The science of living longer, lots longer


Every year, we mark an unseen milestone here at Farm and Dairy. Sometimes it passes and even we don’t pay any attention.

But if you turn back to Page 1 and look up at the top of the page, you’ll find two numbers there: a “volume” and a “number.” This week’s paper is Vol. 89, No. 1.

That means you’re holding the first issue of our 89th year of publication.

Next week, the numbers will read Vol. 89, No. 2, and so on, up through No. 52, and then we’ll have another “birthday” of sorts, and the volume number will change to 90.

As staff members review past issues to compile our weekly “Read It Again” feature for Page 4, we often marvel at experiencing “history” through the unique perspective of the agriculture industry, and particularly through the pages of Farm and Dairy.

There’s a lot of nostalgia out there for the “good ol’ days” – whatever those may be.

At this moment. But I would never choose to turn back the hands of time for one simple reason: life expectancy.

In 2000, Americans enjoyed the longest life expectancy in U.S. history – 77 years. The life expectancy of men was 74 and for women almost 80.

If I was writing this in 1900, those figures would be drastically different: Men were expected to live until only age 48; women, to 51. Men and women who reach age 65 now live, on average, to age 81 and 84, respectively, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bounty for health. We’re living longer for a variety of reasons: vastly better health care; medical technology, research and treatments; and we just take better care of ourselves.

The flip side to the good news, the report adds, is we Americans spent $1.3 trillion (how many zeroes is that again?), $1.3 trillion, or 13.2 percent of the gross domestic product, on health care in 2000, far more than any other nation.

We’re also living longer because of the availability of affordable, nutritious food.

Our bounty is rich in vitamins, in iron and calcium and zinc – all micronutrients that not only sustain our bodies, but are proven to help develop our mental capacity from the time we’re infants.

The flip side. With my health and with food on my table, it’s very difficult for me to imagine the number of people around the world who live on the verge of starvation.

And knowing the capabilities of science, it’s equally as difficult for me to imagine why countries like Zambia are turning down food donations because of concerns over genetically modified food.

Much of the African continent is not friendly to farming. There are ongoing droughts, fragile soils and a lack of technology.

But there are experiments under way on the continent that seek to find ways to use biotechnology to improve native crops, to genetically alter sweet potatoes, for example, to fight a virus that often wipes out entire crops.

There’s research to develop crops that can better fight insects and disease, and can better grow in arid, infertile soils.

“Imagine if we could increase yields and feed more people through technology,” Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu told the New York Times.

No rush. No one – no one – wants to rush science at the risk of health and human safety, but enough studies have been done to determine the efficacy of several biotech products.

You can’t eat philosophy.

As another Kenyan researcher told the Times, “It’s a matter of life and death. I’d rather save a life than let millions die for theoretical reasons.”

In the safety of our plump, cheap food chain, we’re living proof – living longer proof – that food and agricultural science can provide more than rhetoric.

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