Wildcard--Mass Infertility

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Is fatherhood in peril?

Men's sperm counts appear to be declining in some places around the world. If the drop proves real--and persists--it could become a significant discontinuity with disruptions ranging from shifts in male-female dynamics to widespread population declines, explains senior analyst Kristin Nauth in a recent report by the Washington DC-based futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies.

"A British survey suggested 10% of men in the UK may suffer from low sperm counts, and in Australia, reports indicate one in 20 men is infertile. France, Denmark, and Germany have also found declines in sperm density," she reports.

What is triggering the apparent decline? Scientists don't know, but obesity, increasing use of antidepressants, estrogen-like chemicals that are common in plastics and the environment, and diets rich in hormone-fed beef are among the possible culprits, Nauth says, adding: "The bottom line is that this trend points to the possibility of a major fertility crisis, with serious impacts for both consumers and businesses."

DRIVERS

Nauth says she could foresee this wildcard affecting foods, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, genetic services, childcare and education providers, adoption services, dating practices, and more. "It could also lead to explosive growth in the use of fertility treatments, or--at the other extreme--the possibility of women using genetics to conceive without men's participation," she adds.

Consider some of the factors that appear to be driving the trend:

  •     Endocrine disruptors. These natural and synthetic estrogens and estrogen-mimickers come from a variety of sources including birth-control effluent in municipal water supplies, plastic beverage bottles that contain estrogen-like bisphenol-A or phthalate esters, and chemicals like nonylphenol that are found in cleaners and pesticides.
  •      Consumption of hormone-fed beef. Consumption of hormone-fed beef four or more times per week by pregnant women may affect testicular development in their male offspring. For instance, men born in the US from 1949-1983 were found to have lower sperm counts if their mothers ate beef daily during pregnancy.
  •     Mobile phone use. Prolonged mobile phone use has also been fingered by several studies to impact sperm counts. In one, men who talked more than four hours/ day on a mobile phone produced 40% fewer sperm than men who never used a mobile; in another, men experienced a 30% drop in sperm count when they carried a mobile in their pants pocket.

OBSTACLES

But Nauth says there are some factors that could reverse the trend, including:

  •     Organic foods. A broad move by consumers to organic foods and household products--and/ or a move by producers to "greener" manufacturing--could counter this wildcard.
  •     BPA-free containers. Compelling new evidence about the hazards of estrogen-mimicking chemicals might force companies to switch to containers made from corn-based or other innovative plastics that are free from BPA and other endocrine disruptors.
  •     Government intervention. Levels of endocrine disruptors in the environment may be too low to cause the kinds of damage that have been imputed to them. The US Food and Drug Administration, and its counterparts in Japan and Germany, have stated they see no threat from BPA, for instance.

OUTCOMES

With any wildcard, the outcomes could go in a variety of directions, Nauth says.
"At present, sperm count declines are geographically limited, but if chemical culprits are clearly identified in a particular area, regulators and industries around the world would likely ban, restrict, or replace the culpable chemicals with alternatives."

Additionally, though signs of rising infertility have been most pronounced in World 1, they could show up in any region--especially those with significant chemical contamination.
"That suggests infertility could begin to rise in China or other places where regulation is low and chemical use is rising rapidly," Nauth suggests.

If that happens, she believes the market for fertility treatments would surge in response to mass infertility. Consider these potential outcomes:

  •     Pharmaceutical manufacturers might divert substantial levels of R&D funding to fertility treatments. "In turn, other kinds of health issues could increase in the face of reduced funding," Nauth warns.
  •     Services could arise to provide "fertility certifications" to men in the marriage market.
  •     Medicalized conceptions could become the norm.
  •     International adoptions would increase.
  •     Ultimately, women could seek to conceive without the participation of men.

How would that last outcome come to fruition?

"In 2007," Nauth explains, "German scientists announced they will be able to produce sperm cells from bone marrow by 2010--raising the possibility that women's own bone marrow could be used to create 'female sperm' and allow women to bear daughters without fathers."

LEARN MORE
To learn more about the trends and forecasts in this report and what they mean for your organization, set up an interview with Kristin Nauth. Send a query to Hope Gibbs, leader of corporate communications: hope.gibbs(at)socialtechnologies.com.

Kristin Nauth ) Futurist
Kristin Nauth serves as Social Technologies' senior editor and also contributes to the firm's multiclient and custom projects as a writer/analyst. Kristin has been in the futures field since 1995, performing services such as trend analysis, environmental scanning, and scenario development for leading firms including Global Business Network, the Institute for Alternative Futures, and Coates & Jarratt, as well as for corporate clients including Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, and Cadbury Adams. Previously Kristin worked as a Washington-based business journalist and competitive intelligence professional. She received her degree in philosophy and English from The Evergreen State College. Areas of expertise: Boomers / Gen X/ Gen Y

About ) Social Technologies
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information visit http://www.socialtechnologies.com, our blog: http://changewaves.socialtechnologies.com, and our newsletter: http://www.socialtechnologies.com/changewaves.

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