Hot 5: Forum Ag Panel. Chu on Biofuels. Max Temps. Ag R&D. Smaller Meat Animals.

1. The Ag Panel at the Aspen Institute Environment Forum

Last week I attended the 5th Annual Aspen Institute Environment Forum co-sponsored by National Geographic. (This event precedes the Ideas Festival and the two events overlapped with one day of talks on forests.) Walter Isaacson is the President of the Aspen Institute, so it was he who introduced the event and the first day’s featured speakers, E.O. Wilson and Stuart Brand.

Personal highlights, though there were many, were having my photo taken with Stuart Brand, and finding myself next to Hari Sreenivasan of PBS Newshour on a walking commute between buildings, for an uninterrupted five minutes of conversation. Ever the astute interviewer, his first question for me was how I make money by having a site about agriculture. The fact that he asked the question meant that my answer came as no surprise to him.

Dennis Dimick, the Environmental Editor of National Geographic has been an online supporter of this site since nearly its start, so it was nice to finally meet him in person. Because Dimick has an education in Agriculture from the University of Wisconsin, he appreciates the fact that agriculture is the number one cause of planetary ecosystem destruction. And that is why he moderated the Ag panel talk and saved it (the best) for last. Ag panelists were Jon Foley, Jason Clay, Chris Reij, and Dan Glickman.

This hour long discussion is definitely worth a listen.

2. Steven Chu on Biofuels

The May 2012 issue of Scientific American has an interesting page interviewing Steven Chu. His answer to the question about where future breakthroughs might come from included biofuels:

Breakthroughs on the physics side will be in materials. The battery manufacturer Envia [Systems] announced a 400-watt-hour-per-kilogram battery. That’s at least a factor of two more than the previous best. It still has to go through some more stages of testing. We are investing in other battery companies that will go another factor of two beyond that.

Biofuels are a little bit further out only because your competition is oil. Early-stage research sponsored by the Department of Energy has microbes you can feed simple sugars and out pops diesel fuel. Another company is using photo-synthetic bacteria and swapping whole genomes and metabolic pathways. [The microbe] generates long alkane chains that are the immediate precursors to diesel fuel. It’s 5 to 10 percent energy-efficient, whereas a typical plant is only 1 percent efficient. This is a little weird bacterium or yeast. In the past 15 years or so I’ve gotten into biology like this. I follow it with avid interest. It’s really almost science fiction.

3. U.S. Daily Highest Max Temperature Records set on June 28, 2012

Out of a possible 5,752 records: 205 (Broken) + 74 (Tied) = 279 Total

Norton, Kansas set a new record of 118 degrees, up from 104 in 1963.

Corn growers in the middle of the nation are saying that this is the week that will determine this year’s crop. If there is still no rain there will be major crop losses.

Midwestern droughts have historically followed southern droughts, like the Texas drought of the past couple of years. Also, the Midwest has not had a drought for many years, and many say that it is due.

Climate Change? As Kevin Trenberth (NCAR) just told us at the Environment Forum (#1 above), “Five to ten percent of all of today’s weather is because of climate change.”

4. Agricultural R&D Breakdown

Among all countries, the United States was the leader in private agricultural R&D during 1994-2010, accounting for over one-third of the global total. U.S. companies were particularly dominant in the crop seed/biotechnology and animal breeding/genetic sectors, where they made up about half of global private R&D investments. European firms accounted for about half of total R&D across all agricultural input industries over the period, with companies based in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands being the leaders in this region. Japan led private R&D in the Asia-Pacific region. Worldwide, Japanese firms were among the leaders in crop protection chemicals and farm machinery R&D.

Research spending as a share of sales is highest in the crop seed/biotechnology, crop chemical, animal health, and animal breeding/genetics sectors.

Global trade in agricultural inputs has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Between 1990 and 2007, international trade in animal breeding material grew by 260 percent, and trade in farm machinery grew by 190 percent (in constant U.S. dollars).

The private sector accounted for 45 percent of total food and agricultural R&D spending worldwide. Although the global estimates of public research spending do not separate food from agricultural R&D, the U.S. data may be illustrative, at least for high-income countries. According to USDA’s Inventory of Agricultural Research, in 2000, about 60 percent of total U.S. public agricultural R&D was allocated to research related to plant and animal systems; 15 percent went to food and human nutrition; and 24 percent went to environmental and other issues not directly related to food or farm production. If these figures are representative of public agricultural R&D in high-income countries, it would imply that the private sector accounts for roughly 46 percent of total production agriculture research and 76 percent of food related research in these countries.

Source: USDA’s Amber Waves

5. Let’s Move Towards Smaller Meat Animals

The Union of Concerned Scientists has come out with a new document titled “Solutions for Deforestation-free Meat”. Beef, uses about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land yet produces less than 5 percent of its protein and less than 2 percent of its calories. Meat sources such as pork and especially chicken, require much less land to produce the same amount of protein. A diet shift from beef toward chicken would greatly reduce the pressure on land and the resulting pressure for deforestation.

This is not to say that grassfed beef are not appropriate in some areas. Large herbivores roamed many of this Earth’s lands prior to modern agriculture and Allan Savory has written much about the benefits of these natural systems.

I might add that in the Andes, Peruvians eat guinea pigs (Cuy chactado) kept adjacent to or inside their houses. Then, there’s the old dovecote, or pigeon house used in the Middle East, Europe, and the early years in America. Or, as PBS’s NOVA recently explained to us, the best sensible protein source for humans might be insects… now there’s a challenge for the food innovators, processors, and packagers.

At the Aspen Institute Environment Forum (#1 above), Jon Foley said, “If there’s an elephant in the room with the global food system, it’s a cow.”

5 thoughts on “Hot 5: Forum Ag Panel. Chu on Biofuels. Max Temps. Ag R&D. Smaller Meat Animals.

  1. RBM

    I’ve watched the first twenty minutes of the Ag Panel and am very impressed. The situation is obviously sufficiently grokked by some.

    Others, will be a bigger problem than that of feeding a population and sustaining a planet, I’m pretty sure.

    Glad to hear of the Ag Panel effort, though. It’s a start, or better yet maybe more than just a start if your coverage on this blog is any indication.

    Thank You.

  2. K.M. Post author

    Thanks. I tend to err on the side of under-statements. Like I said, the hour is well-spent if Ag interests you.

  3. RBM

    The irony of my disparaging comments of Chu on Independence Day is not lost on me.


    [quote]The good news is that three and a half years ago we were importing about 60 percent of our oil, and now it’s around 45 percent. We see the trend going for­ward, decreasing even more.[/quote]

    This statement, framed in this manner, is dishonest and of the type of honesty that is prevalent in US politics today.

    My ‘bone to pick’ is that the fifteen year demand value makes no distinction of demand destruction due to economic malaise.

    [quote]If we get breakthroughs, it can be game-changing.[/quote]

    The ‘if’s – breakthrough’ is self-evident to this layman. Is it not to the SciAm readership ? I don’t find it useful to base policy on breakthroughs as a matter of course, given all the more prescient work policy wonks could be doing but aren’t.

    Oh, well so much for my ‘J’ (of MBTI-INTJ) coloring my views.

    You and your loved ones, enjoy your Independence Day clebrations.

    1. K.M. Post author

      Ahhh, but you need to let your “N” handle this one — “focus on the big picture rather than the details and on future possibilities rather than immediate realities”.


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