Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Union of Concerned Scientists Raises Questions About Genetically Modified Corn for Biofuel

Corn-based ethanol, once a star on the alternative energy scene, has fallen from favor in the past year, battered by reports that raising corn for fuel raids the world’s pantry and that corn ethanol has a heavier carbon footprint than originally thought.

Many now argue over whether the US should continue to grow corn for fuel or make the switch to grasses that can be grown on less desirable land, with fewer pesticides and fertilizers, or use plant waste to make fuel.

Now a new debate looms: Should the US allow genetically altered corn to be grown for use as biofuel?

The Union of Concerned Scientists wants to stop that genie before it leaves the bottle, because it believes that genetically modified corn will inevitably mix with and contaminate corn grown for food products.

Syngenta, a multi-national agriculture company that has readied a new genetically modified corn intended for ethanol production, disagrees. The company has applied for permission to sell its corn seed in the US, telling officials that it would control where the crops are grown so that the GMO corn would not mix with the food supply.

“Corn Amylase will be produced and managed in such a way as to avoid the product entering the broad commodity grain streams,” the company says in a position paper. It proposes that the corn be handled in a “closed look type system” that would contain the grain and further promises that it will complete “full-scale trials” and discussions with industry stakeholders before putting the corn on the commercial market. The company is targeting the US market, but would apply for import clearances into other markets.

The newly developed “Corn Amylase” contains a new protein that breaks down corn starch under high temperatures and could reduce the cost of ethanol production, according to Syngenta. The company suggests in the position paper that the product also could boost crop yields (though it doesn’t offer a figure). In addition, it reports that a “detailed economic study” shows that Corn Amylase could reduce the energy, chemicals and water currently required to grow corn for ethanol.

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