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Monday, Aug. 18, 2008

Natural enemy of warming

Severe drought reduced wheat production in Australia by as much as 60 percent in 2006. Other forms of climate change led to lower harvests of other farm products throughout the world. In a market economy, a decline in crop output results in excessive demand and spiraling prices, which in turn causes more hunger among people in poor countries.

This situation has given rise to efforts to modify the genes of crop plants with a view to increasing yields and making plants more resistant to drought. Agribusiness in the United States has long been active in gene modification, gaining a dominant position in this field. European countries, on the other hand, have resisted the import of gene-modified products.

The principle of caution has become a basis for opposing gene modification. Opponents of gene-modified plants argue, for example, that pollen from such plants may infect other plants, alter their gene structure and trigger changes in the ecosystem. They also fear humans and animals may suffer health hazards as a result of eating gene-modified products.

There are no cases so far in which these fears appear to have materialized. Only the worries of the risks remain. American agribusiness argues, therefore, that refusing to import gene-modified products without any scientific proof of the alleged risks violates the rules of the World Trade Organization.

European nations counter that there is no need to eat gene-modified farm products because sufficient food supplies exist globally. Moreover, they say they cannot tolerate American insensitivity to the potentially huge profits to be had by exporting farm products from gene-modified plants, whose planting costs are low, throughout the world.

In recent years, however, the basic premise of the European argument — that there are sufficient food supplies globally — has begun to lose ground due to climate change. This is ironic in view of American and Japanese conservative opposition to early action against climate change on the grounds that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the increase in ambient greenhouse gases is causing global warming.

On the other hand, proponents of early action, urged by the Kyoto Protocol, stick to the principle of caution, saying there is a big risk of CO2 emissions bringing about climate change and that reduction of CO2 emissions will not have an adverse impact on their nations' economies.

The economically advanced countries obliged to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol (excluding the U.S.) are responsible for only 30 percent of total CO2 emitted worldwide. The effects of climate change have become apparent because the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been increasing by about 2 parts per million per year. This is primarily due to the sharp increases in the amount of CO2 spewed by developing countries.

As climate change has caused a drop in crop production and a rise in food prices, there no longer is a strong case to oppose the importation of gene-modified farm products based on the principle of caution, which in turn is based on the assumption that there are sufficient food supplies globally.

Another cause of rising food prices is said to be the growing production of bioethanol from corn in the United States and sugar cane in Brazil. When bioethanol is mixed with gasoline to run automobiles, less CO2 come outs the tailpipe, thus contributing to the mitigation of climate changes. But with rising gasoline prices, it has become more lucrative to convert corn into bioethanol than to make feed or vegetable oil. Thus the supply of corn and sugar cane as food materials has declined, pushing up their prices.

As for the rising price of crude oil, it is generally agreed that the supply of crude oil is finite. How much longer oil can be recovered is obtained by dividing the total volume of confirmed oil deposits by annual oil production. With motorization progressing rapidly in newly rising economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa, demand for oil is expected to continue growing.

Meanwhile, production from existing oil wells is bound to decrease. Although higher oil prices are supposed to expedite exploration and development of new oil wells, we're seldom hearing of such good news. As various fossil fuels are interchangeable, their price changes are linked to each other; thus the prices of coal and natural gas have risen in parallel with crude oil.

Proponents of the environment tax argue that high taxes on fossil fuels would serve to reduce CO2 emissions. Soaring international prices of fossil fuels are expected to achieve the same effect. Indeed, at least in the city of Kyoto, the number of automobiles on the road has declined noticeably over the past few months as gasoline prices have gone up.

In a 1972 report titled "Limits of Growth," the Club of Rome stated that economic growth would be limited by the finite nature of natural resources. Mankind has overcome some of these limits by developing alternative energy sources and conserving energy. Today, though, it appears that the limits will lead to the mitigation of climate change and global warming.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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