Indulge me for a moment to ask a couple of questions.

First, what’s the biggest challenge facing America right now?

Most people these days would say “terrorism,” and based on the heated rhetoric enflaming the presidential debates, it’s certainly Topic No. 1 for many of our would-be political leaders.

Now, question No. 2: What’s the biggest single criticism among veggie activists and their sympathizers who buy into the meme that livestock production is a scourge on society?

I would say “factory farming.”

To most consumers, that phrase conjures up images of crowded feedlots, hog barns and dairy stalls. The backstory of so-called “industrial agriculture” typically involves inappropriate deployment of science and technology in the form of intensive breeding, oppressive confinement and, of course, genetic engineering of the feed crops mistakenly fed to animals, not people.

Let’s see if we can connect those two issues.

Did you know that across the developing world, a single food source provides 20% of all calories consumed and more than one-fifth of all the protein available to the multi-millions of people living in those countries?

And what is that food source? Wheat, the “staff of life,” a vitally important crop that as far back as Old Testament times served not only as a staple commodity for ancient people but as an iconic symbol of the sustenance that is humanity’s most basic need.

Its status hasn’t changed in thousands of years.

The source of the trouble

However, there are significant differences between then and now: Population has grown exponentially, for one, and compounding the challenge of feeding all the people now dependent on wheat farming, climate change, which can exacerbate the impact of wheat pathogens, has the potential to reduce yields at the very moment in history when the need is greatest.

In fact, and here’s where the criticism of industrial agriculture runs headfirst into the specter of terrorism, a recent analysis conducted by researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara and Columbia University and published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science suggested that widespread crop failure from 2007 to 2010 may have triggered the bloody civil war conflict in Syria, now ground zero for radical jihadists intent on terrorizing the West.

As the report stated, “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought [on record]. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental politics, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.”

You could call it “unrest.” The rest of the world calls it something far worse.

If that theory is credible — and I believe it is — the next question is, what’s the solution? How can the West mitigate the ravages of drought, the resulting food shortages and the accompanying chaos that ensues?

Answer: By employing the same high-tech, science-driven systems that veggie believers and livestock haters so roundly condemn when they’re applied to animal agriculture.

A potential way forward

To kick-start the process of improving wheat yields, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded Cornell University a $24 million grant aimed at combating threats to the world’s wheat supply.

And what techniques do you think the researchers will use to advance that goal?

“In the new grant — delivering genetic gain to wheat — we will use modern tools of comparative genomics and big data,” Ronnie Coffman, the project leader who is Cornell’s International Professor of Plant Breeding and Director of International Programs of the College of Agriculture, said in a news release. He noted that the objective is “to develop and deploy varieties of wheat that incorporate climate resiliency, as well as improved disease resistance for smallholder farmers in those politically vulnerable regions.”

Like the areas now controlled by ISIS.

The urgency couldn’t be greater.

A recent study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned that climate change is likely to reduce yields of wheat and “[the threat] is especially serious in the Near East, Central Asia and Eastern and Northern Africa,” the report stated.

Are not those the very areas where virtually all of global terrorist activity originates?

I would argue that polling would show a majority of Americans to be in support of a project such as the one underway at Cornell if it could alleviate some of the poverty and food insecurity that spawns the rise of radicalism.

The final question, then, is this:

Why is the exact same science and technology used in plant-based agriculture as a way to mitigate the threat of terrorism such a terrible idea when it’s applied to animals?

The only explanation for such a dichotomy is the same reason that the hatred fueled by secularism arises in the first place: Ignorance.

And until we learn to overcome that, we will continue to suffer the consequences. 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator