Do We Eat Oil? Farms Are More Energy Efficient Than Ever

A common refrain one hears about modern farming in the US is that it's too energy intensive.  However, data from the USDA shows that US farms use only half as much energy per unit of farm output as they did in 1950.  That includes energy for fertilizer, farm equipment, pesticides, etc..

Source: USDA: Agricultural Productivity in the United States

Can We Feed the World?

By 2050, the FAO projects that we’ll need to increase global food production by 70% to meet rising food demand.  Most of that, as Jon Foley has noted, is not from population growth, but rather from increasingly meat rich diets in the developing world.

Perhaps we can reduce that food demand growth rate, by cutting food waste or by cutting meat demand (more on that another day).  But for now, I want to ask the question: Can we raise food production by 70% by 2050?

Fundamentally, it’s possible. The key evidence is that food production per acre in rich countries, like the United States, is already twice the food production per acre of the world as a whole.  That means that if the world’s farms, overall, were as productive as farms in the US, we would aready be meeting the FAO’s projected food demand for 2050.

This difference, between global food production per acre and rich world food production per acre, is called the yield gap. It exists because farmers in the developing world have less access to fertilizer, irrigation, farm equipment, pesticides, and the other tools that make farmers in rich countries more productive.

Even so, total food production around the world is rising.

Jon Foley and his colleagues have found, unfortunately, that the rise is currently not fast enough to keep up with their projected demand increase of 100% by 2050 (somewhat higher than the FAO’s projection of 2050).

The key is to bend that line upwards, by closing the gap between the productivity of farms around the world and the productivity of farms in rich countries.  And the key to that will be a combination of economic development and continued research and development into better crops and better farm practices.

I write more about how to feed the world, while aiming at using less land, and producing less pollution, in my book about innovating to overcome climate change, energy, water, food, population, and other challenges before us: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Solar Power Prices Dropping Faster Than Ever

In 2011, I wrote a piece for Scientific American on the exponential price decline in solar power.

I haven't had a chance to fully update that piece, but two quick notes.   First, the price decline in solar cost per watt has, if anything, accelerated since then.  

The above is on a log scale. The Y-axis is price per watt of solar modules.  And you can see that since 2010, prices have plunged.  Over the last 30 years, in total, solar module prices have dropped by a stunning 95%.  You can now buy literally 20x as much wattage of solar power for a dollar as you could when Ronald Reagan started his presidency.  And the trend shows every sign of continuing.

Second, since many have asked about storage costs, I'd note that there is a long term exponential decline in the cost of energy storage as well.  Energy storage is still far too expensive to be used to store substantial amounts of wind or solar energy, but the price decline, if anything, is steeper than the price decline in solar power itself.

Here's the original piece on the exponential decline in the price of solar power.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why the pace of innovation in them is critical – and hopeful – for both fighting climate change and for long term economic growth in the book I originally did this research for, The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

The Sunlight is Where the Energy Poverty Is

The future world energy system will undoubtedly be a mix of many different energy technologies – nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, and some fossil fuels for decades and decades to come.  Yet I’m particularly optimistic about solar. One reason is its incredible price trajectory, a trait that no other modern energy technology shares.  Another is that solar availability lines up extremely well with the regions of the world where people live in energy poverty, generally completely off the grid.

Off-the-grid, diesel electricity often costs 3x as much as grid electricity.  And running new power grids out to these location is an expensive, capital-intensive project.  In these areas in the developing world, decentralized solar is particularly well positioned as a tool to provide energy to meet people’s needs in a low-carbon way, without the enormous cost of extending a national grid.  It’s similar to the leapfrogging of mobile phones past landlines.

See for yourself.  Here’s a map of energy poverty around the world:

And here’s a map of solar availability around the world (total amount of sunlight falling per year):

The match isn’t perfect. But the availability of sunlight is tremendously higher in Africa and South Asia than it is in, say, Germany, where solar power has been championed the most this past decade.  The US and Australia are also particularly well endowed.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why innovation in them is a great reason for hope in combating climate change even as we lift billions out of poverty, in my book on solving the environmental and natural resource challenges that face us: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Pieces I’ve Written Around the Web

Over the last few months (and a bit over the past few years) I wrote a number of pieces around the web, primarily on energy, sustainability, genetically modified foods, and economic growth.  I did a poor job of linking to them on my own site.  So here's a roundup.

Science Will Save the Planet (If We Let It), Wired UK, May 2013

Seven Reasons Why China May Lead the World in Fighting Climate Change, Slate, May 2013

Grantham Is Wrong: We Are Not Headed For a Disaster of Biblical Proportions, Business Insider, April 2013

Why Polluters Should Pay YOU to Fix Climate Change, FastCoExist, April 2013

The Limits of the Earth: Part 1, Problems, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013

The Limits of the Earth: Part 2: Expanding the Limits, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013

Greener Than Green: Biotech and the Future of Agriculture, Genetic Literacy Project, April 2013

Why Organic Advocates Should Love GMOs, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013

Why GMO Advocates Should Embrace Labels, Discover Collide-a-Scape Blog, April 2013

How Innovation Could Save the Planet, The Futurist, March 2013

Can We Capture All the World’s Carbon Emissions?, Scientific American Guest Blog, March 2011

Smaller, Cheaper, Faster: Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?, Scientific American, Guest Blog, March 2011 (Cited by Paul Krugman)

The Evidence on GMO Safety

This page started as a followup to an appearance I made on NBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show in April of 2013, speaking about GMOs.  You can see the video at the show’s website or embedded below.

See also:        Part 2              Part 3              Part 4  

Or if you prefer more combative television, you can watch the fast and fierce debate between myself and GMO opponent Jeffrey Smith on CCTV.

First, a statement on my interests:  I have no relationship whatsoever with Monsanto or any other ag or biotech company.  I hold no Monsanto stock. I get no money from them.  Nothing of the sort.  My only interest is in advancing public knowledge of a technology that’s widely misunderstood and which, when well-managed, can benefit both humanity and the planet.  All the research I presented was research I did when writing my book on innovating to save the planet, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

I do believe that we’ll eventually have labels on genetically modified foods.  So long as those labels are in the ingredients section and not needlessly frightening, I think that’s fine.  Clearly a set of people very much want labels, and the resistance to labeling gives the appearance that there’s something to hide with genetically modified foods. There isn’t. Genetically modified foods are safe.

Because there wasn’t enough time to go into detail on either show, I want to link to statements from the world’s most respected scientific bodies and journals on the topic of GMO safety. Here’s what they say.  (Update: Below that I will answer some other common questions on GMOs which I receive.)

The US National Academy of Sciences

This is the premier scientific body in the United States.  They have repeatedly found genetically modified food safe, noting that after billions of meals served, “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

They’ve also found that genetically engineered crops are kinder to the environment than non-genetically engineered crops.  The National Academy of Science’s 2010 report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, found that GM crops planted to date had reduced insecticide use, reduced use of the most dangerous herbicides, increased the frequency of conservation tillage and no-till farming, reduced carbon emissions, reduced soil runoffs, and improved soil quality. The report said that, “Generally, GE (GMO) crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science

This is the largest organization made up of professional scientists in the United States, and also publisher of Science magazine, one of the two most respected scientific journals in the world.  The AAAS says “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”

The American Medical Association

The premier body of physicians in the United States.  They have consistently found genetically modified foods as safe to eat as any other food, stating “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods”.

The European Commission

Europe is extremely anti-GMO.  But even there, the scientific community is clear that genetically modified foods are safe.  The scientific advisor to the European Comission has said “there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food”.

The European Commission’s 2010 report on genetically engineered food (based on independent research not funded by any biotech company) said: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Royal Society of Medicine

England’s top medical society, the British equivalent of the American Medical Association, published a review of all the information about genetically modified foods that concluded, “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”

The Largest Ever Review of Studies on GMOs

In 2013, a group of Italian scientists (from a country where no GMOs are grown) conducted the largest-ever survey of scientific information on genetically modified foods. They looked at 1,783 published research papers, reviews, and reports on GMOs. What they found was no evidence of harm.

“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

The French Supreme Court

The French Supreme Court isn’t a scientific body, but I mention them here because their recent decision was so remarkable.  France is a very anti-GMO country.  Yet the French Supreme Court struck down France’s GMO ban, ruling that the government had shown no credible evidence of any harm to humans or the environment.  You can read about that here.

Don’t GMOs Cause Cancer in Rats? Or Infertility?

Thus far there have been several hundred studies on the safety of genetically engineered food.  All but a handful have found them completely safe.  The only studies that have found that genetically modified foods harm animals (the ones quoted as saying that they cause cancer and infertility) all come from one laboratory, that of Gilles-Éric Séralini in France.

Yet Séralini’s studies have been widely debunked.  The study linking GMOs to cancer was forcibly retracted by the journal that published it (something very rare in science).

In fact, the study, was clearly flawed from the beginning. It was immediately criticized by the six major French scientific academies and by neutral scientists and science journalists not affiliated with biotech companies.

Perhaps most damning is the way in which Séralini manipulated the press. He refused to allow science journalists to see the actual paper before publication day, preventing those journalists from going through their normal process of calling scientists to get opinions about the results before writing up their news stories. As award-winning science journalist Carl Zimmer (also not affiliated with any biotech firm) wrote, science journalists were played.

Even GMO opponents found the rat-cancer link hard to believe.  My fellow guest on MSNBC, food policy advocate (and GMO opponent) Marion Nestle, herself said that she found the Seralini study linking GMOs to cancer hard to believe.  Marion Nestle writes:

These results are so graphically shocking (see the paper’s photographs), and so discrepant from previous studies (see recent review in the same journal), that they bring out my skeptical tendencies.  (Note: Although Séralini is apparently a well known opponent of GMOs, his study—and that of the review—were funded by government or other independent agencies.)  … the study is weirdly complicated.

Independently Funded Studies

Another common myth is that Monsanto or other biotech companies control all biotech research, preventing independent research from happening.  This is not the case.  Two sets of independent studies:

– The European Commission Report I mention above includes 130 independent studies, paid for by the EU, conducted by more than 500 teams.

– BioFortified maintains a (largely distinct) list of more than 120 independently funded studies which were conducted outside the biotech industry and without biotech dollars.

Long Term Safety Studies

A common myth is that there are no long-term safety studies of GMOs.  There have, in fact, been dozens of long-term studies of feeding GMOs to animals for their entire lives, sometimes for as many as ten generations in a row, with no ill effects discovered whatsoever. Here’s a good survey of long-term and multi-generation GMO safety studies.

A Scientific Consensus

All together, the scientific consensus around the safety of genetically modified foods is as strong as the scientific consensus around climate change.  These foods have been studied more than any other, and everything tells us that they’re safe.

Update: Other Common Concerns on GMOs

I receive a few other frequent questions on GMOs that don’t relate to safety, so answering three of the most frequent here:

What About Superweeds?

Pesticide resistance is a real thing. It’s also an old thing. The first notion that it exists dates back to 1914, when A.L. Melander published a paper asking “Can insects become resistant to sprays?”  Realistically, resistance has been evolving for the 4,000 or so years that humans have been using pesticides.

It’s clear today that weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate (Roundup) and that this is threatening the use of roundup.  It’s not at all clear that this has anything to do with GMOs, however. The rate of the evolution of new pesticide resistant weeds appears to be the same for GMO vs. non-GMO crops. That doesn’t make the problem any less important. But it suggests that pointing the finger at GMOs is missing the point.

What About Farmer Suicides in India?

The allegation has been made that GMOs have been driving farmers in India to commit suicide. Farmers in India do commit suicide, and every one of those is a tragedy.

However, the farmer suicides started long before GMOs were introduced to that country, and the suicide rate has held steady or slightly dropped since GMOs were introduced.

Every suicide is a tragedy, but linking them to GMOs is false.

What About Corporate Control of Food?

Patents end. Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready I Soy expires in late 2014. Last I checked, that was the single most planted GMO in the United States. After that patent expires (and unlike copyrights, patents do actually expire) the seed and trait will be in the public domain, with farmers able to replant, seed growers able to cross-breed the strain, and academics and other companies able to tinker with the gene, without owing Monsanto anything.

The majority of GMOs planted in the US and the world today will see their patents expire in the next decade.

More Reading: The Infinite Resource

You can read more about genetically modified foods, agriculture in general, and how to provide enough food, water, and energy for the planet, while beating climate change, deforestation, and other challenges, in my book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.


China’s Tipping Point on Environment?

Chinese environmental protesters have won the cancellation of an industrial waste pipeline that would have dumped waste from a paper factory into the ocean near the town of Qidong.

This is not the first such victory.  The Guardian notes that:

The protest followed similar demonstrations against projects in the Sichuan town of Shifang earlier this month and in the cities of Dalian in the north-east and Haimen in southern Guangdong province in the past year.

There’s a general pattern in concern around the environment. (And a very similar one in concern for civil liberties.)  When people are desperately poor, their concerns are food, shelter, energy, and physical safety.

As people grow richer and are able to meet their basic needs, environmental quality and civil liberties, which were once considered niceties, rise in importance.

In regard to environmental quality, this is known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve:


As countries grow richer, their levels of environmental degradation rise at first, then level, then drop. This isn’t uniform across all types of pollution.  For instance, the US has already peaked and now sharply declined in the emission of lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), and CFCs (which degrade the ozone layer).  But for CO2 emissions, the US is in that middle zone.

China has been over on the left, rapidly industrializing.  But now it appears to be heading into that middle zone, as there’s increasing pressure to cancel polluting projects, to improve air quality, to reduce emissions of pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

What we’re seeing is the emergence of a Chinese environmental movement, something that’s only become possible because China’s people are rich enough that preserving the environment has become important to them.

This is still the beginning. China is a major polluter. There are years, if not decades, of work ahead. But it’s heartening to see Chinese people standing up against pollution, and in many cases, succeeding.

Perhaps we’ll see the same transition on civil liberties one day.

Pricing Nature to Save the Planet

New Scientist, covering Rio+20, talks about putting a price on the natural world:

Green economics, the theory goes, will work by quantifying nature and giving it a cash value. As Steiner put it: “Factoring natural capital into the bottom line will bring the real wealth of the planet from the invisible to the visible spectrum.” The hope is that, faced with the potential for monetary loss as a result of environmental degradation, decision-makers will feel compelled to act.

The notion of putting a price tag on nature is a powerful one. Economic self interest is a tremendous force. Given the importance of the planet to us, why isn’t it as easy to strike it rich in green tech as it is in internet tech?

If we want to unleash innovators on the task of preserving nature, we need those economic incentives. We need it to be as possible to get rich by improving the climate or solving ocean acidification or deforestation as it is to get rich creating the next Facebook.

This will, however, require action from governments. The natural behavior of markets is to treat commons as free resources to exploit, even when those commons have economic value for others. If we want markets to value them, we will need to impose a price on those resources, and only governments are empowered to do so.

via Earth Summit signals move to give nature a price tag – environment – 27 June 2012 – New Scientist.

A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet

Chris Jablonski at ZDnet interviewed me recently about my next book, The Infinite Resource.   Here’s a short excerpt.  Click at the link at the bottom to read the whole interview.

In your upcoming book, The Infinite Resource – Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, you point to knowledge as the path to a prosperous future. What inspired you to pick this theme?

RN: The book is really the intersection of two lines of inquiry. The first is the state of the environment and our natural resources. We’re simultaneously facing climate change and peak oil, ocean overfishing and fresh water shortages. As someone who cares about the future, I wanted to understand those challenges for myself.

The second is about innovation and its relationship to resource use and prosperity. I come from a tech background, so I’m used to the incredible onward march of Moore’s Law. But I was surprised to discover that something like Moore’s Law operates in solar energy. In the last 30 years, the price of electricity solar photovoltaic cells has dropped by more than a factor of 10. This decade, it’ll drop below the price of electricity from coal fired plants – the current cheapest. In 20 years, if the trend continues, it’ll be half the price of electricity from coal fired plants.

The driving force behind the reduction in solar energy prices is innovation. Scientists and engineers in the area keep coming up with new ways to make solar cells cheaper, thinner, lighter, and more efficient. That’s an accumulation of knowledge that has the promise to help us offset the depletion of a physical resource – oil.

That intersection led me to view our knowledge base itself as a resource.  And as a resource, knowledge plays by different rules that make it incredibly powerful. Unlike physical resources like oil, our stockpile of useful ideas and engineering designs and insights into the laws of nature keeps growing. Ideas don’t get destroyed or consumed in usage. If I have a piece of knowledge and I share it with you, I don’t have to give it up myself – its impact gets multiplied by the number of holders. And best of all, the right knowledge can substitute for or multiply just about any other resource – energy, labor, materials, land, even time.

Read More: A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet | ZDNet.