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Web Date: February 15, 2011

Ethanol Corn Approved

Agriculture: USDA greenlights a crop for boosting biofuel production but critics raise red flags
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: GMO corn, ethanol, biofuels
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Farmers can now plant corn that is genetically modified to boost ethanol production.
Credit: Shutterstock
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Farmers can now plant corn that is genetically modified to boost ethanol production.
Credit: Shutterstock

The Agriculture Department has cleared the way for farmers to plant corn that is genetically modified to produce alpha-amylase, an enzyme that rapidly breaks down starch into sugar. The Feb. 11 decision—denounced by environmental groups--marks the first U.S. approval of a biotech crop designed specifically for boosting ethanol production.

Corn seed with the amylase trait will be sold by Syngenta under the name Enogen. The seed "provides U.S. ethanol producers with a proven means to generate more gallons of ethanol from their existing facilities," says Davor Pisk, Syngenta's chief operating officer.

Syngenta first asked USDA for approval of the seed in 2005. Since then USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has conducted both environmental and plant pest risk assessments. On the basis of those assessments, APHIS concluded that this line of corn "should no longer be subject to regulation," says Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology regulatory services.

Grain millers and food manufacturers, however, are concerned that the amylase trait will escape from Enogen crops and inevitably comingle with corn intended for human consumption. Although FDA deemed the amylase trait safe for use in food in 2007, the groups are worried that it will affect the quality and shelf-life of processed foods containing corn.

If the amylase trait enters the food processing stream, it will damage the quality of breakfast cereals, snack foods, and battered products, says the North American Millers' Association, an industry group.

Industry data show that just one corn kernel with the trait in 10,000 is enough to affect viscosity in food processes, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). "Contamination could cause corn snack food to be too fluffy to fit in a standard bag, corn batter to be too thin to coat corn dogs, and corn bread to be too soggy in the middle," the group says.

Syngenta plans to work with a limited number of ethanol plants and corn growers this year, and the company is preparing for large-scale commercial planting of Enogen corn in 2012. The company says it will manage the production of Enogen corn "using a contracted, closed production system."

But environmental and consumer groups argue that Syngenta's plan for a closed loop system does not go far enough. "There is no way to protect food corn crops from contamination by ethanol corn. Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip," stresses Margaret Mellon, director of UCS's Food & Environment Program. "In this case, there are no required precautions."

Kate McMahon, biofuels campaign coordinator at the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE), is also disappointed in USDA's decision. "This type of genetically engineered corn would have no reason to exist if it were not for the massive mandate for biofuels consumption passed by Congress in 2007," she says. That mandate, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard, requires the consumption of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. Corn ethanol is expected to supply about 15 billion gallons of that demand, according to FOE.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

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