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Crops being engineered for biofuels production, but ecological concerns persist

Monday, September 11, 2006 by: NewsTarget
Tags: biofuels, ethanol, alternative fuel

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(NewsTarget) Biofuels are just one renewable energy source being considered as the price of fossil fuels continues to soar, but a group of scientists has taken the idea one step further by developing genetically engineered crops for use as biofuels.

The idea has been adopted by many big names in the chemical industry; Syngenta hopes to have its genetically engineered corn, one predisposed toward producing ethanol, by 2008; Dupont and Bunge have joined to develop soybeans to be used as biodiesel and other industrial energy sources; and California plant genetics company, Ceres, is altering prairie-states staple switchgrass to allow it to be used as an energy crop.

"You could turn Oklahoma into an OPEC member by converting all its farmland to switchgrass," noted Ceres Chief Executive Richard W. Hamilton.

The primary strategy for biofuel crops is to alter them to reduce their amount of lignin, the substance that keeps plants upright but interferes with the cellulose-to-ethanol process, but experts say the crops themselves must be improved to be a viable replacement for fossil fuels. An Energy Department report states that the nation's entire corn crop, if it were converted to ethanol, would account for about 15 percent of the United States' petroleum dependency.

"Half the improvement we make over the next 10 to 15 years will come from improving the feedstocks," said Gerald A. Tuskan, an Energy Department biofuel expert, referring to crops set aside for ethanol factories.

Corn used for pure energy purposes would have to be incredibly hardy, according to William S. Niebur, vice president for crop genetics research and development at DuPont. He noted that the demand could be so dramatic that farmers would have to grow corn every year just to make a living, and because this would preclude rotating crops, it would seriously strain the nutrients of the soil and promote the buildup of insects and plant diseases.

This is just one of the concerns voiced by environmental experts, along with the fact that genetically altered plants could cross-pollinate in the wind, contaminating standard food crops.

The defense for such concerns is that the threat of cross-pollinated crops pales in comparison to the threat of a dependence on foreign oil, and that some studies have shown that ethanol crops may help fight global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide.

"After all," notes a recent editorial in the journal Nature Biotechnology, "it's difficult to oppose a technology that's helping to save the planet."

Also, crop biotechnology leader Monsanto says that its biofuel will not necessarily involve genetic engineering, as it has found conventional breeding of corn varieties already suitable for ethanol production to be quicker.

Unfortunately, according to David Nelson, chairman of Midwest Grain Processors, which runs an ethanol plant in Lakota, Iowa, the desperate need for fossil fuel alternatives has bred an indiscriminate attitude among ethanol factory operators, who will take whatever they can get.

The concerns expressed by environmentalists are not unfounded; cross-pollinations have already been discovered in states such as Iowa and Nebraska, and some experts feel that altering corn to compensate for the United States' fuel dependency is a mistake in and of itself.

Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "I don't think people want extra enzymes in the food supply put there to better fit the crops for energy production."


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