Tree Frog in Shadow
Tiny tree frog is symbol of the vast library of life hidden in the rainforests of the world where most of the planet's genetic diversity is located.

Rainforests, National Security and Tomorrow’s Economy

A short essay on the future of a bioenergy-based world.

By Bill Moore

If Hugo Chavez plays his cards right, Venezuela's future is secure. It has huge reserves of crude oil and even larger reserves of extra heavy crude and bitumen deposits. It also holds the second largest reservoir of natural gas in the Western Hemisphere behind the United States(1).

But more importantly to his nation's future, half of the country's 890,000 square miles are covered in tropical rainforest. Typically, just two and half acres (one hectare) of old growth, "frontier" forest will contain 750 different species of trees and 1,500 different types of higher plants.

In fact, at least 80% of the food consumed in the world originated in the world's lush equatorial belt. Name it and it probably came out of the world's rainforests: avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and tomatoes. Vegetables such as corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams came from the rainforests of Africa, Asia and South America. Fabulous fortunes have been made throughout history importing rainforest spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, coffee and vanilla.

Rainforests are also the world's medicine chest from which are derived a host of life-saving drugs, as well as life-destroying narcotics. 25% of the West's pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients. Of the 3000 plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as being chemically active against cancer cells, 70% are found in the rainforest. Yet, only 1% of the cataloged plants found in rainforests have been tested by scientists.

But the real treasures of the rainforest may not be their oil, timber, fruits or spices, but their incalculable and totally irreplaceable library of genetic material; genes for developing new drugs, industrial chemicals and bio-energy resources.

Writing in Defense Horizons, a publication of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, Robert E. Armstrong reasons that, "In a biobased world, our relations with Ecuador (to use a representative country that takes its very name from the equator) will be more important than those with Saudi Arabia".

Armstrong's October 2002 essay foresees a world transitioning beyond its dependence on petroleum to one where "agriculture will become increasingly important as part of the Nation's industrial base, as it offers the most economical way to produce large quantities of biological materials. Homeland defense will have to consider heartland defense, as agricultural fields will assume the same significance as oil fields".

That strategic shift is likely to impose an entirely new set of scientific, political and military dynamics on not only the United States and Western World, but also the developing world, often the unwitting custodians of this genetic treasure trove.

Viewed in this context, the destruction of the world's rainforests can no longer simply be framed as an emotionally-driven, liberal, "tree-hugger" issue. It is now one with serious national security and economic growth implications.

"If genes were the basic unit of commerce," writes Armstrong, "would we tolerate another state's environmental policies that allowed for the continued destruction of the rainforest"?

The question has immediate relevance in light of recent revelations that illegal selective logging in Brazil's Amazon rainforest is destroying 6,000 square miles annually. As reported by the UK's Guardian newspaper, "This is besides a similar amount clear-cut annually for cattle grazing or farming". This means we're actually losing priceless rainforest at twice the rate originally assumed.

Brazil isn't alone. Venezuela has lost, to date, 41% of its original rainforest, and another 37% are currently threatened. The world is losing an estimated 31 million hectares rainforest a year. This is an act of violence analogous to the burning of the great library in ancient Alexandria, only worse.

There is a genetic phenomenon known in biology as the latitudinal diversity gradient. The closer you are to the equator, the greater the biodiversity. If you take comparable plots of land at different latitudes and track bird species, for example, you'll find dramatic diversity: the Greenland plot will contain 56 species, one in New York state will harbor 195 species, while 1,525 species will inhabit an similarly-sized plot in Columbia. A single 25 acre tract of forest in Borneo contains more tree species than all those found in the entirety of North America. A single tree in Peru's Amazon forest hosts 40 different species of ants, approximately the same number as is found in all of the United Kingdom.

This irreplaceable bio-diversity will have significant economic implications to the future because it will be the gene and not the hydrocarbon molecule that will be the basic unit of commerce, reasons Armstong in "Petro to Agro: Seeds of a New Economy."

"As with any resource vital to our economy, the location of large supplies of genes will become important to our national security concerns," he writes.

A good example is the 2005 Energy Policy Act that authorized a doubling of ethanol production in America to nearly 12 billion gallons. Virtually all of our current ethanol production comes from an energy-intensive process that ferments corn into alcohol. The resulting British Thermal Units (BTUs) in the ethanol is only slightly higher than the energy it took to make it.

Ultimately, a far more efficient method is to use enzymes to turn crop residue into cellulosic-based ethanol. Instead of fermenting the starches inside a kernel of corn, the starches found in the stalks and leaves are used. Where one ton of corn will produce 100 gallons of ethanol, one ton of corn stover (stalks and leaves) will produce 214 gallons. American farmers currently leave some 280 million tons of crop residue in the fields.

The key breakthrough came from research conducted during the Second World War to find out why military equipment so rapidly rotted in the Pacific theater. The culprit turned out to be a tropical rainforest fungus identified as Trichoderma viride. It produced an enzyme that broke down the cellular walls of the fabric in cotton uniforms and canvas tents. Back then, the Army developed chemicals to inhibit the organism. Today researchers want to encourage the process called cellulose hydrolysis since it can dramatically cut the cost of ethanol production by increasing efficiency.

But more efficient biofuel production is only part of the picture. Ninety percent of the feedstocks used in the chemical industry to make everything from plastics to detergents to fertilizer come from petroleum, some 60% of which is now imported at a cost of $200 billion annually.

Domestically, the United States has sufficient land resources to not only feed the nation, but also to produce sufficient bio-feedstocks to meet all of our industrial chemical needs. On a per capital basis, the U.S. has more arable land than any other country in the world. The nation has also set aside 35 million acres of land in its conservation reserve program (CRP), most of it covered in grasses that, by law, can‘t be utilized for commercial purposes.

To give a sense of the potential of this bio-revolution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne has been experimenting with a perennial grass that originated in the equatorial tropics of Southeast Asia called miscanthus x. gigantus. It grows twelve feet high and has seventy percent of the energy content of coal by weight. University researchers estimate that if just 20% of the state's 11 million acres under cultivation were planted in miscanthus, the state could completely eliminate the need for coal and nuclear power by burning the grass in its electric power plants, as is now done in parts of Europe. An acre would yield 15 tons of biomass that also could be converted though cellulose hydrolysis into $4,500 worth of ethanol.

A 1999 report from the National Research Council suggested that a bio-based economy could provide 25% of the 1994 levels of organic carbon-based industrial feedstock chemicals and 10 percent of its liquid fuels by 2020 through regionally located biorefineries, which could provide significant economic stimulus to depressed rural communities.

Coupling the agricultural resources of America with careful genetic science may be the pathway towards a world less dependent on petroleum. But the key will be nurturing a deep, abiding respect for nature and warm, collaborative relationships with the custodians of the planet's vast genetic library, including Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

(1) 77 billion barrels of conventional oil, 270 billion barrels of unconventional petroleum, 151 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (proven reserves) Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Times Article Viewed: 11237
Published: 24-Oct-2005


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