Sunday, March 6, 2011

Things Are Getting Complicated Out There

So how much is too much genetic modification?

That seems to be the question of the month.

In a move that made me read things twice, it appears as if the pro-GMO world of conventional grain-for-food farming is taking offense at the next step in GMOs - that of corn engineered for industrial purposes, specifically for ethanol production.

And the concerns are the same concerns that organic farmers have against GMOs overall: unintended contamination.

The North American Miller's Union, which represents companies such as ConAgra, General Mills, and Archer Daniels Midland, has come out swinging against Syngenta's recently USDA-approved alpha-amylase corn, not because it is a GMO, and not because it isn't safe, but because if even a small amount Syngenta's corn (as small as one kernel in 10,000 according to NAMU) contaminates the corn intended for food stuffs, it could result in, as the trade publication Seed Today noted:
"Corn chips that crumble in the bag. Cereal that's soggy before you can get it to your mouth." 
Definitely First World problems, but problems nonetheless.

The FDA says Syngenta's corn is safe to eat. But the presence of the enzyme alpha-amylase (which is derived from genes from a micro-organism that lives near heat vents at the bottom of oceans) would cause the corn to degrade when subjected to heat and humidity, thus making foodstuffs unstable. The amylase-enhanced corn is attractive from an ethanol-production standpoint because it would eliminate some of the costs associated with the current methods of breaking down the starch in corn to produce ethanol.

What's interesting to me is that contamination is what organic farmers have been concerned about for years with GMOs. This concern has grown more urgent with the recent USDA approval of GMO alfalfa, which has the potential to spread widely and contaminate organic alfalfa, and thus put the organic meat industry at risk. But what we're hearing from lobbying giants like NAMU is that GMOs that may contaminate organic farms are OK, but GMOs that may contaminate conventional farms are not.

However you feel about GMOs, you have to admit that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

"We love biotech. We don't question the safety. It's just a question of can we still make the food products we make now," if grain is contaminated, Mary Waters, president of NAMU told Seed Today. 

The Wall Street Journal covers the story here. And here's the New York Times' take.

Stepping back from the squabbles between the GMOs intended for food and those intended for industrial purposes, I don't think the industrial corn is a bad idea from an energy policy perspective. If there was ever a time that highlighted the United State's dependence on foreign oil (well, other than the 1970s) it has been the past decade. The current unrest in the Mideast has caused oil prices to spike again and has pulled back the curtain on some of the unsavory lengths to which the United States is willing to go in order to secure a steady supply of oil. These political concerns, coupled with our ongoing recession and the need to grow jobs, no doubt helped Syngenta on its multi-year quest for USDA approval. And remember, lots of people don't want to actually eat GMOs, American farmers are pros at growing corn, and ethanol is a growing industry despite its downsides of gobbling up, oh, gazillions of gallons of water and its potential for pollution. So, even though corn isn't a terribly efficient grain from which to make ethanol, perhaps growing GMO crops - including corn - for fuel isn't a bad idea (Brazil, an energy-independent country, doesn't think so). But more on the United States' energy policies later.

I just think it's ironic that a group that has been so pro-GMO now wants regulations for the new kids on the scene.



  1. This is a great insight!

    We are deeply concerned about contaminated alfalfa for our grass-fed hogs, yet it all seems to fall on deaf ears. Glad to hear conventional growers may finally share our concerns (altho ours is for the health of our animals and customers, not how much processed food we can sell.)

    Green Gate Farms

  2. Erin - In a "politics makes strange bedfellows" type of way, this issue may allow organic growers to leverage conventional ag's lobbying (and financial) clout to bring about some needed regulations.

    Keep up the good work down there in Austin!