Change is Always Moving Us Forward
Towards the end of last year, I received an invitation to attend the upcoming reunion of my primary school. It had been almost 50 years since I left that small village school and continued my education in the big city, a one-hour bike ride from home. And while I reminisced about the good memories of a blissful youth, I doubted whether the reunion now in corona-times would actually take place. I then immediately realized how much our world had changed in the past 50 years.
First, there are the BIG (and perhaps scary) numbers: the year I was born, the global population stood at 3.2 billion. In 2020 it reached 7.8 billion: it had more than doubled. The little village where I grew up, now has a lot less inhabitants, as families have moved to larger cities. Less families meant less children, and a few years back, the school where I learned to read & write had to close its doors.
This can also be seen on a bigger scale: in those same 50 years, the global urban population went up from 35 to 56 per cent. When I was born (1964), the carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere was 319 ppm, whereas this year (2021) it will be around 415 ppm. That’s an almost one third increase. Upon further research, I came to the shocking revelation that the last time that we reached a concentration as high as 300 ppm CO2 on our planet was 300,000 years ago!
Innovations Move Us Ahead
But on the flip side, there are all the wonderful innovations that have made our lives so much easier.
The past five decades saw the arrival of ATM’s, electric cars, fiberglass optics, and laser technologies. We saw robotics, DNA testing, solar energy, bar codes & scanners, and the birth control pill change with time. Bypass operations, biofuel, mobile telephones, GPS, online shopping, MRI and more have enhanced our lives. I bet many of us can no longer imagine life without these marvels of innovation.
On the seed and plant breeding side, R&D did not stand still. During the past 50 years, society benefitted from the arrival of seed coating & priming, and systemic crop protection products. DNA engineering and GM crops, marker assisted breeding and selection, genome editing, microbials and biostimulants and more have enhanced the field. And don’t forget, all these changes happened in just one lifetime!
It was at this point that I started to look ahead at the next 50 years and see what was coming. Safe to say we will see many more changes. On the positive side, it is likely that we will live longer and feel better. And there will be many internet-based technologies that will help us with that.
A Connected World
At the same time, progress in science will continue to blur the line between human and machine. We are already seeing a movement towards a world where technologies based on artificial intelligence will gradually take over repetitive, dangerous, and physically demanding activities. That should leave us humans with more time for leisure.
Obviously in such a fully networked world it will create more opportunities for global cooperation and community development which will be unhindered by distance, language, or time. The year 2020, with its endless zoom and teams meetings, already gave us a head start in that direction.
Unfortunately, there are also some worrisome extrapolations about our lives in the next 50 years. The sad prediction is that the divide between the haves and have-nots will grow. A privileged few will continue to amass the economic, health and educational benefits. Also, it is highly imaginable that a powerful elite will continue to try and perhaps manage to control the internet. Obviously, they will use it to manipulate the messaging, with some dangerous precedents already set at recent elections.
And although Perseverance landed safely on Mars, it remains an uninhabitable planet. So, let’s not forget there is, for the moment, no ‘planet B’. This means that our future is inextricably linked to the future of the planet we live on. If we want to continue to enjoy it, we will need to overcome some of the most daunting challenges of a global scale that our planet has seen. Whether climate change and food scarcity, to growing populations and changes in demand, we will need to make better use of resources, new tools, and new technologies.
I feel very fortunate to be working in the plant breeding and seed sector, which fearlessly continues to play a crucial role in mitigating these challenges. At the core of the solution is innovation in agriculture, which will ensure long-term agricultural productivity, rural development, and environmental sustainability. And once I finally kick the bucket, at least I’ll go down with the feeling that we tried to make positive changes to the world around us. We all did, in this marvellous sector!