Ethanol’s future seems to go hand-in-hand with biotech, as evidenced by reports including a recent article by AP’s Paul Elias. But within all the news, there’s a worthwhile distinction to be made about what’s being genetically engineered.
One strain of research aims to make corn more compatible with fuel production. For instance Syngenta has genetically modified corn plants to include the alpha amylase enzyme, which performs the first step in the process of turning kernels into fuel. With this corn, ethanol plants would require one less additive, and therefore one less cost.
Of course this corn carries the issues that come with genetically modifying crops used for food. But it could also extend corn’s life as an ethanol source by making it more efficient—something that will matter a lot to corn farmers as better, non-corn sources like switchgrass rapidly displace corn as the preferred feedstock over the next decade.
Other research focuses on bio-engineering the non-feedstock components of the ethanol process, to make them, in part, less expensive. Elias reports that with much of the research, “The idea is to genetically engineer microscopic bugs such as bacteria and fungus to spit out enzymes that will break down just about every imaginable crop into ethanol.”
This “inside” approach to genetic engineering, so called because it deals with components used inside the ethanol-producing plant, could dramatically change the ethanol-farm economy. When enzymes and other additives for the processing of cellulosic ethanol become affordable, corn will fall out of sight as a feedstock—and corn farmers know it. Whether the inside approach is safer in terms of unintended consequences to the food system and beyond? That remains to be seen.