Sunday, January 08, 2023

‘Holy grail’ wheat gene discovery could feed our overheated world

This sounds like useful research but tying it to global warming is nonsense. Wheat already grows in a range of climates, some of them quite warm. Varieties have long been in use, for instance, which tolerate well the very hot summers in parts of India. The maximum March temperature across that country is around 31 degrees Celsius on average. India is in fact the world's second-biggest producer of the grain.

It is the plant that changed humanity. Thanks to the cultivation of wheat, Homo sapiens was able to feed itself in ever-increasing numbers, transforming groups of hunter-gatherers struggling to survive in a hostile world into rulers of the planet.

In the process, a species of wild grass that was once confined to a small part of the Middle East now covers vast stretches of the Earth. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed: “In the great plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant.”

Wheat now provides 20% of the calories consumed by humans every day, but its production is under threat. Thanks to human-induced global heating, our planet faces a future of increasingly severe heat waves, droughts and wildfires that could devastate harvests in future, triggering widespread famine in their wake.

But the crisis could be averted thanks to remarkable research now being undertaken by researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. They are working on a project to make wheat more resistant to heat and drought. Such efforts have proved to be extremely tricky but are set to be the subject of a new set of trials in a few weeks as part of a project in which varieties of wheat – created, in part, by gene-editing technology – will be planted in field trials in Spain.

The ability of these varieties to withstand the heat of Iberia will determine how well crop scientists will be able to protect future arable farms from the worst vicissitudes of climate change, and so bolster food production for the Earth’s billions, says the John Innes Centre team.

Wheat was not the only botanical agent to fuel the agricultural revolution. Other staples, such as rice and potatoes, played a part. But wheat is generally accorded the lead role in triggering the agricultural revolution that created our modern world of “population explosions and pampered elites”, as Harari puts it in his international bestseller Sapiens.

Two main forms of wheat are grown in farms: pasta wheat and bread wheat. Together they play a crucial role in the diets of around 4.5 billion people, said Professor Graham Moore, a wheat geneticist and director of the John Innes Centre, one of the world’s leading crop research institutes. “Of these, around 2.5 billion in 89 countries are dependent on wheat for their daily food, so you can see how vitally important the crop is to the world,” he added.

The problem that has faced crop scientists, who have been seeking to improve the resilience and productivity of wheat varieties, has been the complexity of wheat genetics, Moore added. “Human beings have a single genome that contains our DNA instructions. But pasta wheat has two different ancestral genomes while bread wheat has three.”

This complexity has had important consequences. In order to control their differing genes and chromosomes, wheat has acquired a stabilising gene that segregates the different chromosomes in its various genomes. This has ensured these forms of wheat have high yields. However, the gene also suppresses any exchange of chromosomes with wild relatives of wheat, frustrating the efforts of geneticists trying to make new varieties with beneficial properties.

“Wild relatives have really useful characteristics – disease resistance, salt tolerance, protection against heat – attributes that you want to add to make wheat more robust and easy to grow in harsh conditions. But you couldn’t do that because this gene stopped these attributes from being assimilated.”

This gene was known as the “holy grail” of wheat geneticists, added Moore. “Wheat – despite its critical importance to feeding the world – has proved to be the most difficult of all the major crops to study because of the complexity and size of its genome. Hence, the importance of the search to find the gene that was the cause of this problem.”

It has taken several decades but scientists at the John Innes Centre have now succeeded in their hunt for their holy grail. They identified the key gene, labelled it Zip4.5B and have created a mutant version of it, one that allows the gene to carry out its main function – to allow wheat chromosomes to pair correctly and maintain yields – but which lacks its ability to block the creation of new variants with attributes from wild grasses.

“A key tool in this work was gene editing, which allowed us to make precise changes in wheat DNA. Without it, we would still be struggling with this. It has made all the difference.”

Jones Innes scientists have since discovered that there are at least 50 different versions of Zip4.5B. “We are now going to test these in different varieties of wheat that we have created,” added Moore.

“These will then be grown in Spain, on land near Cordoba, to see how well they do. The aim will be to identify which varieties will do best at surviving the higher temperatures that our farmers are to experience in coming decades.

“Wheat has played a remarkable role in human history. Hopefully, this work will help it to maintain its importance as a foodstuff for the future.”


Is global warming behind America’s snowstorms?

Is there any weather condition which cannot be blamed on anthropogenic global warming (AGW)? No, it seems, judging by the reaction in the US liberal press to the snowstorm which has engulfed much of the US over the past few days. According to Bloomberg it is all down to a loopier-than-normal jet stream, “the kind of event that could become more common as climate change accelerates”. A similar claim was made by Eric Mack, a correspondent on Forbes, who wrote this week that the poles are warming disproportionately and that, “studies [he didn’t say which ones] have shown that all this unusual and rapid warming in the north affects the jet stream in new and sometimes weird ways”. This week’s storm, he asserted, would soon come to be seen not as a once-in-a-generation event but as normal winter weather. The New York Times has made a similar claim, as has Britain’s Guardian – the latter of which subtly reversed its recently-acquired habit of using the term ‘global heating’ and went back to good old ‘climate change’ for the occasion.

Is global warming causing the temperature to plunge to minus 40 Celsius? No-one should dismiss something out of hand merely on the grounds that it seems counter-intuitive – the climate could, theoretically, throw up more intense cold weather spells at the same time as observing a general warming trend. It is just that there is compelling evidence to the contrary. For example, the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, published in 2021, cited a number of analyses showing that “cold spells have undergone a reduction in magnitude and intensity in all regions of North America”. In other words, the reality is not counter-intuitive at all. Generally, rising global temperatures have led to a lessening of cold extremes in North America; it is just that this week’s weather was an extreme, random event which occurred in spite of the general climatic trend.

As for the theory that AGW is causing disturbances in the jet stream – a powerful flow of air several miles up in the atmosphere which divides polar air from tropical air – or in the ‘polar vortex’ (a disturbance higher up, in the stratosphere), that was debunked by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after the last blast of extreme cold weather to strike the central US in February 2021. It is not easy to establish long-term trends in phenomena which have only been studied since the 1950s, the NOAA pointed out, but even in that short time the polar vortex has trended in entirely opposite directions. During the early-to-mid 1990s, the polar vortex was very strong, which made for a non-loopy jet stream. Come the late 1990s, however, and the polar vortex began to weaken again, giving us a more wandering jet stream. Yet that trend has not been sustained, either. If the polar vortex and jet stream really were being strongly influenced by rising global temperatures you would at least expect a trend to continue year after year as the global temperatures continued to increase.

In other words, this week’s weather in the US is just that: weather. But that will never do when you are trying to tell a morality tale about humans fouling their own nest through their own arrogance and stupidity: every adverse weather event must be blamed.

By the way, the last time the US mid-west saw such low temperatures, in 1977, it was interpreted by some as the sign of a coming ice age. I have a popular book of the time, Earthshock, written by a volcanologist from Imperial College and a geologist from Birkbeck College, claiming that a prolonged freeze like that of 1977 could be exactly what provoked a sudden dive into the next ice age. Now it is apparently a sign that we are all about to fry. There is a third possibility: that the US mid-west has a climate which is prone to occasional blasts of polar conditions. But that doesn’t sound nearly so exciting.


Toyota boss says other industry executives secretly doubt the switch to electric power

Akio Toyoda, president and CEO of the Toyota Motor Corporation, has continued his call for more diversity in future automotive fuels as he promotes a potential role for hydrogen and biofuels.

“Frankly, (electric vehicles) are not the only way to achieve the world's carbon neutrality goals,” said Mr Toyoda.

He said he believes consumers and carmakers also have doubts a total changeover, but are reluctant to speak out.

“That silent majority is wondering whether EVs are really OK to have as a single option,” he said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“But they think it's the trend so they can't speak out loudly.”

Mr Toyoda was speaking at the unveiling of a battery-electric HiLux ute in Thailand and has made similar comments recently in the US.

“Personally, I would rather pursue every option, not just one option, such as emission-free synthetic fuels and hydrogen. I still believe hydrogen is as promising a technology for our future as BEV,” said Mr Toyoda.

“Let me correctly explain Toyota’s position. I would like you to think of Toyota as a department store offering every available powertrain.

“People are growing more diverse. There are all kinds of people, from those who already own and use (electric vehicles) to others who live in places with no access to charging facilities.

“Variety is what makes a department store. I think steering customers toward a single product would diminish the store’s value.

“We are serious about pursuing all options, as I hope our products will continue to demonstrate.”


Complete Renewable energy is impossible

Comment from Australia

The replacement of fossil fuels (and nuclear) by wind and solar is said to be a ‘transition’ implying, like that from sail to steam and horse to motor power, that this is being inexorably pushed by consumers adopting a lower cost technology. In fact, the ‘transition’, wherever it is taking place, is due to government subsidies and regulations. Not one significant unit of wind or solar power generation anywhere in the world has been installed without such assistance.

Moreover, a wind/solar-rich electricity system requires expensive features that are naturally present or available at a trivial cost in systems dominated by coal, gas, or nuclear generation. Among these are ‘system strength’ and frequency control, both of which are automatically present in the ‘synchronous’ spinning machines in coal, gas, and nuclear plants but need to be carefully managed and separately arranged for the ‘asynchronous’ wind and solar facilities.

A solar/wind system also requires considerably more transmission – probably at least four times as much as conventional systems – in order to bring electricity from the inescapably less dense solar and wind facilities. Compared to the current value of the national transmission system of $21 billion, the government has stated that $100 billion (an additional ‘$20 billion direct investment unlocking $58 billion of private co-financing’) will be needed to make a renewable rich national transmission system fit for purpose.

But the greatest cost is how to ensure a system based on variable wind and solar energy can operate to the standards required of a contemporary society. The solution is first, to overbuild the variable facilities in the hope that this will offer a geographic spread to iron-out erratic supplies of sunshine and wind, and secondly to arrange for storage through batteries or pumped hydro facilities like the Snowy 2.

For Australia, a ballpark cost estimate is offered by CSIRO’s Chief Energy Economist Paul Graham, who reckons Australia will need to spend $500 billion to convert the current (coal-based) system to renewables. This is half the cost he estimated five years ago.

$500 billion is twice the value of the current system, (offset by coal and gas fuel savings that amount to perhaps 5 per cent of total costs). Even so, the CSIRO appear to have massively understated the cost.

David Wojick examined the estimated costs of batteries for America. Noting that at present Tesla charges $US650,000 per megawatt hour for the batteries themselves and that a ‘fantastically low estimate’ of future costs offered by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory speculates this may fall to $US143,000 per megawatt hour, the battery costs for the US would be $US150 trillion and $US36 trillion respectively. That is for a $US23 trillion economy.

Batteries have only a ten-year life. Thus, without even counting their progressive deterioration, this means in the US the energy ‘transition’ element of electricity storage alone would cost somewhere between 24 and 60 per cent of GDP per year. On top of this we have the poles and wire costs and the costs of the wind/solar generators themselves.

Such extraordinary estimates should come as no surprise in Australia.

Paul McArdle, head of the highly regarded consultancy WattClarity, showed that even if there was an overbuild resulting in up to 20 per cent of the wind having to be wasted at any one time, with a perfectly planned and operated system 9,000,000 megawatt hours of storage would be needed. This is equivalent to 25 Snowy 2 installations or 70,000 of the original Hornsdale batteries at a price tag of $6.3 trillion or close to three times the Australian GDP. With a ten-year battery life, this would require an impossible annual expenditure on the battery element of supply equivalent to 30 per cent of GDP each year!

This estimate has received corroboration.

ARENA is funding eight batteries costing $2.7 billion and totalling 2,000 megawatts (power output capacity) with 4,200 megawatt hours (energy storage depth). That is just two hours of full output to flatten the batteries. 2,000 megawatts is five per cent of total grid demand in 2030, when AEMO’s forecast maximum demand is 44,000 megawatts.

Most experts believe a seven-day storage depth is the bare minimum to back up a reliable renewables grid. One week of 168 hours and multiplied by maximum demand means 7,392,000 megawatt hours in 2030. Given the announcement’s cost of $2.7 billion per 4,200 megawatt hours of storage, this is $643,000 per megawatt hour. Multiplying this ratio by the total storage required gives an eye-watering cost estimate of $4.7 trillion in 2030 or, with a ten-year battery life, 22 per cent of GDP each year.

Subsidies to wind and solar have resulted in them replacing coal to gain a 20 per cent share of electricity generation. This has already resulted in a trebling of wholesale prices. But the costs of accommodating wind and solar increase exponentially and continuing along this path will cripple the economy.




1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“In the great plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant.”

Nonsensical hyperbole by a person who has obviously NEVER visited the Great Plains. There are NO fields anywhere in the Great Plains that are "hundreds of kilometers" large in any direction. And most fields are surrounded by ditches, paths and the like which have plenty of other kinds of plants, not the mention the fact that farmers have to spend enormous efforts to keep other plants out of the fields (often failing). Not to mention the fact that since the dust bowl days farmers have been diversifying their crops and not grown just a single crop year after year on the same ground because that is the path to ever lower yields.

But the rest of the article makes similar unintelligent claims by people who know not what they are pontificating on so it's no surprise that this quote by Yuval Noah Harari would be in there too.