Ethanol corn approved

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is deregulating a variety of corn genetically engineered to facilitate ethanol production.

Chemical and Engineering News said the decision — denounced by environmental groups — clears the way for farmers to plant corn that is genetically modified to produce alpha-amylase, an enzyme that rapidly breaks down starch into sugar. It also marks the first U.S. approval of a biotech crop designed specifically for boosting ethanol production.

Corn seed with the amylase trait is to be sold by Syngenta under the name Enogen.

But grain millers and food manufacturers are concerned that the amylase trait will escape from Enogen crops and inevitably comingle with corn intended for human consumption. Although FDA deemed the amylase trait safe for use in food in 2007, the groups are worried that it will affect the quality and shelf-life of processed foods containing corn.

Syngenta plans to work with a limited number of ethanol plants and corn growers this year, and the company is preparing for large-scale commercial planting of Enogen corn in 2012, Chemical and Engineering News reported. The company said it will manage the production of Enogen corn "using a contracted, closed production system."

Is that enough?

A blog post by UCLA economics professor Matthew Kahn considers this "spatial externality issue."

Kahn writes:

"We have competing uses for scarce land and one use of the land (growing the corn ethanol) creates risk for nearby parcels of land that continue to grow corn for food. So, this sounds like we need a MOAT.

"We need firewalls between these two types of corn to make sure that my frito chips do not become soggy or crumbly. I would like to ask a scientist here --- how would these corn fields "co-mingle"? Would wind patterns do it? Or birds eating in one place and pooping in another? Would a physical separation of these corn fields be sufficient to minimize the probability of this "contamination" of the food corn? ...

"What investments can be made upfront to minimize the probability of this bad scenario? How do we minimize the probability of cross-pollination? The creation of a spatial moat between these two types of corn offers one potential solution. Armed with GIS maps of which corn is grown where -- this would help to reduce the probability of crossed corn."

Click here to read more of Kahn's commentary on The Christian Science Monitor web site.