More Than 500 Top-Rated Research Articles
Reducing soft costs of renewable energy deployment can accelerate their cost-competitiveness

By Benjamin Attia
February 23, 2015

Despite the dramatic dip in oil prices in recent weeks, the cost of renewable generation technologies has reached an unprecedented level of competitiveness with traditional fossil fuel generation. Lazard Investment Bank and IRENA recently reported that several renewable energy technologies have either already reached what is called ‘grid parity,’ or will do so in the near future. [1,2]

‘Grid parity’ occurs when an alternative energy source can produce electricity at a cost equivalent to retail prices for electricity delivery from fossil fuel technologies. Unpredictable fossil fuel markets will not stand in the way of these advances, according to a new report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance[3], which predicts growth in global annual renewable energy investment in the neighborhood of 2.5 to 4.5 fold by 2030. The result of predicted investment is a 70 percent share of new power capacity belonging to renewable generation sources in 2030.3 These encouraging projections indicate a shift away from reliance on fossil fuel sources of electricity generation and towards greater use of renewables.

The competitiveness of renewables can be affected by geography, infrastructure, institutional, and especially policy factors. The policy environment can significantly impact the rate of diffusion, price competition, etc. But new studies from Germany identify an especially important role of policy in lowering so-called ‘soft costs.’ [4] These include siting, permitting, installation, interconnection, and daily operation and maintenance of the generation system. Especially in residential-scale systems, which in many areas have enormous technical potential, these soft costs can drive the lifecycle cost of renewables higher than those for conventional utility investments.

With rapid increases in renewable energy investment projected for the future, policymakers would do well to streamline processes affecting soft costs as much as possible in order to improve investment readiness and reduce time in the pipeline. In this way, policymakers can create a win for jobs and economic growth, a win for the cost of electricity, a win for the environment, and a win for future generations.

[1] Taylor, M., Daniel, K., Ilas, A., & So, E. Y. (2015). Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014. International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
[2] Lazard. (2014). Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 8.0. September 2014.
[3] Isola, J. (2013, April 22). Strong growth for renewables expected through to 2030. Retrieved February 18, 2015, from
[4] J. Seel, G.L. Barbose, and R. Wiser. 2014. “Analysis of Residential PV System Price Differences between the United States and Germany. Energy Policy. V.69: 216- 226.

Reducing demand of some bioenergy crops can reduce GHG emissions: WRI Report

By Cheng-Hao (Jeff) Shih
February 21, 2015

The newest report from the World Resource Institute (WRI), “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land,” observes that some sources of bioenergy such as corn-based ethanol, which turn crops into liquid fuel or electricity are inefficient in supporting global energy demand and can increase carbon emissions [2]. If not planned properly, bioenergy development can use up most of the fertile land needed to grow crops for feeding the growing population in the world [1].

The report discovered that the current expanding bioenergy industry is exacerbating competition for land and will undercut efforts in ameliorating climate change impacts [2]. The authors suggest that with the maturity of wind and solar technologies over the past decade, these technologies are more efficient than crop-based biofuels in capturing the energy of sunlight for a given amount of land [1][2].

The current development of the crop-based bioenergy appears to overlook the limits of our eco-system and the real amount of energy and resources that our human society actually needs. If unchecked, the current path can put the world in the conflicts of overshoot: we are harvesting and exploiting natural resources at an unsustainable rate that exceeds the re-generative capacity of key natural resources [3].

In response to this impending issue, the report urges governments to take actions to ensure that energy crop farming will not displace other food crop farming. Moreover, government agencies are asked to evaluate the long-term environmental impacts from crop-based bioenergy and try to redirect the policy incentives, for example, to cellulosic ethanol in fulfill fuel transition and as the goals.

Importantly, I would add that we need to learn to be more humble and respectful to the limits of our living environment. We need to re-position our activities and creativity to support paths leading to long term to sustainability rather than short term and short-sighted profit.

[1] Justin Gillis. Jan 2015. “New Report Urges Western Governments to Reconsider Reliance on Biofuels.” The New York Times.
[2] Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich. 2015. “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition For Food Crops and Land.” World Resource Institute.
[3] Justin Kitzes, Mathis Wackernagel, et al., “Shrink and Share: Humanity’s Present and Future Ecological Footprint,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 363 (2008): 467-475.

Photo: Touring a sorghum field in Salina, Kansas, Steve Hebert for the New York Times

Water: An additional reason for rapid deployment of sustainable energy technologies

By Jeongseok Seo
February 19, 2015

No one denies the importance of water. Our life depends on it and we need it to survive. However, we don’t always know the worth of water until the well runs dry or unless we live in drought-stricken parts of the world.

Many studies occasionally remind us of the importance of water. For example, the World Health Organization reports that 748 million people still lack access to clean drinking water and 2 million annual deaths are attributable to unsafe water, lack of sanitation and unhygienic conditions [1]. Furthermore, with growing concerns of climate change, water shortages are expected to become worse in the near future. Current projections of population and water demand growth, particularly in developing countries, and climate change impacts have led some to project that in 2030 global water demand will outstrip current supply by 40 percent [2].

Interestingly, a big water consumer is the energy sector. In 2010, global water withdrawals for energy production were estimated at 583 billion cubic meters or 15% of the world’s total water withdrawals [3]. This suggests that the energy sector can play a great role in addressing water problems if we find energy sources and technologies requiring less water. If we fail this task, we could face two crises in the coming decades – energy and water deficits [4].

Sustainable energy technologies, such as solar PV and wind power, can serve this role. Unlike fossil-steam (coal-, gas- and oil-fired plants on a steam-cycle) and nuclear power plants, they not only use very small amounts at the site of electricity generation but also have little or no water use associated with the production of fuel inputs [3][5]. For example, wind and solar PV barely require water to produce 1 MWh of electricity, while coal- and gas-fired plants and nuclear power plants use 390, 180, and 560 gallons of water, respectively [5]. And if we practice energy conservation, we can actually cut water use for the sector.

These facts provide a key reason for rapid deployment of sustainable energy technologies: our health and environment improve when we make thoughtful energy choices!

[1] World Health Organization (2014). UN-water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking water (GLAAS) 2014 report: investing in water and sanitation: increasing access, reducing inequalities.
[2] The 2030 Water Resources Group (2009). Charting Our Water Future: Economic frameworks to inform decision-making.
[3] IEA (2011). Water For Energy: Is energy becoming a thirstier resource? Excerpt from the World Energy Outlook 2012.
[4] Wang (2009). Integrated Policy and Planning for Water and Energy. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education. Issue 142, pages 1-6, June 2009.
[5] Glassman D., Wucker M., Isaacman T., Champilou C. (2011). The Water-Energy Nexus: Adding Water to the Energy Agenda. A World Policy Paper.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Solar power competitive in 42 of the 50 largest U.S. cities

By Cheng-Hao (Jeff) Shih
February 18, 2015

In January 2015, the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center released a new report, “Going solar in America: Ranking solar’s value to consumers in America’s largest cities.” This research is backed by the SunShot Initiative from the U.S. Department of Energy. The research shows that, with the maturity of the current solar industry, urban homeowners can find it cheaper to invest in a fully financed ‪‎solar PV system than to purchase ‪‎electricity from the utilities in 42 of 50 as America’s largest cities [1].

According to this report, there are 9.1 million single-family homeowners in America’s 50 largest cities where purchasing a solar PV system could cost less than their current utility rates [1]. It is estimated that an additional 21 million single-family homeowners in those cities would be able to pay electricity from a solar system at or below the price of grid electricity if there is low-cost financing program available [1].

The authors note that there are information gaps among consumers in these U.S. cities. Jim Kennerly, a project manager of the report commented, “Most people are unaware that solar is this affordable for people of all walks of life [2].”

CEEP, as one of the leaders in the field of solar public financing research is currently working on two research projects that support solar PV development in the U.S.

In CEEP’s “Financing Strategies for Decentralized Solar Power,” researchers have focused on public financing instruments that can facilitate credit quality enhancement and pool financing structures. This research supports wider deployment of distributed PV systems and fosters self-sustained PV markets, which will not be affected by the phase-out of existing policy incentives.

In another CEEP research project, “DOE-NSF: Terawatt-scale Solar Economy,” CEEP research team is part of the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) research center supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The CEEP team is developing a bottom-up PV diffusion model, which will evaluate effectiveness of financial and policy instruments to spur investment in different PV technologies. The model will be able to assess diffusion paths of PV technologies in different end-use sectors (such as residential and commercial buildings), and utility scale installations.

[1] Kennerly, J. and Proudlove, A. 2015. “Going solar in America: Ranking solar’s value to consumers in America’s largest cities.” NC Clean Energy Technology Center.
[2] Pyper, J. January 2015. “Report: Solar Is Cheaper than the Grid in 42 of the 50 Largest US Cities.” Greentechmedia

Electric motorcycles and carbon emissions

By A.L. Smith

February 17, 2015

Often we write about or read stories on important topics that weigh heavily on our mind. Recent examples include pieces on genetically modified foods or the aftermath of nuclear disasters. This is nothing so serious as those. This is about fun, it’s about motorcycles, and it’s about a green path forward for the thrill-seeking set.

If you’ve never been on a sport bike cruising some backcountry road, let me tell you – it’s pure freedom. It’s like flying without ever leaving the ground. Or at least you hope. Until just recently, if you had told me I could have this experience on a full electric motorcycle, I’d probably think you had spent too much time watching Tron. Electric bikes are quaint little scooter type things that you might see your grandma riding on her way back from the farmer’s market. Electric bikes can have nothing on the Ducatis, Kawasakis, or Suzukis of the world [1]. If I had thought that, I’d be wrong. Take, for example, the Lightening LS-218.

In a toe-to-toe match-up against gas powered motorcycles at the 2013 Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb, the Lightening LS-218 took top honors, beating the closest ICE (internal combustion engine) by a full 20 seconds. And that “218” model number, it’s not some random nomenclature, it is the bike’s top lap speed! This beast delivers a whopping 200 horse power and 168 ft-lbs of torque with a 150kw electric motor [2] and can boast a range of up to 180 miles on its 20 kw battery pack which can receive a full charge in as little as 30 minutes (DC fast charger) [3].

Compare that to the Ducati 1199 Panigale with its top speed of 182 mph, 174 hp and 88 ft-lbs of torque [4] and you can see why motorcycle enthusiasts are taking notice. And it’s not just them; anyone interested in the future of personal transportation can take heart in the hope of low-carbon vehicles that are not low on performance. Now, of course, electric vehicles in and of themselves do not eliminate CO2 emissions as long as our energy infrastructure is still tied to fossil fuels. Critics of the environmental advantages of electric vehicles point out that the electricity they use still comes from dirty power plants. That being said, they are still an improvement over conventional vehicles.

Consider two points here: 1) Gasoline does not magically appear at the pump. Oil companies use many GHG emitting processes in addition electrical power to drill, extract, refine, transport and pump that fuel before it ever ends up in a conventional car’s tank. 2) Just looking at the GHG emissions from a comparable ICE motorcycle, the Suzuki Hayabusa, with its 40 mpg [5], let’s compare it to the long tail pipe theory applied to our electric bike and we can generate the following numbers: Lbs GHG per kWh with US energy mix = 1.2; the Lightening rolling along at 100 mph on its 12 kW battery will travel 100 miles (the bike’s range on full charge) and the energy produced by the grid to get the bike that distance will produce 14.4 lbs GHG [6]. A 40 mpg vehicle produces 243 gCO2/mile [7] (minimum, note motorcycles do not have catalytic converters): or 24,300 g for 100 miles = (24300 * .0022 g/lb) = 53.46 lbs, or almost 4 times as much GHG!

Taking a page out of Tesla’s playbook, the company is first showing what is possible with current technology and raising excitement among buyers who can afford to be early adopters (the Lightening’s list price is $38,000), and then it hopes to turn those profits into producing a more mainstream bike at a more reasonable price [8]. Your average commuter does not need to break speed records on her way to work. Furthering the green cred of this transportation innovation, the portable charging station used by the crew at their Pike’s Peak victory was 100% solar powered [9]. Hop on and hold tight, the future is throttling out of the past’s curve lightning fast.

[1] Schaal, E. (March 24th, 2014). 8 motorcycles gunning for fastest bike on the road. Wallstreet Cheat Sheet. Retrieved from: Accessed 2/3/15.
[2] Avant, J. (November 14th, 2014). The world’s fastest production electric motorcycle. Ride Apart. Retrieved from: Accessed 2/3/15. Also photo credit.
[3] Lightening Motorcycles, company website. (n.d.). Specifications. Retrieved from: Accessed 2/3/15.
[4] Conner, B. (March 26th, 2014). Ducati’s Panigales go head to head: 1199 vs. 899. Cycle World. Retrieved from: Accessed 2/3/15.
[5] (2015). Suzuki GSX 1300R Hayabusa Mileage. Note, I used the 2014 figures since the sample size for 2015 was so small.
[6] USEPA (2014). Calculations and References. Retrieved from:
[7] USDOE (2015). Gasoline vehicles. Learn more about the new label. Retrieved from:
[8] Herron, D. (November 12th, 2014). Lightening motorcycles delivers LS-218 electric superbike to first paying customer. The Long Tail Pipe. Retrieved from: Accessed 2/3/15.
[9] Check out the youtube video from Lightening’s CEO at the Pike’s Peak event:

Overview of Obama’s budget proposals for clean energy and climate investments

By Joseph Nyangon
February 17, 2015

President Obama has released a $4 trillion budget proposal for FY 2016. It contains a range of programs designed to encourage deployment of the next generation clean energy and energy efficiency technologies. Here are the top five things to know about the budget in terms of clean energy and environmental investments:

1. Clean Power State Incentive Fund
The U.S. President proposes a $4 billion incentive fund to encourage states to make faster and deeper cuts in carbon emissions from electricity, than would be required under the Clean Power Plan. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to administer the Clean Power State Incentive Fund, which would enable states to invest in activities that advance and complement the agency’s Clean Power Plan. The administration outlines several goals, including addressing impacts from environmental pollution in low-income communities to supporting businesses to catalyze investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and combined heat and power. The budget also includes $239 million to support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions programs at the EPA. In particular, $25 million would be used to help states develop their Clean Power Plan strategies.

2. Permanent extension of renewable energy investment tax credits
The renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) has been an important lifeline for the wind industry in the United States. It expired at the end of 2013 and Congress agreed to a one-year extension, which expired in 2014. Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), has called on Congress to extend the PTC, noting that “Investing in wind power makes sense and that the Production Tax Credit is the right policy to continue growing this abundant, homegrown resource.”[1] The FY 2016 budget proposal concurs, proposing a long-term and stable clean energy policy based on a permanent extension of solar and wind investment tax incentives, and reforming the incentives to make them simpler and more efficient. A separate incentive scheme for solar, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which authorized a 30% tax credit through 2016 before falling to 10% thereafter is set to expire at the end of 2018. The administration has proposed a permanent extension.

3. Increased investment in clean energy technologies and R&D
The administration has proposed an investment of $7.4 billion in pollution-cutting technologies—an increase of nearly 7% [2] from the $6.5 billion allocation in the FY 2015[3], for clean energy programs and sustainable technologies. These investments in solar, wind, low-carbon fossil fuels, and energy-efficiency initiatives primarily cover programs at the departments of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation. Examples of the programs outlined in the budget include investment in electric vehicles to enhance their affordability and convenience; improvement in building efficiency programs; climate proofing electric power grid such as storm hardening, flood-proofing, installing higher temperature-rated transformers and replacing underground transformers with saltwater submersible types; carbon capture and storage; and investment in research and development (R&D) to measure and mitigate fugitive methane emissions from natural gas systems.

4. Advancing international climate negotiations efforts and investing in the Green Climate Fund
The budget also provides $1.29 billion to advance the goals of the Global Climate Change Initiative and the President’s Climate Action Plan (which supports bilateral and multilateral engagement with major and emerging economies). This includes $500 million for U.S. contributions to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help catalyze additional private sector support for international climate action, and $230 million for the Climate Investment Fund. So far, the GCF has received pledges totaling $10.2 billion from countries such as Japan, South Korea, Norway, Mexico, Sweden, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Mongolia, and more.[4]

5. Energy and climate resilience
The budget contains a panoply of provisions designed to help vulnerable parts of the country enhance their energy and climate resilience and preparedness, including increased investments in community and ecosystem resilience, and better understanding of the projected impacts of climate change. For example, allocation of $400 million for National Flood Insurance Program Risk Mapping efforts, an increase of $184 million over FY 2015 funding levels. Additional funding has been proposed to tackle coastal resilience, wildfires and drought resilience. These include: $50 million towards the NOAA Regional Coastal Resilience Grants, $89 million to promote water conservation efforts, and $200 million to FEMA primarily for mitigation planning and facilities hardening, an increase of $175 million over current funding levels.

A cross-country theme in the clean energy programs supported by the Obama budget proposal is the need for federal and private funding for R&D. The United States enjoyed remarkable success recently because of pharmaceutical and biomedical research (even if proponents of the free-market often less understand it). From securitizing energy efficiency retrofits to unlocking capital in private equity and pension funds to harnessing green bonds, investment in R&D to fund projects targeting climate resilience and low-carbon technologies is crucial to achieving simultaneously the objectives of economic growth and sustainable development. It is why analyzing the trend in federal budgetary allocation for clean energy investment is vital for understanding signals of long-term economic transformation. In every dimension of clean energy economic growth there is a critical technological need, which must be underpinned by increasing capital flow in basic scientific research.


[1] The state of the wind industry is strong:
[2] Obama 2016 budget urges states to cut emissions faster:
[3] Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2015:
[4] Green Climate Fund Initial Resource Mobilisation:

Climate change: Is this still debatable?

By Jeongseok Seo
February 4, 2015

Many of us thought until recently that human-caused climate change has become an indisputable fact. But we may have to change our view or understanding not due to scientific facts but rather to the U.S. Congress. Many Congressmen are denying or questioning that climate change is caused by human activities. For example, over 56% of Republicans in the 114th Congress deny or question the science behind human-caused climate change [1].

However, it should be reemphasized that science has been consistent in supporting the fact of human-caused climate change and its force is ever growing. Now, 97% of climate scientists are in agreement that climate change is occurring and is driven by human activity [4].

More recently, prominent science bodies from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S. to the Japanese Meteorological Agency announced that 2014 was the hottest year in the 135-year period of record, and the years 2001 to 2010 represented the warmest decade since the start of modern measurements in 1850 [3][5] due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Main sources of three major GHGs – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) – are fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, and the concentrations of the GHGs in the atmosphere have increased since 1750 by 40%, 150% and 20%, respectively [2], which clearly demonstrates that climate change is real and is largely caused by human activity.

Again – 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused greatly by human activities. Its impacts, such as sea level rise and drought, have been experienced in many parts of the world and potential risks from climate change are highly expected to increase. Climate change is not a debatable issue any longer. It is time to act!

[1] Center for American Progress Action Fund. Retrieved January 24, 2015. https://www.american
[2] IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.
[3] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Accessed January 23, 2015.
[4] ScienceDaily. Scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Retrieved January 23, 2015.
[5] World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 2013. The Global Climate 2001-2010: A Decade of Climate Extremes Summary Report. WMO-No. 1119

Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

“One Less Nuclear Power Plant”: Seoul’s commitment to a low-carbon and non-nuclear city

By Joohee Lee
February 3, 2015

The recent nuclear accident in Fukushima alarmed many throughout the world. South Korea as one of Japan’s neighbors was immediately shaken by this historical nuclear disaster. However, Korea’s national energy plan to maintain and possibly increase dependence on nuclear energy has not changed much despite worrisome voices from civil society and local communities located near nuclear power plants.

Against this background, Mayor Won-Soon Park of the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) announced in 2012 an innovative and experimental initiative on energy sustainability for the City, titled “One Less Nuclear Power Plant (OLNPP).” Although there are no nuclear power plants in Seoul, the name of the Initiative implies the City’s responsibility to understand and reduce the risks of overreliance on nuclear power disproportionately placed on local residents living near power plants. In this regard, the OLNPP Initiative is designed to reduce the current level of energy consumption in Seoul by as much as a typical nuclear unit can produce annually (approximately 2 million TOE) by 2014. To achieve this goal, the SMG provided a variety of policy measures and channels to enable a broad participation from the citizens. Before the end of the target year, the SMG already surpassed its reduction goal through energy saving (0.91 million TOE), efficiency improvement (0.87 million TOE), and the diversification of energy sources including renewables, fuel cell, and waste heat (0.26 million TOE) [1].

In June 2014, the SMG announced the beginning of the second phase of the OLNPP after its early achievements in the Phase 1 target. In Phase 2, the SMG sets up a more ambitious goal to reach 20% of self-sufficiency in electricity by 2020 (4.2% as of 2013). At the same time, the SMG aims to reduce 4 million TOE of energy consumption and 10 million tons of GHG through additional renewable generation and energy efficiency improvement.

In a paper published in Energy Policy in November 2014, Dr. Taehwa Lee, a CEEP alumni, evaluated the OLNPP policy as a meaningful experiment and effort for energy autonomy and sustainability at a local level. The study analyzed the OLNPP from an analytic framework for urban energy experiments consisting of three dimensions – policy background, governance, and policy content [2]. Among the three dimensions of the proposed framework, the paper highlights the leadership and governance behind the OLNPP able to recognize “burden-shifting” issues existing in the present energy system in Korea as well as incorporate social and moral dimensions into urban energy policies.

Dr. John Byrne, Chairman of the Foundation for Renewable Energy and Environment (FREE), Director of CEEP, and Distinguished Professor of Energy and Climate Policy, serves on the Seoul International Energy Advisory Council which advises the SMG on energy policies and plans including the ONLPP Initiative. Dr. Byrne points out that SMG’s rapid reduction in energy use is a remarkable outcome and that OLNPP Phase 2’s value-centered approach could be an important policy driver for enhancing sustainability and equity in Seoul’s energy system. Recent findings by the FREE Research Group include an estimate of Seoul’s “solar city” potential, noting that about 65.7% of the annual daylight-hours electricity needs of the city can be served by distributed solar power systems on a typical day [3]. Two Korean CEEP alumni, Dr. Sun-Jin Yun and Dr. Jungmin Yu, are also serving on the Policy Implementation Committee of the OLNPP.

[1] One Less Nuclear Power Plant, Seoul Metropolitan Government,
[2] Lee, T., Lee, T., & Lee, Y. (2014). An Experiment for Urban Energy Autonomy in Seoul: The One ‘Less’ Nuclear Power Plant Policy. Energy Policy, 74, 311-318.
[3] Byrne, J., Taminiau, J., Kurdgelashvili, L., & Kim, K. N. (2015). A Review of the Solar City Concept and Methods to Assess Rooftop Solar Electric Potential, with an Illustrative Application to the City of Seoul. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 41, 830-844.

Photo credit: Seoul Metropolitan Government

GMO labeling: Is it another socially engineered run-a-round?
Photo credit: Mauricio Alejo

By A.L. Smith
January 30, 2015
In a previous post by Jeff Shih on Frankensalmon, the practice of genetic modification was described as having progressed from the realm of plants to that of animals. The article expressed some health and safety concerns regarding this development and it is upon similar concerns that many people and organizations are pushing for laws requiring products made with G.M.O.s to be labeled as such. In fact, there are currently 64 countries in which some form of G.M.O. labeling is required [1]. Though the US is not one of those countries, 30 states have introduced legislation requiring the labeling of genetically engineered products and three states have passed such legislation (Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut) [2].

Upon first learning of these concerns, my initial response was that, of course, we should mandate labeling; we have a right to know what is in a manufactured product that we and our children consume on a daily basis. Period, end of story. However, upon pondering the problem further, I am less certain that labeling something as produced with G.M.O.s is the best way to prevent unwanted alterations to our food.

Consider this: instituting a G.M.O. labeling mandate is not a cost-free proposal. It is more than just the cost of paper and ink. A mandate would require a monitoring and verification process along every step of the supply chain. This cost would likely be passed along to consumers. Both the Grocery Manufacturing Association [3] and the Center for Food Safety [4] (organizations on both ends of the political spectrum) agree that between 70% and 80% of the products on grocery store shelves are made with some G.M.O. ingredients.

Since that is the case, there is no competitive advantage in not passing along increased costs to the consumer. If the prices rise for so many products on our stores shelves, do we not stand the risk of increasing a family’s food bill? Some families might not have the flexibility in their grocery budget to pay these higher prices, is it right for us to support product labeling that could result in this conundrum even if that family is unlikely to change their product mix as a result.

Also, consider a company that makes cornmeal who may acquire their corn from multiple sources. They will have to label their product as having the possibility of being sourced from some G.M.O. corn. Though they adhere to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines which, rightly or wrongly, assert that there are no discernable safety or health risks associated with G.M.O. products [5], they will potentially suffer a loss of income. In addition, we already have a labeling process in place which designates a large variety of foods as being G.M.O. free, they are called ‘organics’. One of the criteria for a product to be labeled USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) organic is that it must not contain any G.M.O.s [6]. For a final point, I wish to consider the possibility that G.M.O. labeling may actually be counterproductive to the root concern of those who propose such a measure.

I, for my part, am against artificial genetic modification because I feel it represents the height of hubris in our relationship with the natural world. It is an attempt to control and manipulate nature instead of trying to learn how to live in harmony and balance with it. Others may be against G.M.O.s because they represent unknown risks, especially since the FDA does not require pre-market safety testing of G.M.O. products [7]. For example, BT corn produces its own insecticide (Bacillus thuringiensis) and though BT may be perfectly harmless when it is sprayed on crops and washed away by rain (organic farmers can use it), is it as harmless when it is part of the plant’s very genetic structure which we then ingest when we eat a cob of it? But here is the kicker – if it comes to pass that 80% of the products in our stores are labeled as containing some G.M.O. ingredients, will it become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless?

Maybe the better way to proceed is just to fight to ban G.M.O.s outright and not waste time and effort with a socially engineered run-a-round.

[1] Barrett, M. July 30th, 2013. Breakdown of GMO laws in each country (Global Map). Natural Society; Accessed 1/17/15.
[2] Center for Food Safety. June 10th, 2014. GE food labeling: States take action; Accessed 1/17/15.
[3] Grocery Manufacturers Association. ND. The facts about GMOs. Accessed 1/17/15.
[4] Center for Food Safety. ND. About genetically engineered foods. Accessed 1/17/15.
[5] US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). ND. Questions & answers on food from genetically engineered plants. Accessed 1/17/15.
[6] May 17, 2013. Organic 101: Can GMOs be used in organic products. Accessed 1/17/15.
[7] FDA, 1992. Food for human consumption and animal drugs, feeds and related products: Foods derived from new plant verities; Policy statement, 22984. Fed reg 57(104)22984-23005 (1992). Sourced in Dahl, R. To label or not to label: California prepares to vote on genetically engineered foods. 2012. Environmental Health Perspectives; 120 (9), A358-A361. Stable URL: Accessed 1/17/15.

Photo credit: Mauricio Alejo

Greening the desert: Growing halophytes on unproductive land with saltwater irrigation

By A.L. Smith
January 26, 2015
It sounds almost too good to be true – converting wasteland to productive fields and using ocean water, not fresh, to do it. Maybe, but then again, these plants have been used for centuries as sources for food in coastal communities [1] and scientific research into their potential dates back at least to the 1950’s [2]. Current experiments are being conducted by Edward Glenn of the University of Arizona and Dennis Bushnell at NASA’s Langley Research Center [3] and what they are finding holds promise for sustainably cultivating these plants to not only produce oil seeds, animal feed, medicines, cosmetics, and leafy vegetables for human consumption; but to use them to sequester carbon, remediate saline soils and even extract heavy metals from contaminated sites. But what are these miracle plants?

Halophytes are plants that have evolved to survive and reproduce in the high saline conditions found in coasts, wetlands, and inland deserts. These plants have developed complex mechanisms on many levels to cope with their environment. Not only are they salt-tolerant, many species can survive in waterlogged soil or even completely submerged in saltwater.  Because their adaptations occur at the plant, cellular, and molecular levels, there is not simply a single gene that can be spliced into conventional crops to confer these benefits – attempts to do so have not been successful [1, 2]. But there are many types of these plants, at least 2,600 [3] and upwards of 4,000 [4], and different varieties can be cultivated for a range of products and to thrive in a variety of soil conditions and climate zones.

Researchers from our own University of Delaware, John Gallagher and Denise Seliskar, have done work with the seashore mallow, a plant that can grow in salty and desert soils and accept seawater for irrigation. This no-invasive plant can produce seeds that are around 20% oil, making it comparable with soybeans as a base for biofuels. Other parts of the plant can be used for animal feed, cloth production, and for mulch or animal bedding [3]. Halophytes can also be used to restore damaged soil, because they can absorb salt and heavy metals, and thereby helping to reclaim the 40% of irrigated land that has been lost to salt intrusion and the 10 million hectares we lose every year [5], not to mention the potential for brownfield rehabilitation.  Halophyte agriculture could also play a synergistic role in the world’s fastest growing form of food production – aquaculture [6].

As we continue to deplete the world’s wild fisheries, a new market for farm raised fish has developed and continued to grow since the early 1980’s to meet our expanding appetite. Though these fisheries help to provide the world with protein and relieve some of the stress on our natural fisheries, the effluent they produce can be toxic to marine life if it is just dumped back into the ocean. Enter halophytes. For these plants, the salty and waste laden effluent could actually represent a source of the nutrients they need, mainly nitrogen and phosphorous [7]. By combining these two forms of food production we could be on our way to developing a sustainable form of food production that could be easily adopted anywhere in the world where there is desert land near a large body of saltwater. Possibilities for Africa and the Middle East spring immediately to mind. As I write this I wonder why we do not have halophyte fields everywhere where conditions warrant their use.

The only answer I can think of, or at least one of the most probable, is that it is immense and complex undertaking to develop a productive agriculture system for a whole new ecological group of plants. Knowing which plants are right for which soils and for what final products will require agro-scientists to work closely with local farmers who are knowledgeable about regional growing conditions and who can appreciate the indigenous insights gained from thousands of years of experience. It is not simply a matter of shipping out seeds and selling fertilizer and pesticides. Halophyte production could feed millions while also providing fuel for our trucks and planes without depleting our scant freshwater supplies or raising commodity prices, but it will likely require that we adopt new agricultural practices, ones rooted in stewardship and not exploitation, ones that value the soil, the people, and the ecosystem.

[1] Ventura, Y & Sagi, M. 2013. Halophyte crop cultivation: The case for Salicornia and Sarcocornia. Environmental and Experimental Botany; 92, 144 – 153.
[2] Glenn, E.P.; Anday, T.; Chaturvedi, R.; Martinez-Garcia, R.; Pearlstein, S.; Soliz, D.; Nelson, S.G.; and Felger, R.S. 2013. Three halophytes for saline-water agriculture; An oilseed, a forage and a grain crop. Environmental and Experimental Botany; 92, 110 – 121.
[3] Anderson, M. June 10th, 2014. Enter halophytes: We are running out of land for traditional agriculture. Time to figure out saltwater plants can do for us. Aeon on-line magazine. Accessed 1/9/15.
[4] Debez, A.; Huchzermeyer, B.; Abdelly, C.; and Koyro, H. 2011. Current challenges and future opportunities for a sustainable utilization of halophytes in Öztürk, et al (eds.) Sabkha Ecosystems, Tasks for Vegetation Science 46. DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-9673-9_8, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011.
[5] Hasanuzzaman, M.; Nahar, K.; Alam, M.; Bhowmilk, P.C.; Hossain, A.; Rahman, M.M.; Prasad, M.N.V.; Ozturk, M.; and Fujita, M. 2014. Potential use of halophytes to remediate saline soils. Biomed Research International.
[6] National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ND. Aquaculture in the United States., accessed 1/13/15.
[7] Buhmann, A. & Papenbrock, J. 2013. Biofiltering of aquaculture effluents by halophytic plants: Basic principles, current uses and future perspectives. Environmental and Experimental Botany; 92, 122 – 133.

Photo credit: Hasanuzzaman et al., 2014.

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