May 2011 Archives

Piracy, Food Security, and Global Supply Lines

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I've just landed in Washington DC for a biosecurity meeting -- a chat about how not to get caught with our pants down.  Catching up on the news in my hotel room, I notice that over at Danger Room Adam Rawnsley is reporting that the Chinese are talking tough about "crashing" the land bases of pirates in Africa.

With regards to biosecurity, and its extension into other security matters -- food security, in this case -- I've been expecting China to get more aggressive on pirates.  And this is just the beginning.  China's food demand is skyrocketing as incomes rise, and much of that food is going to come from overseas (see my previous post "More on China's Economy, Food Production, and Food Demand").  The Economist recently estimated that of the approximately 80 million hectares of land deals in developing countries in the last decade -- "more than the area of farmland of Britain, France, Germany and Italy combined" -- two-thirds were by Chinese companies.  A very good guess is that a substantial fraction of the other one-third were made by countries or companies who hope to sell to the Chinese.

The motivation for this land rush is simple: despite plans by the Chinese government, it is highly unlikely that the country will be able to maintain "food independence" -- the ability to feed its population with domestic supplies.  So China's critical supply lines for food and other raw materials are going global, and those shipping lines often pass through waters off eastern Africa -- prime pirate waters.  Chinese shipping is also at threat in the Straight of Malacca.

It is thus no surprise that China is getting serious about piracy.  The U.S. should expect the Chinese Navy to be more active around the world, and we should expect more investment by the Chinese government in the ability to protect global supply lines.  We should also not overreact to this situation.  We know that it is coming, and everyone should be paying attention, in part so that there are no misunderstandings.  The U.S. Navy, among others, should get its ducks (and, admirals, and carriers, etc) in a row now in the form of real engagement with the Chinese Navy.  This is an opportunity for more cooperation.

Increasing demand for food will create more situations like this in coming years.  The security of all countries depends on getting this right, and not getting caught with our pants down.

Headed out for a little cruise...

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The NOAAS Rainier, just outside my office window, headed out to sea:


Osama bin Laden and PCR

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By now everybody has heard that bin Laden is dead.  R.I.H.

When I heard President Obama say last night that bin Laden's identity had been confirmed by DNA analysis (here's a post from Scientific American about how this might be done), I started mulling over what you might put in place to pull off this analysis quickly.

First, you need DNA.  US forces had OBL's, and everyone is reporting they compared his DNA to his sisters.  How?  If I really wanted to be certain, I would sequence some of her DNA and then prepare PCR primers based on that information.

Second, you need to check the suspect sequence.  There is certainly at least one of Idaho Technology's JBAIDS real-time PCR systems in theater.  Could be on the ground in Afghanistan, could be on an aircraft carrier or assault ship.  I doubt they flew one in and did the test in the air, but that is certainly possible.  (Side note, if you click through to the JBAIDS site, the photo totally makes the instrument look smaller than it is.  The box in real life is waaay bigger than a laptop.  "Man-portable RT-PCR" they say.  I say not by me.)

It probably took longer to fly the body out and get a sample to the PCR machine than it did to actually process the DNA and certify identity by RT-PCR.

So I have only one question: Who got the contract for high purity bin Laden-specific DNA primers?