U.S.D.A. Approves Pro-Ethanol Corn Over Food Industry’s Objections
A corn that is genetically engineered to make it easier to convert into ethanol has been approved for commercial growing by the Agriculture Department.
The decision, announced on Friday, was made despite objections from corn millers and others in the food industry, who warned that if the industrial corn accidentally got into corn used for processed foods, it could lead to crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal, loaves of bread with soupy centers and corn dogs with inadequate coatings.
“It is going to contaminate the food and feed system, and why they are going to take that risk over the objections of a major American industry, I just don’t understand,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has been critical of genetically engineered crops.
The corn contains a microbial gene that causes the corn to produce an enzyme that breaks down corn starch into sugar, part of the process for making ethanol fuel. Ethanol plants now buy this enzyme, called alpha amylase, and add it to the corn at the start of their production process.
Syngenta, the company that developed the new corn, asserts that corn containing its own enzyme will increase the output of ethanol per bushel while reducing use of water, energy and chemicals in the production process.
By Howard Dicus
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Hawaii grows more corn for seed than for eating, and the seed industry is the new sugar for Hawaii, accounting for more than a third of all farmgate revenue in the islands.
All four of the nation’s largest seed manufacturers have substantial farming operations in Hawaii now, including farms on Molokai, Kauai, Oahu and Maui. The vast majority of seed produced is corn, driven in part by farmers growing corn for ethanol on the mainland, but diversification into other seeds is under way.
Using figures from 2009 for a report released Tuesday, the National Agriculture Statistics Service and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture reported that seed farms account for more than $222 million of the more than $627 million in statewide farmgate revenue.
Total revenue is up 4% from the year before, and also represents 37% more milk farm revenue as the dairy industry regroups on the Big Island, along with smaller rebounding in cattle operations and improved revenues for bananas, basil, sweet potatoes, head cabbage and other crops.
Drought, which has been a problem for local cattle operations since 2009, caused lower revenues that year in the flower and nursery industry, which had been the largest chunk of Hawaii diversified agriculture before the advent of the local seed industry.
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge has ordered the destruction of all genetically engineered sugar beets that seed companies planted in September.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco found that the U.S. Department of Agricultural improperly granted permission for the plantings without a detailed environmental review. White said his order will take effect Dec. 6 to give the companies time to appeal.
The companies couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in September alleging the USDA’s action violated an earlier decision by White.
The environmental groups say Monday’s ruling affects beets planted in Oregon and Arizona. The sugar beets are genetically engineered with a bacteria gene to withstand sprayings of a popular weed killer.
Last year marked a sixth consecutive year of dramatic growth for Hawaii seed crop producers, according to a recent government estimate, though the industry dominated by seed corn may be nearing maturity.
The Hawaii office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported the value of the local seed crop industry rose 26 percent to $223 million in 2009 from $177 million the year before.
The gain further ingrains seeds as Hawaii’s largest crop by value, a spot seeds have held since pineapple was dethroned in 2006, though other crops contribute more to the local food supply and commercial sales.
Industry observers expect the strong pace of expansion, which began five years ago after hovering around $50 million for several years before that, will begin to cool as the industry matures.
Last season’s big jump reflected expansion of operations by some producers after large land acquisitions in recent years that allowed the companies to build up research and farming, according to Fred Perlak, president of the industry’s trade group, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.
“I think what you’re seeing here is the maturing of the acquisitions in the last two or three years,” said Perlak, who is also vice president of research and business operations for Monsanto in Hawaii.
The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii-Manoa has received $20,000 from the Monsanto Fund.
The college says the money will support salaries and materials for “Gene-ius Day.” It’s a special program that introduces students in grades 4 through 12 to basic genetics and the function of DNA.
The founder and director of Gene-ius Day, Ania Wieczorek, is an associate specialist in the college’s Biotechnology, Biotechnology Outreach Program.
She says a primary goal of the program is to build a strong understanding of basic genetics at the elementary school level.
That way, teachers are able to present increasingly complex biotechnology topics in the upper grades.
A study published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science, finds that widespread planting of genetically modified Bt corn throughout the Upper Midwest has suppressed populations of the European corn borer, historically one of corn’s primary pests.
The area wide suppression has dramatically reduced the estimated $1 billion in annual losses caused by the European corn borer, even on non-genetically modified corn.
Bt corn, introduced in 1996, is so named because it has been bred to produce a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills insect pests.
Corn borer moths cannot distinguish between Bt and non-Bt corn, so females lay eggs in both kinds of fields, says William Hutchison, professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota.
Once eggs hatch in Bt corn, young borer larvae feed and die within 24 to 48 hours. Because it is effective at controlling corn borers and other pests, Bt corn has been adopted on about 63 percent of all U.S. corn acres.
As a result, corn borer numbers have also declined in neighboring non-Bt fields by 28 percent to 73 percent in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, depending on historical pest abundance and level of Bt-corn adoption.
The study, the first to show a direct association between Bt corn use and an area wide reduction in corn borer abundance, documents similar declines of the pest in Iowa and Nebraska.
Since the demise of pineapple and sugarcane, the seed industry has helped diversify Hawaii’s economy and kept important ag lands in agricultural production by investing millions of dollars into failing infrastructure such as roads, buildings and irrigation.
Not only does this ensure that those farmlands remain productive for future generations, but the investment has saved small farmers and the state from having to pay for those improvements.
While we applaud the Sierra Club for turning its attention to food security (Name in the News, Star-Advertiser, Oct. 22), the comment by Robert Harris that farmers are having difficulty finding land to farm “because it’s all being used for seed corn” is a gross misstatement.
The agricultural biotech industry, which includes seed corn research companies, operates on only 5 percent of the available prime agricultural lands in the state. Of those acres, approximately 8,000 are actively used for crop production, which conserves water and results in a smaller environmental footprint.
Recognizing the difficulty of farmers to secure land, many seed companies now collaborate with farmers to put new and displaced farmers back on agricultural land at affordable prices. Farmers large and small are growing a variety of crops side by side, and many now even supplement their income by growing seed crops. In addition, seed companies lease land to cattle ranchers, who are another important part of Hawaii’s food security picture.