Technology Breakthroughs: Solutions to the Food and Energy Crises

Rod Handeland Technology, Food and Energy Background Comments  

Fromm Institute at University of San Francisco, Thursday 1-2:40 p.m. September 18 - November 6, 2008

Technology and linked food and energy crises. That is a very different mix than last year when we looked back to assess how technology had changed our lives. Instead, we look ahead to the pace of scientific advance, commercialization, and public acceptance of new technologies. Fortunately, we already have many facts, forecasts, precedents and costs that will help.

What we conclude will be much more complex than:

Since there will be many different views on what is possible should be committed to, it is useful to understand related experience and values related these important food energy and technology issues. As developer of the course, following are mine:

My parents were both raised on farms. As a suburban Chicago boy I wanted to be a farmer. But those were the years of Sputnik and race to moon, so I became an engineer, moved to San Francisco and New York and marketed petrochemicals for Chevron Chemical.

Petrochemicals were high tech then, just as information technology and life sciences are now. I loved petrochemicals then and still do. They are in all the synthetics we wear as well as throughout our homes, offices, cars we drive and integral to food we grow. After an MBA, I worked in Chevron international oil operations. I was amazed to learn that the Saudi oil Chevron discovered and commercialized cost only about 15 cents per barrel including an equity return, leaving the Saudis with nearly 90% of the then $1.10 export price.

But in 1970, oil looked like a commodity in endless oversupply, so I left Chevron to help companies work in developing countries. During a couple years in Africa and Asia, I learned more about third world food crises than energy. But that experience did lead to spending my career in international business, mostly advising resource companies on how to work in countries with limited legal and regulatory systems, but rich resources.

Opportunities to implement computer and telecommunication systems gave me appreciation of the power of those technologies, particularly in cost control, very relevant to food and energy today. After building an international trade consulting practice, I was called to NY with Business International to streamline internal operations for a company sale. Technology rather than food or energy was my focus then. I recall a young Columbia graduate, who I learned years later reported up to me through our finance unit. He also probably didn’t think much about food, energy or technology then, but if elected President in a few weeks, he certainly will need to, for all our sakes.

As to our family farms, my father’s in Minnesota prospers. My cousins farm ten times the land when my Dad started in the fields with teams of horses. And crop yields are so many times greater, that they started a corn ethanol plant a few years ago with other farmers to use the surplus.

Mother’s childhood farm in Pennsylvania severed its link between food and energy when the coal that was dug beneath the farm ran out and coal moved west. The lands today lie in switch grass waiting for cellulose to biofuel technology for a next harvest. In meantime my cousin revived the farm’s food energy link with a few small gas wells.

However, the most important tie of my mother’s farm to what we will cover is Henry Wallace. He came to visit when mother was small, claiming our farm was his family home. In fact his great grandfather married into our family, ran the farm and built farmhouse, before the Wallace’s moved to Iowa. Henry is best known as an FDR VP. However, his more lasting legacy is likely to be as a founder of Pioneer Hybrid, which commercialized Mendel’s genetics and was a step on path to biotech today. Pioneer is now integral to DuPont’s transition from chemicals to life science.

Will life sciences ultimately contribute more to energy and food than health? And will other technologies evolve to help solve food and energy crises, as they repeatedly have in past? For those in the class, we will see. And for others with interest, feel free to follow along on Fromm Handouts or