Saturday, January 25

Dawn of the third decade of the 21st century

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New research seeks to increase rice productivity by 50 per cent, improve nitrogen efficiency, and cope with increased drought tolerance.

NOW into our fifth day of this new decade, I just wonder how many lessons we have learned from this and the previous decades of this century to put our only world in a better condition from the very times we were born?

As I write, I am listening to the 1960s American protest singer Bob Dylan’s songs. The words of many of his songs are ageless when, today, politicians worldwide ‘talk the talk’ but with little positive action to address the problems our only planet faces. Dylan’s song, “The answer is blowing in the wind” succinctly summarises all our present concerns.

New Year’s resolutions

Personally, I have stopped smoking a pipe, having puffed many pieces of tobacco laden wood for half a century. I learned a lesson the very hard way, ignoring health warnings, until I underwent a five-and-half-hour operation to have a mouth cancer tumour removed! I have gotten rid of my diesel powered car and replaced it with a 1,000cc much smaller petrol driven car. You may well ask as to why I didn’t buy an electric car. The answer is quite simple: for until I am assured that all of my nation’s electricity is produced by sustainable forms of electricity generation, then I may succumb.

A malnourished child is seen in Central Africa. – Unicef photo

I live in an area in the UK where a nuclear powered generating station, employing 16,000 construction workers, is under the process of construction. Eventually it will supply 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs. The nearby town is economically blossoming with hotels and new housing estates under construction but when in operation this power station will only need a few specialist engineers. Will that town then become a ‘ghost town’?

The creation of hydroelectric power stations is not without a cost as valleys are flooded and villagers displaced to new settlement areas. Once tranquil environments are upturned overnight, at a cost not only to humans but also to animals, insects, fish, and plant life as their natural habitats are lost.

Have we not yet mastered an eco-friendly and cheaper method of electricity generation? Perhaps, hand cranked generators, solar power on a vast scale, wind and tidal powered turbines, or a way of utilising heavy rainfall inputs to produce electricity may be greater employed. My hand cranked torch and manually wind up clock suits my immediate needs. We know that gas and oil fired power stations are fitted with air filters but are they effective? In our technological age, we must promote and support our research scientists yet more.

Only 30 years away …

Today, in 2020, our world’s population is estimated at 7.7 billion with an upward trend, predicted by United Nations, to increase to 9.7 billion people in 2050. This ‘magic’ 2050 year, has been set by international scientists, with endeavours by most nations to curb their carbon dioxide emissions in order to put climate change problems into a state of remission. Already one of the major air polluting countries in the world has set a positive example to the rest of the world in what has been achieved in its capital city Beijing.

Beijing is no longer listed amongst the world’s 200 most polluted cities. Just 12 years ago, Beijing was declared ‘unfit for civilisation’. Subsequently, the governmental action plan has closed over 7,000 air polluting factories and pushed diesel driven vehicles ‘out of town’. People have been banned within the city from burning coal at wintertime. Other plans for other cities are in force in China. Even the UK is banning diesel driven vehicles from many of its largest cities.

Feeding 10 billion by 2050

Plant research scientists have concentrated not only on increasing the yields of our staple diets but also bearing in mind our greater demand for food on ever decreasing space on which to produce it, together with climate change factors. A tall order you may well say.

The bulk of Asian diets rely upon rice as the staple food, feeding, at present, three billion people. By 2050, we need to increase rice yields by more than 50 per cent to avert hunger. All is not lost, for researchers at the Oxford University Department of Plant Sciences are leading an international consortium of scientists in the C4 Rice Project.

This consortium is attempting to switch the future rice plants to use Carbon 4 photosynthesis. Such a dramatic change could increase productivity by 50 per cent and also improve nitrogen efficiency and cope with increased drought tolerance. They genuinely believe that it can be achieved.

In the 1970s, as a humble Geography teacher, I once preached to my students about the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 20th century, thus increasing staple food plant yields in Asia and the Western world. We have come a long way from then.

At the aforementioned university, other plant scientists are attempting to increase wheat yields by chemically reducing bacteria that attacks plant-roots of wheat. Such a method would allow higher wheat yields and particularly in poor soils for more nitrogen would be fixed and subsequently reduce the need for chemical fertilisers. The latter would reduce chemical pollution caused by irrigation and its runoff into river courses and eventually to the sea.

I am optimistic for once, whether we like it or not, the genetic modification of plants must be with us, if we are to survive, through the 21st century. Our food plants tolerance to ever increasing drought and salinity in areas of high evaporation rates are ever increasing concerns.

Going vegetarian?

Through Oxford University researchers, it has been found that animal farmers produce huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2). Grazing over vast areas of land in cattle production, yet each animal only produces 100 grams of protein. Plants, such as beans and peas use significantly less land to produce the same quantity of protein for our diets. Dr Joseph Moore of that university’s Departments of Zoology and School of Geography and Environment has been quoted as saying, “A vegetarian diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your personal impact on planet Earth; not just greenhouse gases but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on air flights or buying an electric car.” Well, I still fly to Sarawak and Sabah, have not bought an electric car, and enjoy eating meat with vegetables!

Yet to be resolved

Globally, scientific researchers, in a host of disciplines, are working endlessly on how our natural environment and manmade world can be saved. There are unimaginable species of plants, animals, insects, and fish that need our protection, whilst we still continue to plunder Mother Earth for financial gains. The gains end up in governmental treasuries or in entrepreneurs’ fat bank accounts.

National trade balances and, ideally, surpluses are one side of the coin but on the reverse side there is the tarnished natural world constantly showing signs of erosion, corrosion, and attrition since Homo sapiens first appeared. Are we the literal translation of Homo sapiens – ‘the wise man’?

We may be street wise today but we have gradually and carelessly intruded into the natural world in our Anthropocene geological era. Perhaps, I have been fortunate to live in the real world to witness poverty, starvation, and the destruction of the natural environment through mankind’s greediness, selfishness, and war-like tendencies.

Monetary gains today for so called progress are valueless within decades unlike our natural environment and its non-human inhabitants which, forever, in my mind, remain priceless. In my heart of hearts, I remain an optimist to believe that we can get it right!