Critic says biotech strain will eventually end up in food supply
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA has given the green light to the Syngenta agri-business company to commercialize biotech corn specifically designed for ethanol production.
Typically, ethanol producers must treat corn with an enzyme, known as alpha-amylase, to break corn starch into sugar for fermentation.
With Syngenta's new cultivar, known as Enogen, this raw material input is eliminated because the corn already contains the enzyme, according to the firm's economic analysis of the trait.
The company says ethanol producers will be able to slash their reliance on liquid ammonia and sulfuric acid during the manufacturing process, because the new cultivar doesn't require frequent adjustment of pH levels in corn.
The corn can also be cooked at a lower temperature, cutting energy usage for ethanol production by 11 percent.
Ethanol plants using the cultivar wouldn't need storage tanks, pumps and other equipment for handling raw alpha-amylase, further reducing costs.
Altogether, Enogen can improve an ethanol facility's net income by 9 percent to 12 percent, depending on plant size, according to Syngenta's economic analysis.
The actual boost in profits may be even greater because Enogen corn's lower cooking requirements are expected to improve ethanol yields, the analysis said.
Syngenta initially petitioned the USDA to deregulate Enogen in 2005. A final environmental assessment has determined the doesn't pose a plant pest risk, so the agency has now lifted all restrictions on its cultivation.
Even so, the company doesn't plan to roll out the new product on a large scale this planting season.
The corn is to be grown this year only in western parts of Kansas and Nebraska, according to The Associated Press. Syngenta hopes to eventually offer it to areas near ethanol plants in Iowa and other states.
Syngenta said it will contract with a small number of corn farmers and ethanol producers in 2011 before introducing Enogen on a broader level next year.
Enogen's commercialization was resisted by some trade groups representing corn users, including the National Grain and Feed Association, the North American Export Grain Association and the North American Miller's Association.
These groups urged the USDA to suspend approval of Enogen until the potential impacts on food processors were better understood.
Although Syngenta plans a "closed loop" of corn-to-ethanol production for Enogen, these groups said they feared adverse consequences if the cultivar accidentally enters the food supply.
The problem is that alpha-amylase is a potential food allergen, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that opposes biotech crops.
The enzyme is acid-tolerant, hindering its deterioration within the stomach and it's also heat-stable, which will prevent it from being broken down during processing, he said.
Freese said the cultivar is bound to end up in the food supply because Syngenta doesn't have an incentive to strictly regulate farmers' and ethanol producers' handling of the crop.
"It's the fox guarding the hen house," he said.