Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Nuclear Energy/Biotech Connection

Today in Opinion Journal, Ron Bailey pays tribute to the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Norman Borlaug. He is the Iowa native that cross-bred thousands of types of wheat to create "dwarf" wheat, a strain resistant to fungi that produced far larger yields than traditional varieties:

In the late 1960s, lest we forget, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions of people would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in "The Population Bomb," his 1968 best seller. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."

As Mr. Ehrlich was making his dark predictions, Mr. Borlaug was embarking on just such a crash program. Working with scientists and administrators in India and Pakistan, he succeeded in getting his highly productive dwarf wheat varieties to hundreds of thousands of South Asian peasant farmers. These varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than traditional varieties.


Fair prices and high doses of fertilizer, combined with new grains, changed everything. By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat, and by 1974 India was self-sufficient in all cereals. And the revolution didn't stop there. Researchers at a research institute in the Philippines used Mr. Borlaug's insights to develop high-yield rice and spread the Green Revolution to most of Asia. As with wheat, so with rice: Short-stalked varieties proved more productive. They devoted relatively more energy to making grain and less to making leaves and stalks. And they were sturdier, remaining harvestable when traditional varieties--with heavy grain heads and long, slender stalks--had collapsed to the ground and begun to rot.
Borlaug is truly one of the great individuals of the 20th century. He's a man who looked global disaster in the face, got to work on a technological solution and saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Today, the apocalyptic predictions are about global warming and climate change. And for one of the world's leading climate scientists, James Lovelock, the answer to mankind's challenges lies in the vigorous application of technology:
Today the environmentally conscious seek salvation in solar cells, recycling and ten thousand wind turbines. "It won't matter a damn," Lovelock says. "They make the mistake of thinking we have decades. We don't."

Lovelock favors genetically modified crops, which require less water, and nuclear energy. Only the atom can produce enough electrical power to persuade industrialized nations to abandon burning fossil fuels.
A reminder: Lovelock will be here in Washington on Friday night to talk about his new book.

UPDATE: The Lovelock event is sold out. Word is that audio of the event will be carried on electricpolitics.com. Stay tuned for more details.

ANOTHER UPDATE: This interview is generating a lot of blog traffc -- 33 links and counting.

For an interesting look at Gaia Theory that Lovelock is known for, click here.

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Kirk Sorensen said...

Eric, you're absolutely right. Mankind has been confronted with "doomsday" many times in the last few thousand years, and each time, it has been technology that has changed the story and pulled them out. Now the "doomsday" folks are predicting that we will run out of energy. And they're right. And they're wrong. We will certainly run out of the energy they're looking at, but if we're not idiots (and we might be) we will develop the new forms of energy that will last for millennia.

Brian Mays said...

Another interesting point that I think is being missed here is that Norman Borlaug's noble efforts were done to keep people starving, because there was too little suitably fertile land to sustain growing populations. Thus, the efficiency of land use had to be increased by introducing new crops that perform better.

Yet, "green" organizations who vehemently oppose nuclear as a viable source of power for meeting the world's energy need often promote biomass as a valuable source of renewable energy. Those of us who know this concept and the energy density it entails understand that this essentially means that land must be set aside from the land available to grow food so that it can be used to grow stuff that is usually burned in one form or another. The amount of land that is no longer available for food production is not small, because "huge amounts of land are required to grow enough plant matter to supply a large-scale generator" (i.e., to replace a nuclear plant). Yet, often these same "green" organizations also oppose genetically modified crops, which could help meet both needs.

Maybe I'm too cynical, but the only logic that I can find in this is that starving people (including energy-starved people) make for nice pictures and keep the donations flowing in.