The next genetic revolution?

We didn’t want GM on your table, but the crucial question now is, will we allow it in our tanks? Robin Maynard and Pat Thomas report

n recent years, as horror headlines about genetically modified (GM) crops have vanished from the mainstream media, it may have seemed as if those battling to stop them being produced had won.

In reality, the lack of GM fanfare has been little more than a quiet moment before the storm. The ability of biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta to improve agricultural production is viewed as a lynchpin in the success or failure of the biofuels revolution. If the biotech industry can cleverly reposition GM crops as a non-food, industrial ‘green’ energy commodity, it might just succeed in persuading an otherwise reluctant public that GM is a good thing.

Biotech companies aim to do this in two ways. The first is the genetic modification of crops such as corn, to increase drought resistance and yield and to reduce the cost or increase the efficiency of ethanol production. The second is the creation of powerful enzymes that will efficiently convert crop waste or plants such as switchgrass, which consists largely of hard-to-break-down cellulose, into ethanol.

It is estimated that it will take 10 to 15 years of research and development work to make the latter technology viable. But genetically modified biofuel crops are already a reality, being grown and tested in real fields in real world conditions, especially in the USA.

GM corn now makes up a substantial part of all corn destined for ethanol production in the USA and Monsanto reports that sales of its corn seeds and traits have risen 38 per cent in the last year alone. However, since these varieties offer no particular advantage over conventional corn for ethanol production, it is possible that the diversion of GM maize into ethanol production reflects the extent to which this commodity has been rejected as a food and feed staple. And as biodiesel production relies on oils such as sunflower, palm or soya, increased demand will also mean more demand for GM oilseed crops, in particular soya beans.

In Europe, where public resistance to growing GM crops remains intractable, planting of GM crops is still very limited. Most energy crops in Europe are in the form of non-GM sugarbeet, rapeseed and corn. However, Syngenta has recently applied for permission to import a GM maize into Europe for processing into fuel. The GM maize variety, ‘Event 3272’, has been modified to express an enzyme (AMY797E), a key component in the production of bioethanol from maize that shortens the time it take to ferment the feedstock into alcohol. The company have also developing a GM cassava for use in biofuels.

Food producers are also jumping on the bandwagon. In Europe, the Confederation of the food and drink industries of the EU (CIAA) has recently called for more GM rapeseed varieties to be authorised for import into the EU. By authorising new GM rapeseed varieties the CIAA hopes that pressure on non-GM European rapeseed for food purposes could be reduced.

Encouragement from eminent scientific and political figures completes the pincer movement. Recently, UK Chief Scientist Sir David King commented on a government website that ‘public acceptance is likely to be greater for GM non-food crops.’

Likewise, the biotech industry heartily welcomed President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address. In a statement the following day, James Greenwood, President and CEO of Bio – the biotech industry organisation representing more than 1,100 biotech companies, academic institutions and centres in the US and worldwide, commented that ‘the biotechnology industry can play a vital role in meeting the President’s stated goal of increasing America’s energy security by replacing imported oil with domestically produced alternative fuels’.

Greenwood went on to state that if the President’s Advanced Energy Initiative was successful, ‘industry will begin investing in commercial-scale biorefineries, and consumers could begin buying more products – including fuel for their cars and trucks and bioplastics – produced in America’s heartland. America’s breadbasket could soon become our energy fields as well.’

Biotech companies have also set their sights on other continents, where public resistance is lower or less organised and environmental restrictions weaker or absent. Here too, they seek to create a distinction in the public’s mind between GM as food (not acceptable) and GM for industrial uses (acceptable).

For example, President Lula of Brazil recently declared that GM soya will be used for biofuels, while ‘good soya’ will be kept for human consumption. A high percentage of soya is already available in GM versions and Argentina has recently established incentives to expand GM soya bean cultivation for biodiesel use.

Last year, Tony Blair’s Africa Commission declared that mass growing of biofuels in Africa, ‘provides a sustainable development path for the many African countries that can produce biofuels cheaply’. This apparently holy pairing of mutually beneficial environment and development objectives was also firmly on the agenda at the recent climate talks in Nairobi, held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2006. In a statement put out at the meeting, a coalition of rainforest and development NGOs warned delegates that:

‘The Genetic Engineering industry is keen to use acceptance of biofuels as a strategy to speed up GM acceptance in Africa, and the industry is working on a number of GM biofuel crops. Most African countries have yet to develop biosafety policies on GM crops, and are cautious of the difficulties in regulating and monitoring this novel food system, which could easily cross-pollinate and contaminate conventional agriculture.’

Currently, South Africa is the only African country that grows GM crops commercially. Persuading others to endorse GM biofuel crops as an acceptable technological tool to combat climate change would be a huge coup for the biotech industry, reversing years of hard-fought resistance by African governments and citizens to prevent GM contamination of their indigenous agriculture.

Whether GM or not, mass planting of biofuel crops would undermine the continent’s already fragile food security, as food crops grown for local consumption would compete for the best land with fuel crops grown for export, as well as driving further clearance of natural forests for plantations, as has already happened in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Oil palms currently dominate such plantations, but the biotech companies are developing biofuel GM trees engineered for insect resistance, faster growth, and increased cellulose production. Cellulose would be the key feedstock for producing fuels from trees, but the process requires the use of additional genetically-engineered enzymes to break down the cellulose into fuel.

To this end, biotech companies are working on ways to reduce the amount of lignin in trees so as to increase the proportion of cellulose available for fuel production. But lignin is the glue that holds trees together and the substance that provides the rigidity necessary for them to stand up. No GM tree crops have been grown commercially yet, but they are being promoted as ‘next generation’ crops both to produce biofuel and to act as carbon sinks. However, environmentalists fear that GM cross-pollination with natural forest trees not bred to cope with reduced lignin content could lead to forests full of ‘floppy trees’. Cross-pollination is an issue of wider concern, too. Tree pollen is able to disperse over hundreds of miles, so GM tree plantations could cross-pollinate with non- GM trees and contaminate much wider areas of remaining natural forest.

Biofuels and industrial biotechnology constitute a key strategic sector for the biotech industry. Their alleged role in combating climate change is being exploited to resurrect the reputation and expanding the planting of GM crops globally. Lax regulatory standards (especially in the USA) mean that unless the powerful energy of consumer outrage can be harnessed – and quickly – the GM juggernaut will be rolling down a road near you very soon.


This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007.

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