Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We'll Make More

One of the problems for those of the Malthusian bent who are regularly predicting that overpopulation will eventually overwhelm the planet’s ability to supply the necessary food, energy, and other resources to sustain life is that their models are almost always based on what type of resources are available at that particular point in time and how those resources are utilized. They fail to foresee things like the Green Revolution in agriculture or the recent shale oil energy boom which fundamentally alter the supply situation of critical resources. I’m not blaming them for this lack of foresight. It would be nice though if they would acknowledge how much we all don’t know about what might happen in the future and how any prediction of inevitable doom as a result of resource scarcity rests on shaky ground.

Toda, we hear global warming doomsayers predict future famine because of the impact that climate change will have on crops. The reality is that warming (whether caused by humans or part of a natural cycle) may actually be better for agriculture. In any event, to assume that humans would merely stand pat in the wake of changes in climate is to ignore history. Matt Ridley explained in Saturday’s WSJ how we are already working on Getting Crops Ready for a Warmer Tomorrow:

Last year, Qing Zeng of the Institute of Soil Science in Nanjing and his colleagues published the first test of this prediction on a real farm. By emitting carbon dioxide over plots of rice, they enriched the air to almost twice the ambient level of CO2. They then measured the growth rate of both rice and its worst weed, barnyard grass (a C4 plant), in the experimental plots, compared with control plots nearby.

The ear weight of the rice was enhanced by 37.6% while the growth of the barnyard grass was actually reduced by 47.9%, because the vigorous rice shaded out the weeds. So the good news is that rising carbon-dioxide levels are, on balance, slightly helping crops (mostly C3) compete against weeds (mostly C4) rather than vice versa.

Still, that enormous yield advantage of C4 plants in hot weather suggests an obvious next goal for plant breeders.

Given that most rice grows in hot countries, fiddling with its genes to make it into a C4 plant could boost its yield by 50% and cut its nitrogen needs, transforming world food supply. This is the goal of the C4 Rice Project at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. It takes heart from the fact that C4 "technology" has emerged naturally in many different lines of plants, so why not put it in rice, too?

I’m obviously no expert on agriculture, but increasing rice yields by 50% certainly sounds like a potential game changer to me. One that would put off the purported day of reckoning when our planet will supposedly no longer produce enough food for its people. And after that, who knows what the next resource breakthrough might be? Which of course is really the whole point of not falling for the Malthusian hype.