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Feb 102009
 

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

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.

The non-profit UCS, however, says that growing other types of plants for biofuel use would still be more efficient than growing row crops like corn.  The group is asking the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to exercise due diligence on the Syngenta request before de-regulating its use.

“We should be moving away from corn for ethanol and trying to get it from non-food crops; get it from switch grass instead of corn, and cellulose instead of food crops,” says Dr. Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist with the UCS who has been working on biotechnology issues for the past 25 years including a stint with the EPA.

These second-generation biofuels take less of a toll on the land, produce fewer greenhouse gases and don’t displace cropland for food production, she said.