John Tjostem – GMOs & Atomic Fission Enable a Sustainable Future

During a discussion on Atomic Insights, I encountered a man whose recipes for a sustainable future need greater distribution. John Tjostem is an advocate of technologies that enable disruptive abundance and a more rewarding life for a growing portion of the world’s population.

After growing up on South Dakota farm in the 1930s and 1940s, where he began operating equipment and doing a man’s job almost as soon as he could reach the pedals and levers, Tjostem went to college at North Dakota State. He earned a Master of Science in microbiology and a PhD in botany with a focus on plant physiology. He taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa from 1962-2000 and has now “retired” to his family farm.

In the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, he published a two part article in Agora titled A Recipe for a Sustainable Future, Part I and A Recipe for a Sustainable Future, Part II. Part I focuses on modern agriculture including the use of computerized spreaders that use precise GPS positioning systems and the use of biotechnology including genetically modified organisms (GMO). Part II describes nuclear energy as a clean, abundant energy source that can replace fossil fuels.

These thoughtful articles describe ways to use human ingenuity and sound science to provide abundant living for a growing portion of the world’s population, even in the face of a rapidly depleting supply of readily available hydrocarbons.

In part I, Tjostem takes aim at the “back to the land” agricultural system prescription offered people like Amory Lovins, Paul R. Erlich, Dennis L. Meadows, George Mobus, Jeremy Rifkin and Walter Youngquist.

Tjostem’s agricultural hero is Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution icon and a man whose statue in the US Capitol building was just unveiled yesterday on what would have been his 100th birthday. The technology that Borlaung introduced is what enabled the world to avoid the mass starvation event that Erlich predicted.

The soft energy and neo-Malthusian proponents, such as Lovins, Rifkin, Meadows, George Mobus, and Greenpeace spokesperson, Jim Riccio, advocate lowering our energy input before fossil fuels run out. They favor moving the world population back onto the land with reliance on local food production. They reject modern agriculture which employs chemical weed control, commercial fertilizer, and genetically modified crops. Apparently, they do not share my trust in human ingenuity and science. Unfortunately, some environmental organizations and even universities buy into the soft energy anti-technology message and actively promote a gospel which limits energy options to renewable resources and energy conservation.

A bountiful food supply for the world that our grandchildren will inherit will require all the wonders that modern agriculture can produce. I see a return to low tech agriculture as a recipe for mass starvation. Also, I believe that bringing hordes of urbanites into rural areas would create an environmental disaster for our land resource. The worst conservation practices in the world are to be found wherever societies exist on low energy inputs. The “back to the land plan” such as Youngquist sketches would not promote zero population growth because agrarian societies benefit from child labor—a demand for larger families.

Modern American agriculture is the most sustainable and the most environmentally friendly form of agriculture on the planet. My assertion, which draws plenty of flak from the sustainable agriculture and organic farming folks, is backed up here with facts and examples.

In part II, Tjostem shares his first hand experience of spending his first 13 and a half years on a farm where there was no electricity. He provides specific examples on the life-changing nature of the arrival of that amazing 19th century invention in the form of a power line enabled by the Depression Era Rural Electrification Act.

The biggest technological change in my lifetime was the implementation of the Rural Electrification Act (REA). I can still recall the night in November 1948 when the dark landscape was lighted for the first time by dozens of yard lights. Nearly every yard light was turned on that clear autumn night.

Within a couple of years the flush toilet replaced the outhouse and I had my first bath in a real bathtub. It had been my winter chore to keep the copper boiler on the top of the cook stove filled with snow.

Electricity took a lot of drudgery out of my mother’s life. Hot water on tap from the electric water heater was a wonderful change. Washday included ironing. Mother always dreaded lighting the white gas iron and the electric iron was among her favorite improvements to come with electricity.

A lot of salt went out of our diets when the refrigerator came to our house. Heavily salted cod in a white sauce that did not require refrigeration came in the small wooden boxes with mitered corners.The salted creamed cod served over toast also became a rare item on our menu after electrification came to our home. We are still using that 1948 G. E. refrigerator in the basement of our cabin where it expands our refrigerator space when the whole family is at the lake.

Though the soft energy advocates understand the value of electricity, they erroneously believe it is possible to convert a larger portion of the world’s transportation to electricity and to still achieve essentially no growth in electricity production over the next forty years. They also ignore the importance of matching demand and production on a minute by minute basis. Tjostem has a different point of view.

We need to accept the present use of coal for world-wide industrial development, but at the same time we should for the sake of our environment and our collective health, increase our national investment in research and development to replace coal with advanced generation nuclear power.The people who want to maintain the deception that there is something bad about developing clean, safe, incredibly abundant, and emission free nuclear power to share with as many of the world’s people as possible, need to be challenged. If clean, cheap energy is available developing nations can manufacture goods for bettering their standard of living and also their environment. Developing countries gain wealth by selling goods to the rest of the world. The only clean energy source that is abundant and cheap is nuclear fission. It is not a sin to embrace nuclear fission power or to have a growing economy.

Tjostem goes on to describe numerous nuclear energy advances that are in various stages of development and deployment and offer the potential of fully replacing fossil fuels with a technology that has greater, not reduced capacity.

I highly recommend both articles as a thought-provoking antidote to the pessimistic prescriptions that have been advocated by the soft energy and neo-Malthusians for the past forty years.

It is easy to side with a man who has lived, learned and worked and who can base his thoughts and prescriptions on experience combined with intensive study over people like Lovins, Erlich, and Rifkin, who apparently lived most of their lives in academic/NGO/think tank bubbles.

About Rod Adams

32 Responses to “John Tjostem – GMOs & Atomic Fission Enable a Sustainable Future”

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  1. Eric_G says:

    After a few years of living in Aspen, Colorado I have come to realize most of the environmental movement is about spending money. People who are rich enough to fly private aircraft are also rich enough to put solar panels on their (very large) roofs. People who are rich enough to attend “big think” conferences in Davos and Aspen are also rich enough to pay much more than the average for food (even the McDonalds in downtown Aspen charges a 20% premium). Cost is not a concern for them, and so it shouldn’t be a factor for anyone. If cost is brought up the typical answer is “government subsidy for the poor.” In another age I believe the answer was “let them eat cake.” The story doesn’t ever seem to change. The people at the top of the not-quite-but-very-close-to-facist system (or pre-revolutionary France) have no concept of what rising energy prices do to the rest of us.

    • Daniel says:

      Hence the définition of a Green Aristocrat.

      The Lovins And Robert Kennedy JR.

      They have One thing in common. They can’t do the math And do not care.

    • Jim Baerg says:

      Possibly true for some (even many) of them. However, I’ve recently been reading a book & a website by two people who have bought the anti-nuclear talking points, but are smart enough to have recognized that ‘renewables’ aren’t going to provide anywhere near as much power as we are used to. Part of their writing is pointing out the problems with wind, solar etc. & part is on how to have a non-miserable life on much less energy.

      The book is ‘Green Illusions’ by Ozzie Zehner.

      The website is http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/ most posts by Kris De Decker

      Given their misconceptions about nuclear they are to some extent going off on a pointless tangent. However, although nuclear can give us all the electricity & process heat we want, we may not get any super batteries or a cheap way to make liquid fuels without a fossil fuel feed stock that would allow us to run airplanes, cars etc. indirectly on nuclear. So articles on non-fossil fuel methods of transportation are highly relevant, since they can run even better on nuclear electricity than they could of the energy trickle they think will be available. This one particularly so: http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2011/01/aerial-ropeways-automatic-cargo-transport.html

  2. JMAC says:

    Poor old Malthus seems to be the modern butt of all ‘progressives’ of the modern world. I believe the backlash against the concept is because like Darwinism (which is inextricably linked to it), it is amoral, harsh, impersonal, but also–with possible instance exceptions of developed countries human populations–incontrovertible true of all biological species. Those wishing to brush it aside as some fringe & obsolete mode of thought have not bothered to consider how very much alive & detrimental these processes are with us today.

    While Malthus had the foresight to identify the wholesale reductions of populations through wars, famines, & epidemics, I believe there is another perhaps even more insidious aspect that does not attract the headlines, or draw the attention of starry-eyed & hair-brained musicians to feel-good-high-fests, this is micro-malthusian; an example is a parent in some god-forsaken backwater, that either through ignorance, ‘cultural’ backwardness or lack of access to prophylactics produces more offspring than can be can be sustained. What of these lives? Let’s not deceive ourselves that there not are huge swathes of planet where millions, probably tens of millions, of lives are prematurely snuffed out & do not make to make it onto any mortality statistic. Look at all the epidemiological evidence that correlates calorific & nutrition deficiency with disease & premature death. I would say the evidence demonstrates that far from dead, the relentless processes are thriving (in absolute terms) as never before.

    The main problem I have with the cheerleaders of Malthus’s demise who advocate an above replacement-rate population growth, is that hominid geometric expansion seems to necessarily displace all other non-cultivated forms of life–look at the deforestation/extinction rate in places such as the Amazon, Congo Basin, Madagascar, Java, in a couple decades these recent reservoirs of life diversity will be ecological wastelands (most habitats are already irretrievably lost). As reasoning/cognisant being do we not owe a moral duty to the rest of life to preserve it from our predations & avariciousness greed?

    Yes, yields per acre crop offer potential, increased recycling reduces dependency on mining, widespread adoption of nuclear power may produce abundant clean electricity & synthetic hydrocarbons for our transport needs, but we will (are) eventually run into the constraints of the laws of physics, or finite resources (without resorting to speculative flights of fancy such as mining asteroids). In the context the global history, the issue with the maximum expansionist theory, is that we are much less tolerant to modern technological disruption. Think of the myriad scenarios ranging from an small asteroid strike to a mass corona ejection destroying grid’s transformers, or the reawakening of the Siberian mega-volcano, or a small-scale nuclear exchange. Suppose there is 1:40/yr chance of a minor catastrophe wiping out 20% of global food production in year 1, 15% year 2, etc., what are the ramifications, how many die? In the ‘Malthus is dead carry on breeding’ model it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to realise the inelasticity of primary commodities will mean many millions die. Why must we push our surplus survival capacity to the limits?

    The only means of ensuring a prosperous & successful future for humanity is to evolve to a higher level of conciousness than bacteria, in that we must not think we can breed beyond the resources of our petri dish.

    • BobinPgh says:

      JMAC, don’t you know that Rod loves people and thinks we can nuclear power our way to 20 billion people? Why would anyone want to do that? I say what you are saying and he calls me a misanthrope, I guess I’m a really bad boy!

      • ZachF says:

        Neo-Maltusians don’t do even rudimentary research it seems on demographic trends. World population will peak out below 10b and begin to decline. As nations develop birthrates decrease. The world will never get to 20 billion. Many advanced (and even middle-income) nations are going to have problems with depopulation and a shrinking workforce supporting a large elderly population. Total fertility rates in Southern & Eastern Europe, the CIS, and Southeast Asia are all in the 1.2-1.4 range, meaning each generation is going to be 30-40% smaller than the last. Middle income countries like Iran, Brazil, China, Thailand, and others have already dropped below the replacement rate.

        The real impetus behind Neo-Malthusians is an excuse to use the power of government force to fix their perceived socioeconomic problems (with them in charge, of course).

    • Rod Adams says:

      @JMAC

      You miss the point, though you can close in your first paragraph. Humans are not mindless creatures. They are all born with the potential to achieve “developed” status where they can individually make decisions that are good for them and their families. They do not have to be “god forsaken” or to reproduce beyond the carrying capacity. They do not have to depend on wars and famines to slow population growth; development and education are good substitutes for those harsher means of maintaining a comfortable population level.

      • JMAC says:

        I’m less sanguine about our long-term prospects. The mathematics simply do not support western levels of affluence across a global population of 10+ billion. The average US ecological footprint is 8gha/person, while even countries like France are operating far beyond it’s means.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_ecological_footprint

        The UN population forecast has been revised upwards (again).
        http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Documentation/pdf/WPP2012_Press_Release.pdf
        “Compared to the UN’s previous assessment of world population trends, the new
        projected total population is higher, particularly after 2075. Part of the reason is that
        current fertility levels have been adjusted upward in a number of countries as new
        information has become available. In 15 high-fertility countries of sub-Saharan
        Africa, the estimated average number of children per woman has been adjusted
        upwards by more than 5 per cent.”

        http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/03/africa-likely-to-have-500-million-more.html
        “Since then [2010], 17 African countries with half the continent’s population have reported fertility rates higher than the UN had estimated. Only ten, with 14% of the population, came in lower.”

        A good analysis can be found here:
        http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/03/un-and-other-population-forecasts-for.html

        • Rod Adams says:

          @JMAC what is a gha/person?

          The birthrates in sub-Saharan Africa are partially a result of lack of development, little access to modern technology, and little in the way of reliable electricity. We have plenty of food production and energy production capability to develop the lesser developed nations; they will logically choose to have fewer and fewer children as that happens.

          There is no need for draconian programs or force. Education and development are far better options.

          • Joffan says:

            http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/glossary/#globalhectare

            global hectare (gha) : A productivity-weighted area used to report both the biocapacity of the earth, and the demand on biocapacity (the Ecological Footprint). The global hectare is normalized to the area-weighted average productivity of biologically productive land and water in a given year. Because different land types have different productivity, a global hectare of, for example, cropland, would occupy a smaller physical area than the much less biologically productive pasture land, as more pasture would be needed to provide the same biocapacity as one hectare of cropland. Because world bioproductivity varies slightly from year to year, the value of a gha may change slightly from year to year.

            ———————–

            The Global Footprint Network pulled itself free of earlier anti-nuclear bias which – until 2008 – allocated an unfounded footprint cost to nuclear electricity.

      • John ONeill says:

        I read an account of an early French Jesuit missionary who made his way into the interior of Africa, eventually being accepted into the court of the local ruler. One day he was woken up by groups of terrified women and children – apparently the king had died, and a clan called ‘the crocodile men’ would respond, as tradition demanded, by killing all his associates. They were pleading with the missionary to become king, to save their lives. Perhaps people had been living in the area long enough to develop some brutal ways of staying inside the land’s carrying capacity. I was reminded of this story when I heard that Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe ( where the missionary story had taken place ) considered that his country was overpopulated, and would be better off with half its current numbers. Note that Mugabe drove out the most productive farmers, because they were white, and his government has banned the import of GM food even for emergency food aid.

  3. Pete51 says:

    He taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa from 1962-2000 and has now “retired” to his family farm.

    Decorah is only a stone’s throw from Cresco, IA, where Norman Borlaug was from. The following 10-minute YouTube link is from Penn & Teller’s B.S. program. Warning: Strong language! Not Safe For Work! Borlaug’s contribution to society is described, as well as some of the Greenpeace arguments against GMOs. The Greenpeace activists against GMOs sound an awful lot like the Greenpeace activists against nuclear power. They are long on FUD, short on facts. (10 minutes long)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIvNopv9Pa8

  4. matt says:

    JMAC

    I’m no expert on Malthus, but a quick Wiki check kicked out the following three principles of his:

    1) That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

    2) That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

    3) That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice

    I have no argument with (1), but I would say demographic trends are not at all in line with (2) and (3). In the developed world, where food is so cheap and available that we are fighting an obesity epidemic, birthrates are below replacement level and populations are falling. If the developing world becomes rich and industrialised, the global population is very likely to peak and then start to fall.

    The catch of course is that making the developing world rich involves increasing its per-capita energy and resources consumption to developed-world levels. It will be a tough task to achieve that without cutting the last tree down or ripping the last bluefin tuna out of the Pacific. It will take all our ingenuity as a species, which I am convinced requires nuclear power and GM technology.

    The alternative is for the developed world to decarbonise via renewables (which is few game-changers short of technologically possible right now, especially in regards to storage) and the developing world to remain poor and grow in population until a Malthusian catastrophe kicks in. Or perhaps the developing world can remain poor and have its population limited by decree. Personally I’d rather try to beat Malthus and create a wealthy high energy world with a peak population of 11-12 billion and falling, but we’re not going to do that with renewables. I’m not even sure we could do it with fossil fuels, even if the climate wasn’t an issue.

    • John Tjostem says:

      Matt,
      I fully agree with your statement, “Personally I’d rather try to beat Malthus and create a wealthy high energy world with a peak population of 11-12 billion and falling, but we’re not going to do that with renewables.” There is even a ray of hope in demographic data as the actual growth in the numbers of people fell from 88 million in 1989 to 74.6 million in 2009 and it is projected to fall steadily into the future. Countries with GDPs above $7500 have birthrates below replacement. This fact supports the notion that promoting growth of economies in countries with GDPs below $7500 per capita may turn our world’s population growth rate negative. Bringing low cost non-emitting power to developing nations may be the solution to world overpopulation.

  5. SteveK9 says:

    Borlaug — not many people can be credited with saving the lives of a billion of his fellows.

    Nuclear Power + Advanced Batteries (EV’s) + Heat Pumps + GMO’s

    That should cover the basics. The only thing missing is a rational species to implement it.

    • BobinPgh says:

      The only part people have to be rational about is to not be child greedy and go to a Planned Parenthood center – Problem solved!

    • John says:

      Egypt is mostly empty space. The only reason it has problems is because it is poor, not because it’s over-crowded. If the Egyptians were rich, they could build the nice, ribbon development houses along their coastline that I notice when I visit my brother in Perth, avoiding, one hopes, the mines left over from WW2. The desalination plants that provide Perth with a large part of its water would also work in Egypt. If part of the population was moved away from the farmlands, greater food production would be possible, and of course with more water, more food could also be grown using, if necessary, high yielding GMO’s. A malthusian catastrophe is always possible, but with a little effort it might be avoided. If we don’t try, the probability of failure is 100%.

      • Podargus says:

        Egypt is mostly empty space because most of Egypt is desert.Egypt has an extreme overpopulation problem.

    • John Chatelle says:

      Egypt? If we didn’t stagger from Nuclear Development, an apt Egyptian political slogan could have been:

      A river for every Wadi; A garden on every shoreline.”

      As it is, we’re rapidly depleting the worlds most important aquifers, and really need to build clean energy systems that can desalinate vast quantities of seawater.

  6. David Walters says:

    While so many neo- and classical Malthusians come from Britain, the irony that Britain per Malhtusian math is one of the most overpopulated countries in the world, importing most of what it needs, especially food. If we are going to reduce population, lets start with England.

    • BobinPgh says:

      That’s right David, there is a campaign in England to stop at 2, but really, they need to stop at once! Unfortunately, TLC a while back did a show about a Duggar-like family over there so I’m afraid people over there will want to have a lot of kids there too.

  7. Daniel says:

    I cannot help to make a comment here. When it was feared that Russia could invade the eastern part of Ukraine a week ago or so, an interview was done with an Ukrainian farmer.

    This happened on CNN.

    He was pointing out that 20KM away across the border he had friends. Now there were Russia artillery and tanks.

    I just realized that in the background his wife and children were throwing seeds from a bag tied around their necks. They has no vehicles, or so it seems, to do the job. The man looked poor, simple and honest.

    This can be witnessed in 2014 in Ukraine today.

    • Joffan says:

      I’d just like to note that there is no particular virtue attached to being poor. I don’t think you were trying to claim that, but it is a widely-held and counterproductive view (perhaps because people think that being rich is somehow sinful?).

      I’m neutral on the “simple” descriptor – neither a virtue nor a problem, as long as it is a choice and not a reflection of the aforementioned poverty. :-)

  8. Eino says:

    Hmmm – Thomas Malthus and Norman Borlaug

    Borlaug saved a million men, women and children.

    Malthus:

    “Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. There he took prizes in English declamation, Latin and Greek, and graduated with honours, Ninth Wrangler in mathematics. His tutor was William Frend.[14][15] He took the MA degree in 1791, and was elected a Fellow of Jesus College two years later.[3] In 1789, he took orders in the Church of England, and became a curate at Oakwood Chapel (also Okewood) in the parish of Wotton, Surrey.[16]”

    from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus

    You know, I’ll just betcha that Malthus would have had a lot of respect for Norman Borlaug.

    Let’s support people like Borlaug.

  9. John Tjostem says:

    Eino,

    I like putting Malthus and Borlaug in the same sentence. Norman Borlaug is credited with saving a billion from starvation. He lived among the hungry and he dedicated his life to improving their nutrition. Borlaug supported modern agriculture. Near the end of his life he made this statement:“If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”

    One reason for the continuing increase in population is that better nutrition leads to greater longevity; however the maximum lifespan is genetically fixed. In the long run a birthrate of 2.1 per woman will stabilize the human population size. Abundant energy is the key to fixing the problems created by temporary over population and abundant energy from advanced generation reactors will be major part of the solution to over population.

    Thomas Malthus would have cheered for Norman Borlaug.

    • George Carty says:

      Are you suggesting we need a new term (ie not “Malthusian”) with which to brand misanthropic eco-activists?

  10. John Tjostem says:

    I would suggest that we refer to dimwitted eco-activists who reject science and choose an emotional appeal for a back to the land movement and limited soft energy as “Chicken Littles”. “The ski is falling” cry is an attempt to create rejection of biotechnology and emission-free nuclear power through mass hysteria.