Did little algae freedom fighters win the Cold War?

March 19, 2013 |

MOSCOW — It was the evening of the day in 1990 that Saddam Hussein rolled his tanks into Kuwait, igniting the First Gulf War. I was camped out in the cafeteria at the Cosmos Hotel, north of Moscow’s center, watching the one working television and waiting for Gorbachev to make a statement on the invasion.

He never showed. A far bigger crisis had befallen the Communists, although I didn’t understand it then and was irritated by it. Instead of Gorbachev and the great drama of the Gulf War, we got a pleading Agriculture minister, asking the young people of the Soviet Union to drop what they were doing, rush south towards the grain belt, and help out with the harvest.

Glasnost, or “openness,” seemed to be working well enough in the USSR – after all, here was the minister openly talking about the harvest problems right on state television. But perestroika, or “restructuring” — seemed to be getting nowhere.

So, the minister made his appeal. Response was tepid, and the harvest failed. It was one more nail in the coffin of the Soviet system, which finally collapsed the following year.

This past week in Rotterdam, I ran into algae biofuels’ very own “Dr. No”, John Benemann — known for his succinct and characteristic analysis of new ventures aimed at making renewable fuels from algae: “It won’t be affordable.”.

We got to taking about the role that algae played in the last days of the USSR. I began to see the events of that terrible period in the Soviet Union, so many years ago, in a new light.

The Soviet microbiology programs

Soviet microalgae program - 1980s, Tajikistan

Soviet microalgae program – 1980s, Tajikistan

“In the Soviet Union, after World War Two,” Dr. Benemann told me, “the industrialization of agriculture, and particularly commodity animal feed production, along the lines of other central command and control industries, was a vexing problem. A major, semi-secret effort was started in the 1950s to develop an industrial process based on the conversion of oil into feeds, by bacterial and yeast fermentations (the so-called single-cell protein, SCP, approach, also tried in the West, in particular by BP, using methanotrophic organisms grown on natural gas, one can note).

“Over the following decades enormous production systems were set up all over the Soviet Union producing millions of tons of animal feed, a great success in fulfilling the five year plan goals. Unfortunately consumption, by the animals (they refused it) was not as successful, and problems of contamination with residual hydrocarbons were a problem. Failure of the Soviet system to produce sufficient feed was a significant contributory reason for its collapse.”

Those darn little one-celled freedom fighters. Making themselves unpalatable to cattle — is it really possible that they brought down the old regime and ended the Cold War?

Food and the fall of the Soviets

Looking back at 1990, it makes sense. The whole country seemed to be in a state of food siege. It was time for the grain harvest and there weren’t enough hands and machines to bring it in. Much of the food that was being produced was being held in the countryside, we were being told — trucks that headed north towards Moscow were getting hijacked, so went the rumor going around.

The protein program was seen as a way out of the mess. A new protein source for livestock meant less land used up growing fodder. Meaning that more land could be used to grow grains for human consumption, or other crops. Or that resource could be freed up for industrialization. Or that the USSR would be less exposed in years of poor harvests. When the program failed — those hopes faded.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa once said that every society “is always nine meals away from a revolution.” That does as good a job as anything of explaining why, about nine meals later in this crisis week of 1990, the council up in Leningrad voted to change the city’s name back to St. Petersburg. At the time, everyone I knew assumed that the Leningrad council was making an empty gesture of defiance and protest. But the name change stuck.

Turning to microalgae

Soviet-era microalgae program - Czechoslovakia

Soviet-era microalgae program – 1980s Czechoslovakia

Dr. Benemann said one time that “if algae looks good, we’re in big trouble,” — whether that is true or not, the Soviets apparently turned in their desperation, not only to single-celled yeast proteins, but to microalgae.

“In parallel with the fermentation program,” John added, “a major effort was also carried out to produce SCP with microalgae, with both closed photobioreactors and open systems developed and deployed on a production scale, in the more favorable locations of the Soviet Union, for example in Tashikistan. It should be noted that the Soviet Union had a microalgae program initiated in the 1950s to support their cosmonauts in space, something the USA then copied, and that the first industrial production of beta-carotene from Dunaliella salina was developed in the Ukraine in the 1960s.”

“The Soviets commanded their technology leaders in East Germany and Czechoslovakia,” Benemann explained,” to help develop their algae feed production effort. The Hydrobiological Institute in Trebon, at that time in Czechoslovakia, developed an open culture system, consisting of very shallow inclined trays. This system was used to produce Scenedesmus, and the Trebon group published many interesting scientific papers, and by the late 1970s, a one hectare production plant was built in Bulgaria.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it came to a comical end.

“With the end of the Soviets,” Benemann recalled, “the Trebon group tried to become a commercial enterprise, but it took them a few years to recognize that the market demanded Chlorella, not Scenedesmus. Eventually they switched over, as did the Bulgaria plant, but nothing much has come of it, commercially. The Trebon group continues to do very good research and has also started a small company to supply research equipment to algae companies. Their cultivation system, has, however, scaling limitations that would prevent its commercial development.”

I had a chance to see cultivation limitations for myself.

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, it was nearly impossible to get permission as a journalist to travel on an unrestricted basis in the countryside. Occidental Petroleum CEO Armand Hammer was in the last year of his life, but kindly worked his magic to make me welcome west of Moscow in the Nakhabino forest, where he was developing a resort complex, so long as I traveled unofficially.

It was a tough journey to persuade a driver to undertake — it was illegal to take a foreign journalist that far out of the Moscow ring. I would be welcome in Nakhabino — but it took a wad of hard currency to secure a ride. Upon arrival, my driver fled as soon as I was out of the car, and I never saw him again.

It was a dacha-dotted forest, and a graveyard. Nearly 50 years after the Battle for Moscow, you could still turn up rusted out helmets and spent ammunition from 1941. Foxholes and bomb craters formed shallow depressions here and there.

Everywhere you looked, this part of Russia was covered with silver birch — which loved the acidic soil. To knock it down enough of it to make a building site to erect anything, you needed some equipment and a permit. You couldn’t get either. There was some rule, I was told, still on the books in those dying days of the old regime, that you couldn’t remove silver birch unless you had a use for it — and it couldn’t simply be combustion. Silver birch is too hard a wood to be useful in construction — so you really couldn’t find a permitted use for it, then.

By this time, import controls had eased up and you could get Western farm and construction machinery in via Finland, if you worked the system hard enough. But for some reason — at least in this part of Russia — you couldn’t import spare parts. Obtaining them in-country required a special permission from the local Nakhabino council. I have no idea why. And you could never get a permit, no matter how hard anyone tried, and I never figured that out, either.

Small wonder that scale-up problems were happening in the exotic world of industrial biotechnology and microbial engineering. They were happening in tree stump removal.

The CIA’s concern

Soviet-era microalgae program - East Germany

Soviet-era microalgae program – 1980s East Germany

Microalgae technology remains, today, challenged on scale-up — only a handful of companies are operating at commercial scales, usually making high-margin food ingredients and nutraceuticals. Making algae work at the kind of scales — and costs — needed to enter the vast market for fuels has proven a tough nut to crack.

But it wasn’t considered such a far-out venture at the time. Tony Rimmington’s five-page report, “Single-cell protein: The Soviet Revolution?“, appearing in the June 27th, 1985 issue of New Scientist, took it all quite seriously.

In fact, the CIA investigated the technology as far back as 1977, in a Top Secret report called “The Soviet Hydrocarbon-Based Single-Cell Protein Program“. It was eventually declassified (in a sanitized form) in 1999, and you can download it here.

“The Soviets have six high capacity petroleum-based SCP production plants in various stages of construction and operation, and two additional plants are reportedly being built,” the CIA reported then.

“They appear to be having technical difficulties with the production process, especially in continuous flow fermentation technology, but all of the facilities under construction are expected to be completed and operating by 1980. The estimated capacity of the completed plants is in excess of 866,000 metric tons, possibly one million metric tons annually…equivalent to about 30% of the oil seed meal that could be derived from Soviet harvests of sunflower weed and cottonseed, the major oil seed meal crops grown in the USSR.”

The effort, in the end, was a failure. Whether it was the algae or the production technology that failed, we’ll never know.

One thing we do know. In 1990, about the only thing that was in plentiful supply were tents, which is where the troops come back from Afghanistan were being housed — a great big ring of tents around Moscow with all those young soldiers needing food now. And it was August, and the cold was coming and there was a housing shortage. You didn’t need a CIA report to see that the pressure was building, and that food was at the heart of it, and that there was going to be the devil to pay.

At the time the report was commissioned, the Director at CIA was George H.W. Bush, later the 41st US President and a cold warrior in both the Nixon and Reagan Administrations. There’s no reason to suppose the Director read such a technical assessment, but it is reflective of an awareness at the Agency, during that time, of the strategic dimensions in agriculture.

The nexus of agriculture and biological warfare

Biotechnology was of immense interest too. As Rimmington later wrote in “The Soviet Union’s Offensive Program,” “throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union was successful in developing an offensive biological weapons capability that gave it overwhelming superiority in these weapons over the United States and other Western countries…Most significantly, it developed specially-adapted multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles for delivery of its biological weapons, designed to totally disrupt civilian activities in targeted countries.”

Within the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture there was the program code named Ekologiya, which employed as many as 10,000 people and included anti-livestock as well as anti-crop weapons aimed at, for example, wheat, rye, rice and corn.

The programs were managed together — the Biopreparat directorate using the single-cell protein program to “serve in part as the cover for Biopreparat’s biotech weapons program,” according to researchers writing in “The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: a history.” In their review, Leitenberg, Zilinska and Kuhn noted that a Russian firm called BIOEFFECT announced three strains for sale of Francisella tularensis, the microbe responsible for tularemia, or rabbit fever — a potentially fatal bacterial disease. In their advertisement, they noted that while the strains could be used to research vaccines, “they contained cloned factors of virulence” developed at Biopreparat’s State Research Center for Applied Microbiology.

In the 1977 CIA report, the connections between the Single-Cell Protein program and the biotechnology developments that powered the Soviet bioweapons program were not explored. However, the CIA, even then, understood the implications of the single-cell protein program on the USSR’s chances to meet its food needs and forestall the widespread unrest that ultimately toppled the regime. “One of the prime obstacles confronting Soviet livestock production plans has been a general shortage of all types of feeds,” the CIA reported.

“The most acute shortages are concentrated feeds — both high energy and high protein…the Soviets claim to have achieved a 10-30% increase in productivity…with the addition of 5% SCP to basic rations.” The CIA also pointed out that the USSR could have built capacity to provide as much as 2/3 of the country’s entire high-protein feed supplement by 1980.

Those kinds of gains would not only feed the people — it would continue to enable the USSR to divert more labor and capital to infrastructure, industrialization, defense and energy production. It was all based on massive intensification of agricultural production.

Productivity and power

It’s not a new strategy. As the British environmentalist Tony Juniper has observed, “In Roman times, grain production per hectare was one tenth that of today and the average Roman farmer worked 3 hectares. Combined with the increase in grain yields, productivity for a farmer in Iowa is one thousand times greater than in Roman times, and that has freed up Americans from working the land to work in industry, services, transport, research and finance — making the entire modern civilization possible.”

The height of Roman agricultural productivity? According to The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, the high-water mark was reached in the late Republic and early Empire periods — corresponding with the most rapid period of Roman expansion and the widest projection of Roman power.

It is a pattern that has been seen over and over again. In the rise of Mesopotamian agriculture, grain yields reached 30 bushels per acre in 2400BC — 50 percent higher than the height of Roman times, but had fallen to 11 bushels per acre by 1700BC. “As a result, many of the great Sumerian cities “dwindled to villages or were left in ruins”, according to the environmental author Edward Goldsmith. Indeed, the population of the great Sumerian city-states declined by 60 percent and they all fell under Babylonian rule by 1700BC.

The one-celled freedom fighters

Productivity and power are linked — the lesson of history not lost on the Soviets. For when their productivity fell — so too did their fall from power hasten and hurry. To avoid this fate, the Communists bet their collective and collectivist society on single-celled yeasts and algae. Roles which their barbarian one-celled natures, refusing to be tamed or turned into a new system of cattle feeding, so ill-suited them.

In microorganisms, the Soviets saw sheep suitable for animal husbandry and control. Instead, they ought to have seen one-celled William Wallaces (the Scottish freedom fighter of “Braveheart” fame), gurgling their choruses of “freedom!” as they helped to rip the Soviet system and its biotech programs asunder.

Biotechnology, it appears, is a continuation of politics by other means. Or so it seemed, in 1990 as now.

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