Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Well worth a read

Local fella Mark Tester has been a busy boy knocking out a few articles of late. These two are really worth a squiz.

Firstly, in yesterday's IPA Inquirer, a look at algal biofuels:
THERE are many reasons for wanting to reduce our dependence on oil: the increasing cost, reliability of supply, finite resources, the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming.

Yet when people talk about alternative sources of fuel they mostly discuss the conversion of food, such as corn, into ethanol, which puts enormous pressure on food supplies. During the past year, demands for food and fuel have combined to drive up food prices sharply, which has particularly important ramifications in developing countries.

When one adds to the mix growing populations and global environmental change, with the pressures these impose on our ability to maintain high crop yields, the prospects for providing sufficient food for all are not good.

So, the idea of converting a significant proportion of our food into fuel for vehicles or diverting agricultural land to grow biomass seems misguided.

Although the growth of biomass on marginal lands has some prospect, the impact on nature conservation must be considered. Furthermore, the contribution that such areas can make to global liquid fuel needs will always be modest.

Marginal lands provide only low-density cropping potential and biomass from plants or crop residues generally has a low energy density, while a significant proportion of the energy gained from the biomass will be consumed in the process of moving the biomass to the processing centres.

Yet one group of plants could make a sustainable, significant contribution to world energy supply. They do not require agricultural land and need only minimal processing.

Single-celled algae can grow very rapidly in low quality water, producing biomass at 10 to 30 times the rate of terrestrial plants. They can do this mainly because the cells are immersed in a medium providing all their needs, including physical support, and so the cells have no need to build infrastructure to move materials and to support themselves.
Read the rest here.

The second is a provocative review, published in Science, of Tomorrow's Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.  The review mirrors many of my own thoughts on the subject.
The organic movement's opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops is causing it to miss an opportunity. Like agriculture across the planet, organic farming needs all the technological help it can get to be both sustainable and high-yielding. As with many recent innovations, GM technologies provide myriad possibilities for reducing the impacts of agriculture on the environment and the need for chemical inputs to maintain yield. But from the start, the organic movement rejected the use of GM crops. Genetic engineering is a technology, and like so many technologies, its benefits, costs, and risks depend on how it is used. A comparison with nuclear technology is not unfair: most of us benefit from medical applications of nuclear technologies, while many of us have major concerns with the large stockpiles of nuclear weapons that still threaten the planet. So, the risks of GM depend on the genes being put into the plants, not on the technology per se. Yet the numerous potential applications of GM to reduce chemical inputs to agriculture are flatly rejected by most organic farmers.

In Tomorrow's Table, we now have the positive aspects of both organic and GM approaches discussed logically and clearly. The delightfully constructive book was written by a talented wife-and-husband team: Pamela Ronald, a very successful plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, and Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer who teaches at the same university. The authors are eminently qualified to present authoritative descriptions of their respective disciplines, which they do in a readable and accurate manner. But the noteworthy aspect of the book is the way they then marry their separate fields to argue logically for the use of GM technologies to improve organic agriculture. As Gordon Conway (a former president of the Rockefeller Foundation) comments in his foreword, "The marriage is long overdue."
Read the rest on Pamela's blog.