ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Ethanol and Biotech: Into the Future

By Lisa M. Hamilton

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.

Ethanol Fuels Boom in GM Corn

Chews Wise welcomes Lisa M. Hamilton, a California-based writer who is working on a book about American farmers.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

The current generation of corn-based ethanol involves familiar players, particularly Monsanto’s Roundup Ready and Bt corn, which are genetically modified. It remains to be seen what effect this year’s planting boom has had on the adoption of biotech varieties (the USDA’s Economic Research Service will release the numbers in July), but I haven’t found a person yet who doesn’t foresee an increase.

Possible early evidence is found in Monsanto’s Q2 report, released on April 4, which showed record profits attributed to “the strong demand that we've seen for our higher-yielding corn seeds and our higher-margin, triple-trait corn technology.” Indeed, their sales of corn seed and traits (patented GMO traits such as Roundup Ready-ness) increased 46% over the second quarter last year. As the report states, “Monsanto technology trait acres were up across the board, with triple-trait corn technology expected to be grown on an estimated 16 million acres, or up more than 160 percent when compared with the 6 million acres the technology was planted on in 2006.”

As an extension agent at University of Wisconsin explained, one reason could be that many of those extra 12 million acres will be planted “corn on corn” instead of being rotated with soybeans. “Putting pressure on the rotation like that means more pest pressure,” he said, “and transgenic corn will be a better tool for farmers to deal with that.”

An increase in GMO adoption could also stem from the fact that selling corn for ethanol releases any export-related pressure for the crop to be GMO-free. It could also simply be that in an economy of $4/bushel corn, the extra expense of transgenics is worth it. 

For some, however, the growth might be a matter of what seed was available. Last fall, foreseeing an ethanol-induced planting boom, seed companies sent their hottest seedstocks (likely the majority of them with GMO traits) to South America to grow out even more seed for this season. Even so, this spring seed dealers across the Midwest literally sold out of corn, meaning in many cases farmers bought—and plan to plant—whatever they could get their hands on.