A new variety of corn developed specifically for the ethanol industry will make ethanol plants more efficient than ever and even possibly help produce more ethanol with less corn, but opponents are concerned how cereal, chips and corn dogs would be affected if it were to be mixed with food-grade corn.
On Feb. 11, the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced its decision to deregulate Enogen. A press release from the North Dakota Agriculture Department states this corn variety is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme, alpha amylase, that breaks down starch into fermentable sugars.
State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said the decision has been a long time coming.
"I was happy to see that they have finally moved on it," Goehring said. "It's been sitting there for a year and a half with APHIS and USDA, and no action has actually come about."
"I was pleased," he added. "I was pleased to see that we'll have another opportunity to access another trait that will help us in so many respects produce ethanol, use less energy and give producers an opportunity to have another tool in the toolbox."
Canada approved Enogen for cultivation in 2008, and it is approved for import into Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia and Taiwan.
Enogen and the corn amylase trait it is genetically engineered with were created by Syngenta, based in Basel, Switzerland. Goehring said Syngenta will monitor where Enogen is planted to ensure it does not mix with food-grade corn. While Enogen is safe for human and animal consumption, it is first and foremost a variety bred for industrial use, and consequently has properties making it less than ideal for use in food.
"It's all right to eat it, there's nothing wrong with it," Goehring said. "It's just that some processors who had some concern and felt that with the amylase in there, the enzyme itself, it will start breaking the starch down quicker. So for something like a chip, it may not hold together as well."
Mary Waters, president of the North American Millers' Association, which represents large companies such as General Mills Inc. and PepsiCo/Quaker Oats, as well as North Dakota companies Minot Milling and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, said she was disappointed in the USDA's decision to deregulate Enogen.
"We were concerned. We don't think USDA gave the public enough time to review the science behind that, and we've had some concerns based on some information Syngenta provided us last spring about some functionality issues with that," Waters said.
She was alluding to the amylase enzyme activating and breaking down the starches into sugars. Waters stressed this isn't a food safety concern, but a concern about working with food products made from corn.
Waters went on to explain that corn starch is used as a thickening agent and to make extruded products such as shaped cereal or shaped snack products. If the starch were to break down, it would mean corn-based food products might literally start falling apart.
"It would affect thickening, it would affect shaping, it would affect making things stick to things, like corn dogs having the corn batter stick to the hot dog," Waters said. "You know, all those things are possible because of the use of starch. So if you have a product that breaks down starch, which is good for the ethanol processing industry, that's something that they need to do. We're concerned about the impact it would have on our ability to make the food products that we're talking about."
In a presentation attended by NAMA cereal scientists given this past spring by Syngenta, one of their tests found that one kernel of Enogen corn mixed with 10,000 kernels of regular corn would be enough to impact a batch of whatever was being made. Although it can vary widely depending on corn variety, there can be anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 kernels in an average bushel of corn.
According to Goehring, before the enzyme can be activated it has to be at certain temperatures, ph levels and moisture levels. These conditions are generally only met in the ethanol-making process. Goehring noted this enzyme is the same one found in the saliva of human beings.
"But again it goes back to the issue about ph, temperature and moisture. You have to get to those levels first before you even activate the enzyme," he said. "So under normal processing procedures there shouldn't be an issue."
This new corn variety should make producing ethanol that much easier and more energy efficient, Goehring said. He added that certain varieties of corn might also be able to increase the amount of ethanol that can be produced.
"Once you hit a certain ph, certain temperature and certain moisture level, it will actually activate the enzyme and start fermenting the sugars much quicker so less heat is required in the ethanol process," Goehring said. "Saving more energy and producing more ethanol."
Even before this new variety, he said the ethanol industry has become more efficient over the past decade.
"I remember when we used to pull 2.3, 2.4 gallons of ethanol out of a bushel of corn. Now we're getting 2.7, 2.8 gallons. So I imagine they're going to continue to tweak that, squeeze it and create even more efficiencies," Goehring said. "And it just means that corn varieties are getting better. It also means that new technologies are available and we have unique traits like this (corn amylase) that help us get there also."
The Enogen variety will be available in limited quantities this spring. Goehring hasn't had any specific discussions with Syngenta, but said southeastern North Dakota could possibly utilize it as early as this spring if Syngenta made it available, with the rest of the state probably getting it in the coming years.
Because of concerns over cross-pollination and mixing with food-grade corn, Syngenta will only allow Enogen to be planted around ethanol plants, and the corn will be contracted for sale to those plants. Because ethanol plants will be reducing costs by using the Enogen variety, there will be a premium added to the price growers receive. This makes Enogen not only beneficial to the ethanol plants, but the growers as well.
"They (Syngenta) want to make sure that their product is specific for ethanol plants, that producers are aware that (they shouldn't) buy this just to have it. There's got to be value in the trade, so (it's) targeted towards ethanol plants because there's supposed to be a premium associated with this corn," Goehring said. "So you're going to want to receive the premium out of it, and that's one way of connecting the ethanol facility with the grower."
Waters isn't convinced these safeguards will work completely. Considering Enogen contains an alpha trait that affects the plant after it's harvested, she believes more care should have been taken before the USDA deregulated it.
"This is not an agrinomic trait about going into the fields and being able to use crop chemicals with the product," Waters said. "This is one that affects the use of the product, an alpha trait, not an agrinomic trait."
She said it will be difficult to keep every Enogen kernel from slipping through the cracks of the safeguards. If some Enogen kernels are mixed with food-grade corn the products made from that batch could break down if all the conditions to activate the enzyme are met. If this string of events does happen, Waters wonders who will ultimately bear the responsibility.
"We're not growing the product so it's not making our life any easier. We're not selling the product so we're not getting any profits from it," she said. "But we could be damaged by the product, and who bears the responsibility of that?"
Another concern of some is using corn to fuel cars instead of people. Goehring said no food-grade corn has ever been used in ethanol production. He said food-grade corn for human consumption is contracted mostly in the I-states - Idaho, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa - as well as in Minnesota. The rest of the corn produced in the United States is used for animal feed and industrial purposes. He noted almost all of North Dakota's corn crop is used for animal feed and industrial purposes.
Goehring said food-grade corn isn't being squeezed out of the market by increased ethanol activity. As corn is ultimately a perishable product, the processors who contract it want to keep a good handle on exactly how much is produced so they don't end up throwing excess corn away.
He went on to state that only a couple million corn acres nationwide out of roughly 78 million total acres actually go into food production. In other words, corn used for ethanol isn't planted at the expense of corn used for food.
As for feed-grade corn used for animals, Goehring said those supplies have actually increased in the last few years.
"We've increased the amount of (feed-grade) corn surplus in stocks by over 20 percent in the last five years," Goehring said. "So we continue to produce more and we're actually offsetting what originally had went into ethanol production anyway. So we're producing more corn."