Biotech to Ease Ethanol-Related Corn Shortage

Published May 1, 2007

Biotechnology will play a key role in boosting corn production to meet the growing demand for ethanol fuel stock, two former presidents of the National Corn Growers Association told Hawaii state legislators and various farmers’ groups during a week-long tour of the state in mid-March.

Important to Economy

“There are real benefits to biotech corn, which is why so many American farmers have been quick to adopt the technology,” Fred Yoder, a past president of the National Corn Growers Association, explained in a public briefing.

“Since most of the corn planted around the world–including biotech corn–spent at least some portion of its development time in Hawaii, we want elected officials to understand how important Hawaii is to our industry as a technology incubator. We need to be able to continue counting on their support,” said Yoder.

Demand Growing

Facing rapidly growing demand for corn-based ethanol in the United States, scientists are busily exploring ways to modify corn genetically so as to increase yields and better serve the nation’s energy needs. The proliferation of ethanol plants across the country has put huge strains on America’s supply of corn, as farmers who use the crop as feed vie with colleagues who produce corn for ethanol.

Relief could come through application of agricultural biotechnology to the growing of corn, a process that is already underway. In 2006, 61 percent of the corn grown in the United States was genetically modified, compared to 52 percent in 2005 and 46 percent in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To satisfy the voracious appetite for corn from the food and energy sectors, scientists want to make corn more resistant to insects, weather, and disease.

“The corn used to produce biofuels is increasingly coming from biotech crops,” said Yoder. “American farmers are willing and able to meet market demands, and the crop biotech R&D being done in Hawaii is playing an increasingly important role in our ability to do so.”

Supply Problems Remain

Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees biotech will help increase yields. “Biotechnology can help improve the efficiency of generating ethanol, either by altering the composition of a plant species to make sugar extraction more efficient or by altering the composition of the enzymes that ferment those sugars into alcohol,” Conko said.

Nevertheless, “using more corn for ethanol means either using less for food or bringing new land into corn production, and that means either food prices will have to rise or undeveloped land will have to be brought under plow,” said Conko.

“Neither of those outcomes is desirable,” Conko continued. “Plus, government subsidies for corn ethanol will cause private capital to flow away from research into competing alternative energy technologies, which means that we might overlook a viable future fuel source.”

Further Gains Expected

Bill Niebur, vice president for genetics research and development at DuPont, told attendees at the 2007 Commodity Classic in Tampa, Florida on March 1, “The incredible productivity gains we are seeing from advanced plant breeding and biotechnology today [are] only just the beginning.”

Niebur reports DuPont is researching corn that would be genetically modified to enhance ethanol uses. “By applying cutting-edge science across the biofuel value chain, we will be able to help farmers more than double the gallons of ethanol produced from an acre of corn–600 gallons from grain and 200 gallons from stover–within the next 10 years,” Niebur said at the Tampa event.

Niebur expects eventually as much as 95 percent of the corn planted in the United States will be genetically modified varieties.

“It is great that DuPont is researching ethanol-specific corn technology,” said Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues. “Any extent that DuPont can raise net energy gain is a step toward weaning the industry off government subsidies.”

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC and author of The Green Wave: Environmentalism and its Consequences, published by the Capital Research Center.