, scientific investigations resulted in numerous deeper and much more solid insights than those available from creation myths. Think for example at health information of relevance for our life activities, including the relevance of so-called micronutrients in our regular nutrition. For example, embryonic human development requires the presence of Vitamin A. Its absence in the bodies of people living in some developing countries, eating mainly self-produced rice can give rise to sick children. A successful application of genetic engineering has recently succeeded to introduce into the rice genome the genetic information for a precursor of Vitamin A. This provides to rice grains a yellow color and these are therefore called Golden Rice. One expects that daily ingestion of Golden Rice can prevent in pregnant women malformations of their baby. This example demonstrates that present-day biological research has the potential to update our daily food with relevant nutritional capacities. A still available high biodiversity on our planet can represent a relevant source for future developments in favor of our daily food provision.

In the recent past increasing scientific knowledge, in particular in the medical sciences, brought about an increasing life expectancy. Together with other kinds of developments that facilitate human lives, this has a strong impact on steadily increasing numbers of human beings on our planet. At the same time agricultural processes in many countries fundamentally changed from manual work to widely machine-assisted planting and harvesting of food mostly in large fields that are often also sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. This kind of treatment can contribute to a stepwise loss of relevant biodiversity upon the production of our plant food.

Our sun can be expected to provide energy to our planet Earth for a few thousand million years. But we cannot precisely predict how long life and in particular human life can be insured to our civilization. Already in the recent past and more so in the future periods our existence on our planet is of global relevance and interdependence. In view of relevant conclusions, the human population cannot continue to grow. Rather we must manage to find a more or less steady equilibrium in our human population density. This and other arguments render it difficult to reach appropriate conditions and global solutions in view of our future cultural development.

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