If we end up stuck with corn subsidies built into the new Congressional farm bill, we might as well start looking at making corn ethanol production better. Towards that end, Syngenta said today the FDA has approved “bulk trials” of its new amylase-producing corn seed.
Amylase, an enzyme that helps break down complex starches into simpler sugars, is normally added to corn stock in ethanol processing. The new seed will actually produce the enzyme on its own when heated. Back in 2002, Syngenta said the work could reduce ethanol production costs by 10 percent.
This genetic modification is only the beginning for biofuel crops. We can anticipate that nearly every biofuel stock (like switchgrass or jatropha) will be put through the transgenic ringer. Genetic modification works best when only one or a small number of proteins can have a major impact. Proposed changes to crops for biofuel – like changing their cell walls to make it easier to turn their biomass into sugar (pdf) – are well within the current technology’s abilities.
Compared with generating better-tasting tomatoes, modifying crops for higher biofuel yield is easy. With whole food products, dozens of chemicals come together to form what we refer to as its “taste.” It turns out that traditional breeding has actually worked better for those sorts of changes.
There is one major hang-up for transgenic crops: Europe. Genetically modified crops are still not allowed in many European countries, although they are starting to gain a foothold. Opposition is especially strong in so-called “Old Europe,” countries such as Germany, Austria, and France, although even the UK is wary about GM crops. It remains to be seen whether European consumers, activists and governments will see GM biofuel crops as part of the new green future or part of the long, nasty history of the “Frankenfood” debate.
Here in the U.S., consumers hardly know that we already eat GM corn, so it seems unlikely that we’d get up in arms over putting it into our gas tanks. The big question here will be whether corn farmers will be willing to
switch from their pest-resistant corn strains to the new made-for-ethanol crop.