On February 11, 2011 the USDA gave the thumbs up to Syngenta’s Ethanol-Ready Corn (Enogen) for commercial planting.  Enogen corn is genetically modified to produce the enzyme alpha-amylase which converts the starch in corn kernels into sugar which is consumed by alcohol-producing microorganisms.  Thereafter the alcohol produced is converted into ethanol.  Enogen would save the ethanol plants the time and extra cost of adding a liquid form of the enzyme during the ethanol making process. Syngenta claims that Enogen corn will generate more gallons of ethanol from existing facilities while reducing the energy, water and carbon emissions expended in the process.  Syngenta hopes it will be an attractive crop for farmers who may be paid a premium by ethanol producers looking to become more efficient.

So what’s the catch?  Businesses currently squeezed by high corn prices will argue that the commercialization of Enogen will increase the amount of corn dedicated to ethanol versus food.  The quick response is that the amount of corn being used for ethanol is already accounted for whether it is Enogen corn or not.

The real question is whether Enogen is safe to produce and its potential affect if mixed with other corn.  The FDA cleared Enogen for human consumption back in 2007 and the enzyme is found extensively in nature and produced by the human digestive system.  However, the North America Millers’ Association believes that Syngenta’s data indicates that Enogen corn mixed with other corn will adversely affect the quality and performance of food products.  Furthermore, some scientists are concerned because Syngenta used genetic material from exotic organisms which are able to live in extremely hot water.  Finally, the USDA’s approval will likely re-ignite critics’ concern with the alleged lack of transparency in testing and research agricultural companies put into their genetically modified seeds.

The food v. fuel debate rages on.  Now there is literally more fuel to add to the fire.