On February 11, 2011 the Swiss-based biotech company Syngenta announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) had granted full deregulation for its corn amylase trait . Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator for APHIS’ biotechnology regulatory services, has been quoted as saying that APHIS “conducted a plant pest risk assessment and found this line of corn does not pose a plant pest risk, and should no longer be subject to regulation by APHIS.” Syngenta describes this corn as “the first genetically modified output trait in corn for the ethanol industry.” Essentially, has been genetically modified to express an optimized alpha-amylase enzyme. This allows the corn to break down the starch into sugar without requiring the producer to inject similar enzymes into the production process. Syngenta calls this new GMO corn Enogen. According to the press release:
“Enogen corn seed offers growers an opportunity to cultivate a premium specialty crop. It is a breakthrough product that provides U.S. ethanol producers with a proven means to generate more gallons of ethanol from their existing facilities,” said Davor Pisk, Chief Operating Officer. “Enogen corn also reduces the energy and water consumed in the production process while substantially reducing carbon emissions.”
Syngenta states that Enogen corn seed will be available from the coming growing season for a small number of ethanol plants and local corn growers with larger scale commercial introduction set for 2012. Production of Enogen corn will be managed by Syngenta using a contracted, closed production system.
Corn Millers have expressed concern that Enogen will contaminate their stocks. The Center for Food Safety, USCS’s Food and Environment Program, and the Union of Concerned Scientists have also expressed fears that the GMO corn will escape and contaminate food corn crops. The Starlink experience suggests that it is impossible to completely keep the GMO traits from pollinating nearby corn crops. There are some important distinctions, however. First, although it is difficult to protect corn being grown from being pollinated by nearby GMO corn since the corn pollen can travel long distances, it is easier to keep seed stocks from becoming contaminated. GMO seed stock can be grown in locations that are separated from other corn seed stock. The real question, therefore is whether the alpha-amylase enzyme that might make its way into the corn that is harvested for food use is safe. The FDA has in fact found that corn containing this enzyme is safe to eat. It is already used in numerous foods, including beer production. Therefore, the analogy to the Starlink disaster is misplaced as the active trait in Starlink had not been approved for food when Starlink was dumped onto the market with no thought or planning toward limiting the impact of pollen drift into fields of corn grown for food and animal stocks. Instead, the hazard posed by the corn millers is that the enzyme will cause contaminated corn to break down before, during, and after the corn is processed. I have not yet found any evidence that this is a valid issue.
Although the ethanol industry has been fairly quiet about this development, enzyme additives are not an insignificant part of the cost of producing ethanol, with individual plants spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on enzymes.
The corn amylase trait in Enogen has already been approved for import into Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia and Taiwan, and for cultivation in Canada.
— James L. Pray