Going Interstellar to save the Earth – fact or fiction?

Food is running out on Earth. All food crops have been wiped out by disease and corn, one of the last crops left, is about to succumb to the same fate. The human race is doomed.

“We didn’t run out of planes or television sets, we ran out of food.”

This is the basis for Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster Interstellar, which shows the human race struggling to stay alive on Earth. The climate has become inhospitable to life, with dust storms ravaging the landscape and “the blight” wiping out species of wheat and okra leaving corn as the last food source. It is revealed to the hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughy), that corn will soon be extinct and the human race will starve.  The only way to ensure the future of the species is to leave Earth and find a new planet that can sustain life.

Is Interstellar’s portrayal of the future a possibility?

The portrayal of Earth in Interstellar was inspired by a several real life events:

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s in North America saw farmers struggling to grow crops and dust storms ravaging the landscape. Farmers ploughed their fields but nothing grew, causing starvation, bankruptcy and the migration of people across America [1].

Dust storm in Texas 1935
Dust storm in Texas 1935

Could this happen again?

The Dust Bowl could reoccur. As of 11 November 2014 30% of the US was in drought [2]. A study by Cornell University puts the likelihood of a “megadrought” (lasting up to 35 years) hitting America between 20% and 50% over the next century [3].

The Irish Potato blight in 1845, where potato plants mysteriously blackened and died. This was caused by the airborne fungus Phytophthora infestans which was transported from North America to England in the holds of trade ships. There was nothing farmers could do to save their crops and a cure for the blight wasn’t discovered for another 40 years [4].

Could this happen again?

The blight fungus Ug99 now threatens wheat. Ug99 causes wheat stem rust which can kill a healthy plant and in the right conditions, destroys 70% of a crop [5].  Ug99 can spread via the wind and has caused widespread destruction in Africa and the Middle East. If the pathogen spreads globally, 90% of wheat species could succumb, affecting around 700 million tons of the annual harvest [6].

Wheat field
A wheat field

However, it’s not all doom and gloom just yet – there are things we can do to ensure the future shown in Interstellar does not become a reality. One option is to develop new farming techniques, like dry farming. But these techniques have a lower yield than traditional irrigation farming and encouraging farmers to use this technology will be difficult [7].

Another option is to turn to genetic engineering. By inserting drought resistant genes into plants, we could decrease the effects of drought on crop species. This technology is difficult, as drought resistant plants need to be able to survive on less water and with increased stress [8]. This technology is also being employed by scientists studying wheat stem rust. By inserting resistance genes into wheat species, the survival of the wheat when exposed to the pathogen can be measured and successful genes could be inserted into future crops [9].

Unfortunately, genetically modified organisms are restricted in many countries and public opinion of this technology is low. Unless public opinion changes and restrictions on this technology lift, it could be at least five years until genetically modified resistant wheat species are made available to farmers.

Another option is to increase our range of food sources. With the population of our planet increasing at breakneck speed, we need to be finding ways to increase the amount of food available. Only 7,000 crops have been used as food throughout human history, which seems like a lot until you realise there are 30,000 species of edible plant on this planet. Currently, we cultivate 150 plant species commercially and 90% of the calories in our diets come from 103 crops. Shockingly, 4 crops provide 60% of human energy supply. Our planet is full of food sources, and to feed our growing population perhaps the answer is to expand our range of sources rather than increase our production [10].

By 2050 the population is predicted to reach 9.6 billion people and we will need to feed them.  Changing public opinion on genetically modified food or increasing our range of food sources are two out of many solutions to this problem. If we can’t find one soon, maybe we will have to travel Interstellar…

References

  1. Department of English (2014) About the Dust Bowl. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/dustbowl.htm
  2. Bostock M and Quealy K (2014) Mapping the spread of drought across the U.S. New York Times The Upshot http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/upshot/mapping-the-spread-of-drought-across-the-us.html?_r=1&abt=0002&abg=0
  3. Friedlander B (2014) Study: Southwest may face ‘megadrought’ within century. Cornell Chronicle http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/08/study-southwest-may-face-megadrought-within-century
  4. The History Place (2000) Irish Potato Famine – the blight begins. The History Place http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/begins.htm
  5. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2014) Wheat Stem Rust – UG99 (Race TTKSK). Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/rust/stem/rust-report/stem-ug99racettksk/en/
  6. USDA Agricultural Research Services (2013) Ug99- emerging virulent stem rust races. http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=14649
  7. Barth B (2014) When the Well Runs Dry, Try Dry Farming. Modern Farmer http://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/well-runs-dry-try-dry-farming/
  8. Biello D (2011) Coming to a Cornfield Near You: Genetically Induced Drought-Resistance. Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/corn-genetically-modified-to-tolerate-drought/
  9. Grens K (2014) Putting Up Resistance. The Scientist http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40085/title/Putting-Up-Resistance/
  10. Bapat P (2014) What is Food? Expanding the Possibilities to Feed the World. The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog http://www.hunger-undernutrition.org/blog/2014/08/what-is-food-expanding-the-possibilities-to-feed-the-world.html

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