Looking at how science has affected humanity, one of the strongest indicators is the dramatic increase in average life expectancy.
During the Late Middle Ages, the average life expectancy in Western Europe was 38 years; in Victorian England, 40. By the early 1900s, with improvements in sanitation, vaccines and treatment of various infectious diseases, the average life expectancy jumped to 70 in men and 75 in women. Today, in Canada, it is at 82 for men and 85 for women, respectively.
A revealing correlation shows that this growth in life expectancy is directly related to three other growths: population, GDP per capita and CO2 emissions — all showing an accelerated increase after 1960.
Given the trend, it's natural to wonder for how long this correlated growth will be sustainable. Clearly, as science and industrialization advance, there is an improvement in the overall quality of life. (This is an average improvement; rampant famine and disease affects more than one billion people in many parts of the globe.) However, this improvement comes with a high environmental cost. Furthermore, it depends, in ways that are hard if not impossible to quantify, on the creation of novel technological developments that have allowed for such unprecedented growth.
As world leaders meet in Paris to ponder how to curb global carbon emissions, it is clear that for the current level of growth to be sustained, radically new models will be necessary. Apart from renewable energy sources, and possibly the large-scale implementation of nuclear power as a short- to mid-term solution (see Peter Thiel's excellent opinion piece in The New York Times), one of the most dramatic advances is in the food industry, in particular the development of genetically-modified plants capable of delivering essential nutrients at low cost.
At first, this should be no-brainer: Use cutting-edge science to improve the nutrition power of foods we eat. After all, we've been using science to improve the output of crops for centuries, if not millennia (depends on how science is defined), from plows to fertilizers. Yet, there is a strong popular resistance to such kinds of technologies, based on a deep suspicion of the true motives of labs and corporations. Are they only interested in making a profit to their investors or do they really care about the consumers which they serve?
An interesting case is that of the "golden rice," a genetically-modified rice that incorporates beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. Given the importance of rice in the diets of many of the world's countries, especially in Southeast Asia, and the high incidence of Vitamin A deficiency there, getting both rice and Vitamin A would be a powerful ally in the fight against blindness and a host of other immune-system ailments: You eat and take your vitamins at the same time. In 2012, the World Health Organization reported that about 250 million preschool children are affected by Vitamin A deficiency and that providing these children with enough Vitamin A could prevent about a third of all under-five deaths, amounting to about 2.7 million children. The numbers are hair-raising.
Golden rice is controlled by the Humanitarian Board, an organization which includes the scientists who developed the technology, demonstrating its viability as a supplier of Vitamin A and as being environmentally safe. Apparently, Syngenta Seeds AG goes through the Humanitarian Board to provide seeds free of charge to qualifying farmers in poor countries.
To have an idea of the resistance to the new technology, in Aug. 2013 an experimental plantation of golden rice was destroyed by environmentalist groups. Greenpeace has mounted a strong campaign against it, arguing that such technologies are the wrong way to go about battling vitamin deficiency. The group argues that they introduce new forms of life to the environment, threatening the ecological balance; they irreversibly compromise normal rice through cross-breeding; they pose health risks; they make small farmers dependent on corporations for their seed supply. Much better to strengthen the local organic farming communities, develop home gardening abilities in the local population, teach the benefits of a well-balanced diet.
It is very hard to navigate these waters. Categorically denying the use of new technologies that have the promise of impacting, in positive ways, the lives of millions sounds like a retrograde way to proceed, as humanity faces growing pressures. On the other hand, countless corporations have proven to be abusive to the environment and to poor populations over and over again. The overall suspicion of corporations as the good guys does not emerge from a vacuum.
Fortunately, such issues are, or should be, more scientific than ideological. Careful analysis and monitoring of GMO crops is a must before products are released to costumers. Anything less would be majorly irresponsible, not to say unethical. Can we combine both approaches, local strengthening of organic farming and the safe implementation of GMO crops, or are they fundamentally incompatible? Is it possible for corporations to work together with environmental groups in order to clear up this mess? Being an optimist, I believe it is. But for this to happen, a major change in mindset is needed from both ends. To pitch one against the other is fruitless.
The burden of proof rests entirely with the labs and corporations that develop such new products. They need to be more transparent, demonstrating quantitatively and conclusively — to the extent that it's scientifically possible — the long-term safety of their practices. Science can only be useful if it is applied within morally justified practices. This is the compact that corporations should build with society, a first step toward a new age of corporate responsibility.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.