US farmers are growing the first corn plants genetically modified (GM) for the specific purpose of putting more ethanol in gas tanks rather than producing more food.
Aid organizations warn the new GM corn could worsen a global food crisis exposed by the famine in Somalia by diverting more corn into energy production.
The food industry also opposes the new GM product because, although not inedible, it is unsuitable for use in the manufacture of food products that commonly use corn. Farmers growing corn for human consumption are also concerned about cross-contamination.
The corn, developed by a branch of the Swiss pesticide firm Syngenta, contains an added gene for an enzyme (amylase) that speeds the breakdown of starches into ethanol. Ethanol producers normally have to add the enzyme to corn when making ethanol.
The Enogen-branded corn is being grown for the first time commercially on about 2,000 hectares on the edge of the US corn belt in Kansas. In its promotional material Syngenta says it will allow farmers to produce more ethanol from the corn, while using less energy and water.
However, campaigners say the corn will heap pressure on global food supplies and contribute to environmental degradation.
“The temptation to look at food as another form of fuel to use for the energy crisis will exacerbate the food crisis,” said Todd Post of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger organization.
Although individual events such as the Somalia famine are caused by a complex combination of factors, several studies have established that the expansion of biofuels has pushed up food prices worldwide. A World Bank report released on Monday said food prices that are now close to their 2008 peak have contributed to the famine in Somalia.
The food industry is warning of the dangers of contaminating existing corn crops with the new GM corn.
Even a small amount of the amylase corn — one kernel out of 10,000 — could damage food products, according to data supplied to the North American Millers’ Association by Syngenta.
The EU, South Korea, and South Africa have not approved its import.
Farmers will grow the corn under contract to an ethanol production plant, getting a premium over regular corn.
Steve McNinch of Western Plains Energy in Kansas, the only ethanol plant to have processed the new corn, said adding a small amount of amylase corn to the mix — about 10 percent — would increase production by 10 percent.