Plant power

Richard G. Lugar
calls for a new green revolution to combat global warming and reduce world instability

In a world confronted by global terrorism, turmoil in the Middle East, burgeoning nuclear threats and other crises, it is easy to lose sight of the long-range challenges. But we do so at our peril. One of the most daunting of them is meeting the world’s need for food and energy in this century. At stake is not only preventing starvation and saving the environment, but also world peace and security. History tells us that states may go to war over access to resources, and that poverty and famine have often bred fanaticism and terrorism. Working to feed the world will minimize factors that contribute to global instability and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

With the world population expected to grow from 6 billion people today to 9 billion by mid-century, the demand for affordable food will increase well beyond current international production levels. People in rapidly developing nations will have the means greatly to improve their standard of living and caloric intake. Inevitably, that means eating more meat. This will raise demand for feed grain at the same time that the growing world population will need vastly more basic food to eat.

Complicating a solution to this problem is a dynamic that must be better understood in the West: developing countries often use limited arable land to expand cities to house their growing populations. As good land disappears, people destroy timber resources and even rainforests as they try to create more arable land to feed themselves. The long-term environmental consequences could be disastrous for the entire globe.

Productivity revolution
To meet the expected demand for food over the next 50 years, we in the United States will have to grow roughly three times more food on the land we have. That’s a tall order. My farm in Marion County, Indiana, for example, yields on average 8.3 to 8.6 tonnes of corn per hectare – typical for a farm in central Indiana. To triple our production by 2050, we will have to produce an annual average of 25 tonnes per hectare.

Can we possibly boost output that much? Well, it’s been done before. Advances in the use of fertilizer and water, improved machinery and better tilling techniques combined to generate a threefold increase in yields since 1935 – on our farm back then, my dad produced 2.8 to 3 tonnes per hectare. Much US agriculture has seen similar increases.

But of course there is no guarantee that we can achieve those results again. Given the urgency of expanding food production to meet world demand, we must invest much more in scientific research and target that money toward projects that promise to have significant national and global impact. For the United States, that will mean a major shift in the way we conduct and fund agricultural science. Fundamental research will generate the innovations that will be necessary to feed the world.

The United States can take a leading position in a productivity revolution. And our success at increasing food production may play a decisive humanitarian role in the survival of billions of people and the health of our planet.

Directly related to our challenge to feed a growing world is the necessity of providing a sustainable resource for fuels, chemicals and materials. I believe that agriculture and the wider sphere of plants represent a resource not only for food, but also for the fuel, energy and materials essential to modern society. Scientists have developed biotechnologies – genetically engineered yeasts, enzymes and bacteria – capable of breaking down plants, trees, grasses and agricultural residues (known as biomass) into their constituent chemical building blocks, principally in the form of complex sugars. From this intermediate step, we can produce a wide variety of bio-based products including animal feed, chemicals and – importantly – fuel.

If a significant percentage of products currently derived from petroleum can be produced from biomass, the major industrial economies will improve their strategic security by reducing their dependence on Middle Eastern oil and all countries, rich and poor, can spend far less on oil imports, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help strengthen their own rural communities while simultaneously building a new bio-based industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide per year.

Shift to bio-based fuels
Bio-based fuels such as ethanol have clear potential to be sustainable, low cost and high performance, are compatible with both current and future transportation systems, and provide near-zero net greenhouse gas emissions. The impact of bio-ethanol on greenhouse gas emissions is particularly significant because the transportation sector relies almost exclusively on fossil fuels and accounts for one third of total greenhouse gas emissions. A shift to bio-based fuels is a long-term approach to the problem of global warming that does not require a shift from automobiles or result in increased costs for US employers and consumers.
Agriculture and the wider sphere of plants represent a resource not only for food, but also for the fuel, energy and materials essential to modern society
As my friend, former CIA director James Woolsey, who has worked with me on this issue, likes to say, this is not your father’s ethanol. We currently derive ethanol from corn and other starches, an energy-intensive process that results in an expensive product. He notes that using biocatalysts, or other technologies nearing commercialization like thermal depolymerization, we can cut costs by orders of magnitude, making bio-ethanol competitive with gasoline even if the price of oil drops to $10-13 a barrel. Equally important, large-scale production won’t require us to plough up marginal land or displace food crops.

Before we can reap these benefits from the sustainable biomass resource, the cost of the new technology must be slashed. Again, research offers the only systematic means for creating the innovations and technical improvements that will bring down biomass processing costs. Given the private sector’s short-term horizon, and because many benefits of biomass processing are in the public interest, governments and multilateral institutions should take the lead in this important effort and invest in the promise of a new green revolution.

Remarkable opportunity
From the days when I worked on our farm as a boy through my time in the United States Senate, where I have always served on the Senate Agriculture Committee, I have witnessed tremendous change in the way we farm in the United States and around the world. Although we are faced with enormous challenges for the future, at no time has agriculture been as exciting and full of opportunity as it is today. Pessimists may say that humanity has got itself into a hopeless muddle, but I have faith in the limitless supply of human ingenuity. We would be extremely shortsighted not to take advantage of the scientific breakthroughs that have occurred in agriculture and biomass conversion. If we do, we will make life far less dangerous and far more prosperous for future generations. If we do not, those generations will look back in angry wonder at the remarkable opportunity that we missed

Richard G. Lugar , a US Senator from Indiana, is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a member and former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

PHOTOGRAPH: Richard G. Lugar

This issue:
Contents | Editorial | Key to development | The energy challenge | Plant power | Bioenergy: doing well while doing right | New energy for development | People | Delivering Change | Benign growth | Green energy | At a glance: Energy | Sustainable Dreams | Brightening the future | Greening oil | Blue-sky thinking | Books & products | New energy to assault poverty | New energy entrepreneurs | Time to get serious | Breaking the ice | In my lifetime – 100% renewable| Slimming the waste

Complementary issues:
WSSD, 2002
Energy, 2001
Climate and Action, 1998
Climate Change, 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Natural Resources