Open Menu

Dr. Samuel Myers on Managing Disruption in the Age of Great Acceleration

This story is part of our live coverage of the inaugural Arrell Food Summit (May 22 to 24). The summit gathers some of the world’s eminent thinkers to discuss the future of food and agriculture.

Dr. Samuel Myers has the bedside manner of Chicken Little. But he’s much better informed. Dr. Myers, who has more degrees and titles than can be listed here, is an instructor of medicine at Harvard University, where he is also director of the Planetary Health Alliance. Basically he leads a team of super-geniuses looking at the world’s health. And he does not have good news for us.

According to Myers, we are in the age of a great acceleration, as paper, plastics, fertilizer and everything else we produce and consume is ramped up at an ever-increasing, exponential pace.

“In this strange period now, we are expected to ramp up production at historic rates,” Myers told the audience at the Arrell Food Summit, “while we’re changing all the rules that our ecosystem has adapted to.”

For example, our carbon dioxide emissions are making the food we grow less nutritious. Just the loss of iron and zinc in rice poses a health risk for a huge chunk of the world’s population.

“On the realm of 100 to 200 million people would be pushed to zinc deficiency on the impact of C02 alone.”

He refers to the diminishment of nutrients in our food, as a result of C02 emissions a surprise.

“We’re changing all the conditions underpinning our system. We have no idea what the consequences are.”

So, does nature have any good surprises for us? Or just bad surprises?

“It’s not flipping a coin. We see a lot more discouraging trends than encouraging trends as we disrupt our natural systems. Because we have evolved for a set of biophysical conditions and that’s how we’ve built our agricultural system. That’s how we’ve evolved around infectious disease exposures in places that we’ve chosen to live.”

Ok, but sometimes there must be some good news from this old planet.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was occasionally some good news mixed in with the concerning news. Here’s an example. When you add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere you get something called the CO2 fertilization effect and plants grow a little bit better. Yields go up a small amount. Lamar Smith, our esteemed head of the science subcommittee in the United States, from Texas, would say ‘That’s fantastic. We should add more CO2 to the atmosphere.’ Yeah, there’s this one little CO2 fertilization effect. But then there’s all this other effect of CO2on crop nutrients and oh, by the way, CO2 is driving climate change. So yeah, there’s one surprising and positive piece of that but it’s overwhelmed with the big picture that we’re fundamentally changing the climate system and that’s not good for food production.”

Let’s put that down as no, nature does not have any good surprises for us.