Can We Feed an Expanded Population?

One argument you often see is that our farmland can easily feed even more people and that our technology will see that famines are a thing of the past. I am going to suggest that this may be an overenthusiastic view of our ability. First, the world is losing a surprising amount of good soil every year, to water and wind erosion. Seawater rising will remove a lot of prime agricultural land, but there is a much worse problem that needs attention. The 18th May edition of Science had some information that might give cause to rethink any optimistic view. Our high intensity agriculture depends on keeping pests, weeds and fungi at bay, and much of that currently depends on the heavy use of certain chemicals. The problem is what we are trying to keep at bay are gradually evolving resistance to our agents.

Looking at fungicides first, there are basically four classes of fungicides licensed for use, and some of these, such as the azoles, have a number of variations, but the variations tend to be those to differentiate the compounds from someone else’s, and to get around patents. The fundamental activity usually comes from one chemical group. As an example from antibiotics, there are a large number of variation on penicillin, but they all have beta lactams, and it is the beta lactams that give the functionality, so when bugs evolve that can tolerate beta lactams, the whole set of such penicillin-like drugs becomes ineffective. For fungi, the industrial scale production of single crops in some regions optimises the chance of a fungus developing a resistance, and there appears to be the possibility of gene transfer between fungi.

This has some other downstream issues. Thus medical advances lead to people having a much better chance of survival through cancer treatments, but they then become more susceptible to fungi. Apparently Candida auris is now resistant to all clinical antifungals, and is a worse threat in hospitals because it can survive most standard decontamination procedures. A number of other fungi are very threatening in clinical situations.

So what can be done about fungi? Obviously, seeking new antifungals is desirable, but this is a slow process because before letting such new chemicals out into the environment, we have to be confident that there will really be benefits and the chemicals are sufficiently effective under all circumstances, and we also need to know there are no unintended consequences.

Insecticides and herbicides (and following the article in Science, these will be collectively termed pesticides) have the same problem. It was estimated that even now the evolution of such resistance costs billions of dollars in the US. With regard to weeds, in 1996 plants were produced that were not harmed by glyphosate, and the effectiveness of this led to over 90% of US maize, soy and cotton being planted with such plants. (Some will recall the fact that some were bred so the plants did not produce viable seed, and further seed had to be purchased from the company that developed the plant.) Now there are at least forty serious weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate. Plants have been engineered that are resistant to chemicals mimicking previous herbicides but the weeds are defeating that. Weed species have evolved to resist every known herbicide, and no herbicide has been developed with a new mode of action over the last thirty years.

In agriculture, it is easy to see how this situation could arise. When you spray a crop, not every part of every plant gets the same amount of spray. Some of what you don’t want will survive in places where the dose was less than enough. From the farmer’s point of view, this does not matter because enough of the pests have been dealt with that his return is not hurt by the few that survive. However, the fact that some always survive is just what evolution needs to develop life forms capable of resisting the chemicals.

So, what to do? Obviously, more effort is required, but here we meet some problems that might be intractable. Major companies have to invest large amounts of money to provide a possible solution, and they will only do so when there are likely to be guaranteed very large sales. However, to defeat resistance, it is most desirable to pulse agents, thus using agent A one year, agent B the next, and no repeat for a number of years. That maximises the chance of avoiding the generation of further resistance, but what company wants to participate in the sort of sales future? We could try natural procedures and live with the fact that yields are lower, but that implies we really do not want to eat that much more, which in turn suggests population growth needs to be curbed. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

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The Price of Inequality

Recently, the United States has had a glut of school shootings, and you may be wondering what that has to do with the title. I am going to suggest, quite a lot, indirectly. It also illustrates society’s inability to reason. There are continual calls for gun control, and while I agree there is a rather bizarre lack of responsibility in the ability to buy guns in the US, I do not think that is particularly relevant to what has happened. When I was a boy, I had access to a 22 calibre rifle that I used to go rabbit shooting (rabbits are a real pest in Australia and New Zealand because there are no controlling predators) and yes, I went out and shot rabbits, as did some of my friends, but nobody even thought about going out and shooting a person, let alone a bunch of school children. Why not? Because we all were looking forward to joining society, and we had ambitions. Not big ambitions, but we saw our future place. Of course it did not turn out as we envisaged, but it never does.

So, what is different now? My guess is that too many of the younger generation do not see a future they want. In the US, they see the rust belt, they see the jobs have gone to Asia. Of course the more capable ones see a future, but my betting is the shooters are the very disgruntled ones that see themselves heading to the bottom of the heap. They see nothing to live for, so their warped thinking says they should take out some others first.

And here I come to inequality. What can a young person aspire to, if they are of the pessimistic style nature? In many places, house costs have risen hopelessly so as to price out such ownership from the below average income earner, and worse, more and more people are becoming below average. That is because all the wealth has rocketed into the hands of a few. They see the elderly coming to the point where they cannot retire because they cannot afford to. It is all very well to say that the elderly like working. Some do, but many have started a decline in their health and can’t. Too many people spend most of their income balancing a debt problem. Now you may say, that is their fault, and to some extent it is, but what sort of society are we if there is no way out for the tolerably useful?

An added problem is that as the general income declines, and governments seem determined to lower taxes on the rich, who, by and large, pay surprisingly little anyway, then we see a decline in social welfare, like healthcare, pensions, and an increase in education costs. And what is bizarre, and shows that in a democracy you cannot go wrong by assuming the general population is mathematically illiterate, we find the poor voting for a tax cut that will save them the odd few dollars a week only to find their costs for social services have risen astronomically. And a further odd thing about this is that governments tell their people that they are making progress by privatising such social requirements. “The private sector does things more efficiently,” the economists say, without bothering to check whether the private sector is actually doing it for any but the rich. If you don’t believe me, check the US drug prices, and compare them with many other countries with a state-run single buyer system. Of course the private sector is more efficient but that is at making money, its only real objective.

So, what we see are a few who are making money in truly gross amounts by taking from the many. By and large they are not adding anything to society. Since when did credit default swaps increase the general well-being? And this is what the young see. Something needs to be done, but they feel helpless. Except for the unfortunate monster with a gun.

Fake News and Provocation

Fake news is the theme of the year. The worst, of course, is that with an element of truth, but which is deliberately massaged to give a different meaning. As an example, this week Israel launched attacks on Iranian positions in Syria and announced this was in response to an unprovoked missile attack by said Iranians. There was, apparently, such an attack, although not a very effective one. Twenty missiles were launched, and 16, (80%) never even made it to the Israeli border, and the remaining four were shot down by Israeli defences. What the Israelis did not mention was that these missiles would presumably be launched in response to “unprovoked attacks on Iranian positions previously”. But previously, the Israelis would have said those raids were because the Iranians had done . . . Get the picture. The truth is there had been a festering problem for some time. Not that knowing that would make much difference.

There had been previous examples that I have posted about. The assertion that only Russia could have made Novichoks was a lie. The chemistry is very clear and would be reasonably easy for a skilled organic chemist to make, with the right equipment. There were the alleged “chemical attacks” in Syria that needed cruise missile attacks, but there has never been any evidence of the victims. The interesting thing is that very few have questioned any of this.

All of which was exacerbated by Trump pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Interestingly, there was no claim that Iran had violated its side of the deal. That was because it was reasonably clear it had not.

There seems to be a belief among many that their leaders know the truth, and are honourable people. Consider this extract from Wikipedia from an interview with Hermann Göring, a little before his suicide at Nürnberg:

Göring: It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

Gustave Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

That seems to be unfortunately true. How much real say has Congress had in the US military interventions recently?

Of course, it is not just the military that gets afflicted with fake news. In recent newspaper articles here, President Trump has accused a number of countries for being “free-loaders” and “extortionists” at the expense of the poor US pharmaceutical companies, through not paying properly for the costs of research needed to develop these drugs. There were two articles as examples. One had a company supplying a new anti-ebola vaccine to the Congo to deal with a further outbreak and gave the impression that this was essentially charity in that the company had developed this and would never recover its research costs. The other article said that the company had charged an “extortionate” $5 million for 300,000 vials of the vaccines, and that the company had never developed it; they had purchased the develop vaccine rights from a Canadian national laboratory. See the problem? Real fibs here. Also, note the massaging, by accusing the company of ripping off the purchasers. The cost is $16.66 per vial, and given that the vials have to be very carefully stored and handled, and of course there are significant manufacturing costs because somewhere along the lines they had to handle real ebola, maybe that is quite a fair price.

I recently saw a TV program where an old reporter was complaining that the standard of reporting had been shot to pieces. Yes, the old often find fault with the young, but maybe he has a real point.

The Start Towards Our Society

A number of people seem to think there is a distinct difference between humans and animals. Now there are obviously differences in quantity, thus chimpanzees have more hair, they are stronger, their feet work well as hands, etc, but is there a difference in fundamental quality. I think no; we just have more of some things and less of others than most mammals, but some people think there are fundamental differences between us and them.

One of the many things that have fascinated me in an amateurish sort of way is how did humans evolve from being simple animals to having a society? What were the intermediate steps? The usual answers are that somewhere about 30,000 years ago humans started to tame wolves to help them hunt, and about 10,000 years ago, they started to grow grain and tame sheep and cows, which led to permanent farm settlements as opposed to roving hunting and gathering, or maybe hunting and gathering from desirable sites with their own “range”. Leaving aside the dates, which may be somewhat inaccurate, that will have happened, but now it seems that was not the beginning.

A recent paper [Brooks et al., Science 360, 90–94 (2018)] puts the date for early progress far back. This was based on studies from the Olorgesaille basin in southern Kenya, where artifacts were found dating back to between 295,000 – 320,000 years ago, which predates Homo sapiens. Apparently the site was reasonably rich in fine-grained volcanic rock, which was used to make certain tools. However, also present were a number of obsidian artifacts, and greater than 46,000 small pieces of obsidian. There was no local source of obsidian, and the people may have had to walk 50 km as the crow flies to get any. The terrain is so rough that the actual distance would be significantly greater. Nevertheless, they brought the obsidian back to “home base” and made their artifacts there. Interestingly, over the period of time, it was found that innovation led to finer quality objects, and more standardization of them. Also found were the bones of what are presumably prey, including from small mammals and fish, that would have to have been caught by humans to be left there. (Major carnivores would eat everything from small prey.)

Also present were rocks in which attempts had been made to drill holes, sometimes successfully, and rocks that had been used for grinding ochre and rocks containing manganese dioxide (which can give brown or black colours). Neither of these rocks were available locally. The use of these is unknown but it strongly suggests the use to express status through self-decoration.

Thus it appears that innovation, standardization and the development of cognitive abilities were well underway 300,000 years ago. Further, the presence of large amounts of materials only available from distant sources suggests either procurement or trade over quite extended distances. Further, there were at least six of these distant sources. Extended social networks are common amongst hunter-gatherer societies, as they are a useful adaptation to unpredictable environments, and the new ability to stone-tip their hunting weapons would make larger-scale social relationships desirable. It would also help to ensure genetic diversity when finding mates.

Accordingly, we might now consider that the start towards technology was made at least 300,000 years ago. The idea of making fine stone flakes and securing them to the tip of a spear may not seem a great advance to us, but then it was because it permitted far more efficient hunting. Interestingly, the fossil evidence is also that it was around this time that brain size started to increase. It was a long road, but every journey has to start with the first step, and while this would not be the first such step, it was probably the start of more decisive steps.

Agricultural Fix for Climate Change?

One of the sadder aspects of our problem with climate change is that the politicians simply do not appreciate the magnitude of the problem, which is illustrated by a briefing in the journal Nature (554, 404). It is all very well to say that emissions must be curbed, and fast, but there is a further problem. What is there is still there. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has argued that carbon emissions must peak in the next couple of decades, and then fall steeply if we want to avoid a 2 Centigrade degree rise in average temperatures. So how do we get a steep decline?

The 2015 Paris agreement settled on negative emissions. That sounds good, until you start putting numbers on what has to be done. Consider the simple approach of putting silicates onto the land, where they will be weathered to produce silica and calcium/magnesium/iron bicarbonate or carbonate.

In an experiment (Beerling et al. 2018. Nature Plants: 4: 138 – 147) applied 3.5 t/ha of wollastonite powder (calcium silicate) to some New Hampshire land, which led to a 50% increase in the delivery of weathered calcium and silica to a stream. This was accompanied by a decrease in soil acidity and a decreased release of soil aluminium. So, carbon dioxide was taken from the atmosphere while improving the soil quality. Global cropland totals 12 million square km and additionally 1 – 10 million square km of marginal land is available.

Wollastonite is not the most readily available rock, but there is unlimited basalt. There are massive amounts of olivine, and this is potentially able to capture 0.8 – 0.9 t CO2 per tonne of applied rock, but olivines also tend to have higher levels of nickel and chromium. The authors suggest continental flood basalts, which have lower amounts of nickel and chromium and higher amounts of phosphorus, but now the carbon capture potential is about 0.3 t CO2 per tonne of applied rock. This suggests that applying 10 – 50 t /ha/y of rock to an area of farmland about the size of Texas could sequester 0.2 – 1.1 billion tonne (Gt) of CO2. That is a significant reduction, but of course about 1/3 of that would currently be emitted in the grinding/transportation. Suppose we wanted to put it on all agricultural land? There is a hundred hectares to a square kilometre, so in the worst case we would need to grind and apply 60 Gt of basalt per year.

The problem could be lessened if the 7 – 17 Gt of silicate waste were used. For example, it is estimated that quarrying for construction generates an estimated 3 Gt of “fines” that are too small to be used. There is about 1.4 – 5.9 Gt of construction/demolition waste dumped each year. Cement in particular is particularly suitable. Up to half a Gt of steel slag is produced each year, and this contains weatherable elements plus some fertiliser, such as phosphate. Besides these wastes, in some places there are historically accumulated dumps of material, although these materials are probably already sequestering CO2, so perhaps they should not be counted

A further benefit from this is that the silica will replenish eroded soil and aid replacement of further soil organic carbon, as the world’s cropland soil is eroding far faster than it can be replaced (about 5 t/ha/y). Such weathered material provides silicic acid for plants, which strengthens stems, and it is suggested that this might reduce the effect of pests.

To summarise, here is a method that could in theory take CO2 from the air, but think of the problems. Let us assume the most encouraging figures. Humanity currently burns about 9 Gt of carbon a year. To absorb all of that, we would have to apply 109 Gt of powdered basalt a year, and burn no carbon while we are doing it. That is 109 billion tonne of basalt, which is not a soft rock, and do that while running the risk of some serious adverse environmental issues, and try to avoid having a lot of silicosis amongst the workers. All of this is not going to be easy. Worse, as far as CO2 levels are concerned, that is merely standing still.

There is one other related option. The rock peridotite is a mantle rock, but occasionally there are large surface deposits. It is a relatively soft rock on the surface, and it is one of the faster rocks for sequestering carbon dioxide. For that reason, it tends to be rather rare because when it does get to the surface, it weathers and erodes relatively quickly under the effect of water and carbon dioxide. However, one proposal is to drill into a deposit and fracture hydraulically, and force CO2 in, where it will form dolomite. The problem here tends to be with location. One of the bigger masses of peridotite is in the Oman desert, which is not rich in water, nor in local CO2.

Thinking about this shows some of the problems of modifying a planet. People seem to think changing Mars into somewhere pleasant to live in would be easy. In my novel Red Gold I offered the suggestion that to do that you would need a dead minimum of at least a petatonne (a million billion tonne) of nitrogen to have enough pressure to have a tolerable outside air pressure that would last through the winter. Where do you find that?

Another small commercial break: from May 3 – 10, for those in the US and the UK, A Face on Cydonia will be at 99c or 99p respectively. For everyone else, Amazon requires it to be $2.99 – still a bargain!