Will The 21st Century Run On Green Or Black Gold?

By Edward J. Sylvester and Lynn C. Klotz
February 1, 2000
USA Today

The last century ran on oil. It fueled the cars that created the suburbs, where most Americans live. It powered the world's commerce and its wartime savagery. Abundant oil created the first billionaires; the lack of it dragged down entire economies.

And that's just oil in its simplest incarnations. Oil also created the fertilizers that keep us fed and the plastics used to build our computers, cars, aircraft, spacecraft and communications and medical devices. Oil's offspring, as Daniel Yergin writes in The Prize, are ''the bricks and mortar of contemporary civilization, a civilization that would collapse if the world's oil wells suddenly went dry.''

But the emperor soon may be deposed. Field crops now have the potential to replace oil gradually as our source of everything from fuel to plastics. Black gold may be replaced by green -- unless, that is, this revolution is thwarted by the ''green'' opposition to agricultural genetic engineering that is spreading from food crops to all crops. That, ironically, would force the world to stick with oil, the product environmentalists most hate.

If the revolution succeeds, this switch from black to green gold is the biotechnology most likely to have the biggest day-to-day effect on our lives this century -- far more, in fact, than gene therapy and human cloning, the advances most in the spotlight today.

This revolution already is under way, its progress hidden by our fixation on the availability and price of oil. Agricultural wastes and fast-growing, little-known native crops such as switch grass are being developed to produce ethanol, a viable gasoline replacement and for years a major raw material of the chemical industry.

Remember ethanol? After brief fame during the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, it vanished from public interest as the price of oil fell, making it uncompetitive. Since then, oil's price has fluctuated dramatically -- it has more than doubled in the past year, and can only climb higher in the long run -- but the cost of ethanol has dropped steadily as experimenters get far greater yields from improved processes. In 1980, ethanol was $4 a gallon; today, it's $1.25. The goal over the next few years is to reduce that to 76 cents; many believe it can be cut to 50 cents a gallon within a decade. Even at 76 cents, researchers say, ethanol would be cost competitive with gasoline -- without ravaging coastlines with oil spills.

But here is the fork in the road: If crops economically could be turned to alcohol by conventional growing methods, we'd all be commuting on ethanol today. Once ethanol is marginally profitable as a fuel, the race will be on to engineer the genes of switch grass and other green feedstocks to get the best yields from the least and least-valuable acreage.

Every revolution means tough choices. Could genetically engineered switch-grass seed damage other plants or wildlife? The odds of damage never become zero. Using green feedstocks whose seeds cannot reproduce would reduce the odds of damage, but requires the use of ''terminator'' genes created through genetic engineering. What if this revolution were halted? Demand for oil and coal would continue to grow, meaning further environmental damage from their recovery and use.

Other crop plants are being used to produce the chemical bases for lower-cost plastics and oils for fuel and lubricants. Last month, Dow Chemical Co. and Cargill Inc. said they will begin the first commercial production of plastics made entirely from corn rather than petroleum. Ford already uses plastics strengthened with fibers from the plant kenaf to make a stronger product with less petroleum. Federally sponsored efforts have produced construction materials -- replacements for wood, stone and plastic -- from straw and fiber crops such as kenaf, which grows an incredible 12 feet in one year.

''Industrial farmers'' should be able to grow enough fuels and chemicals to nearly eliminate our dependence on foreign oil within 25 years. Experts predict the United States ultimately could produce 75 billion gallons of ethyl alcohol a year from 50 million acres of underused farmland -- more ethanol than the 70 billion gallons of gasoline we now derive from imported oil.

Cleaner fuel cleanly produced. Strong building materials from rapidly renewable sources. Plastics from less oil. A cornucopia?

Maybe. Right now, however, businesses and governments in the industrialized world are facing tough choices and mounting protests. Ironically, the protesters, like it or not, will face the same tough choices.

Anti-biotechnology groups, swelling in size but still mostly in Europe, are saying no to biotechnology developments: No genetically engineered pest resistance, which could eliminate oil-based chemical pesticides and their residues. No genetically engineered herbicide resistance, which allows greater yields of food crops at lower cost and the use of more environmentally friendly herbicides.

Strangely, the protesters include groups that traditionally are the most vocal opponents of ''King Oil'' and industrial methods that lay waste to the environment. They don't want oil, but they don't want biotech, either.

The only way to achieve such a pre-industrial status quo is to force the world to live on radically less energy and forgo the economic growth that comes with energy development. That won't happen.

Hard bargains lie ahead. No group or government will give carte blanche to any industry to press ahead for its own profit without requirements to ensure safety and to avoid or reduce economic dislocation. Nor should it.

But one choice can be stated simply: Green gold or black. Assuming that the world's population will expand and will try to thrive economically, we either must support agricultural biotechnology's quest to find alternative energy sources and reduce crops' energy needs, or we must support increased oil exploration and production, indefinitely.

We cannot have it both ways.

New agriculture's promises must be developed carefully. By all means, regulate and field test when called for -- but regulate the product, not the process. Genetically engineered crops inherently present less risk than those traditionally bred.

If our traditional industrial methods have taught us anything, it is that care and caution must accompany every revolution. That should have been the rule for the last industrial revolution. We need to make it so this time.

Edward J. Sylvester, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, and Lynn C. Klotz, a Cambridge, Mass., consultant on biotechnology strategy, co-authored The Gene Age: Genetic Engineering and the Next Industrial Revolution.


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