Academic journal article Defense Horizons

From Petro to Agro: Seeds of a New Economy

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

From Petro to Agro: Seeds of a New Economy

Article excerpt


Winston Churchill is said to have stopped predicting future events because the future was just "one damned thing after another." Nonetheless, we need to keep an eye on the future and speculate as to what the next damned thing might be. One candidate is the changing raw material base for the economy.

Today, the hydrocarbon molecule is the basic unit of commerce. In a biobased economy, genes will replace petroleum. So, just as we currently demand assured access to sources of hydrocarbon molecules (oil), in the near future we will demand assured access to a broad-based, diverse supply of genes (plants and animals). This shift has security implications. Relations with oil-rich countries will be of less importance, and relations with gene-rich states--mostly the biodiverse regions along the equator --will assume greater significance. Conflicts may arise between gene-rich, technology-poor countries that control the basic raw materials of a biobased economy and gene-poor, technology-rich nations that control the production methods.

American instruments of power will be challenged to meet the demands of a biobased economy. We already see diplomatic challenges with the United Nations Framework Convention on Biological Diversity and controversy with Europe over genetically modified crops. Informational and economic challenges and opportunities will likewise appear. It may be challenging for U.S. land forces, especially the Army, to meet the demands of securing access to large supplies of new genetic material.

Agriculture will become increasingly important as a 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.

The Age of Geology

For much of the last century, and particularly since the end of World War II, petroleum has been the primary raw material for U.S. industrial and consumer needs. As a nation, our petroleum use is twice that of our consumption of either coal or natural gas and four times greater than use of nuclear or renewable energy sources. (1)

The bulk of our petroleum use goes to meet energy demands, with approximately 90 percent of a barrel of crude oil going to gasoline, diesel, and other fuels. Since 1949, however, the industrial consumption of petroleum for nonfuel use has increased nearly sevenfold. (2) The chemical industry, for example, relies on petroleum for more than 90 percent of its raw materials to manufacture its myriad of products, ranging from plastics, refrigerants, and fertilizers to detergents, explosives, and medicines. Virtually everything requires petroleum or petroleum derivatives for its manufacture.

We are beginning to see a shift from petroleum, however. As the 20th century was ending, Michael Bowlin, then-president of the American Petroleum Institute, who was also chairman and chief executive officer of ARCO, told industry executives that the world was entering "the last days of the Age of Oil." (3) Estimates of the remaining life of the reserves vary widely, but many experts agree that worldwide oil production will peak between 2010 and 2020. Even if we agree with those who hold that the petroleum supply may be renewable, environmental pressures and economic incentives will remain that will move us to newer technologies. (4) Far from repeating the apocalyptic warnings of the 1960s and 1970s about the end of oil, Bowlin pointed to new technologies that will replace petroleum.

The Age of Biology

Prominent among the replacements for petroleum will be products developed from biological sources. Using biological materials, that is, plants and animals, as raw materials for industrial and consumer products is not a new idea. Before the rise of cheap oil, agriculture was the dominant source of our raw materials. …

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