Green Revolution Can Provide Food and Fuel

Large-scale use of coal, and later other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas, began in the mid 18th century and has been credited for powering the industrial revolution. Unleashing the power of these fossil fuels has brought prosperity to many, a general increase in the standard of living, and has facilitated the growth of global population more than five-fold since 1800.

But the fossil-fueled industrial age has left us with some recent reminders of the challenges it creates as well; from political instability to the environmental catastrophe in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico last year, to the ongoing climate change debate, through the "Arab Spring" of uprisings this year triggered largely by food shortages and ever increasing prices for food and fuel.

These challenges are not abating, they are escalating. Populations in the emerging economies and developing world will double by 2050. Many will demand the standard of living and quality of life we have enjoyed in the west, including cars, travel, more comfortable homes and ready access to a variety of foods.

The middle classes of both China and India are expected to grow to 500 million by 2025 while meat consumption in so-called emerging markets is expected to increase by 70% between now and 2050. Meeting the exponentially increasing demands of the emerging world, with continuing demands of the developed world for food and fuel will be impossible on a planet that continues to rely nearly exclusively on fossil fuels.

But the human race will be around in a hundred years, even if oil won't -- in a big way at least. We will have long gone back to living off the land by that point, just as we did before the modern industrial revolution changed life seemingly irrevocably.

I'm not talking about a return to the pastoral, agrarian ways of the past but the transition to a highly advanced civilization reliant on biomass, not fossil fuels. This is not science fiction but science fact and the transition has already begun.

Those of us working in the bio-based economy recognize that the technological evolution necessary to meet these challenges is well under way. We will soon have the capacity to grow our own fuels, as well as food, in a manner where the two will compliment each other not compete as they do today. Let me share with you two examples of the progress we are making.

As an industry, we are making rapid strides in enabling the production of second generation biofuel and biomaterials at a price that makes them cost competitive with gasoline and petrochemicals, as well as genuinely sustainable. This second generation technology, which involves the conversion of biomass derived from cellulose-rich agricultural waste or from crops able to be grown on marginal land currently not used for growing crops or pasture, is incredibly important for the following reasons.

First, because we expect the long term price of oil to increase further and second, because current 'first generation' biofuel is made from food crops such as corn and sugar -- in the USA, for example, around one-third of the corn crop is used to make biofuel -- a fact that creates unease among policy makers and the public as potentially leading to increased food prices and food scarcity. The debate today is one of food vs. fuel; but it shouldn't be.

Instead, government, policy makers and society should challenge industry to resolve both our energy and food challenges through the use of industrial biotechnology. This is both possible and necessary if we are to meet the inevitable challenges that the realities of the demographic changes confronting our planet are to be met.

Government and society need to create an environment where industry is incentivized to find innovative solutions, and encourage early adoption of these new technologies. The answers will be found in technology that can fully utilize available biomass. This brings me to my second example.

The biomass -- call it corn or whatever -- that is currently used in biorefining is rich in high-grade vegetable protein. Using current technology, this protein stays with the biomass right through the production process, until it comes out at the other end as a waste stream, battered and degraded and fit only for animal feed. What we are looking at in my organization is finding ways of extracting this protein before it is degraded by the refining process and turning it into proteins suitable for humans.

We will find a way to unlock this value -- it is a matter of when, not if. When we do, and timing is contingent on the support and incentives we receive from all stakeholders, we will have succeeded in discovering a brand new source of high quality protein, as a derivative of the production of renewable biobased materials.

We can produce biofuels, biobased materials and food from the same renewable feedstocks, using less energy and less water. An unavoidable truth is that our planet will have more people, who will have more wealth and require more material, fuel and food.

We can choose to ignore this reality for only so long before we are confronted with the consequences of our continued ignorance: more global instability and economic uncertainty. This is not a future which is particularly appealing to me, nor -- I suspect -- for any of you.

Encouraging innovation and the adoption of new biotechnology solutions offers all of us the most logical path forward to meeting the food and fuel challenges we are confronting. Biomass is the coal, oil and natural gas of our forefathers, but biomass also offers the answer to our growing food needs. Fossil fuels powered the industrial revolution that brought the western world prosperity.

Full utilization of biomass will bring the global population the prosperity they strive for, and allow the western world to maintain its quality of life. We can and must produce both food and fuel from a renewable feedstock.

It may sound revolutionary, but it's actually evolution of the kind that man has been doing for thousands of years: who better, after all, to remind us than Charles Darwin himself that it is the species that adapt survive.