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Will USDA Head Vilsack Cheerlead Syngenta's New Controversial Biofuel Frankencorn?

Washington, D.C. - A new gene-altered corn promises to make fuel ethanol
greener and cheaper.

The corn, developed by Syngenta AG, requires less energy and water to turn
into ethanol, and theoretically can produce more ethanol per bushel.

But the prospect of this designer corn going on the market as soon as next
year is giving the food industry indigestion.

The grain is engineered to contain a special enzyme that turns cornstarch
into the sugar that's used to make ethanol. Syngenta says it will take less
heat and water to make a gallon of ethanol using the biotech corn.

Government officials say the corn is safe for human consumption. But
companies that turn cornstarch into food ingredients aren't so keen on corn
that converts its own starch into sugar.

Syngenta is pledging to ensure that the corn is grown and stored separate
from other types of corn and sold only to ethanol plants. But the food
processors fear the Syngenta corn could still get into their grain supplies
inadvertently.

They've asked the United States Department of Agriculture to delay approving
the Syngenta corn.

The government lacks "adequate scientific data or documentation necessary"
to evaluate the crop's impact on food and feed products, according to a
letter to the USDA from trade groups representing food industry giants such
as General Mills, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland.

The issue will present the new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, with the
first test of how tightly he will regulate agricultural biotechnology.
Vilsack was a strong supporter of the industry when he was governor of Iowa
- the biotech industry's chief trade organization once named him its
governor of the year.

Vilsack's decision will be "particularly interesting since some segments of
the food industry are opposed" to the corn, said Jane Rissler, who follows
agricultural biotechnology for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Her group wants the USDA to ban the outdoor production of crops engineered
for production of industrial or pharmaceutical substances. "It is not a good
precedent to approve a crop like this," she said.

Syngenta competitor Pioneer Hi-Bred has taken a more conventional approach
to aiding ethanol producers: Pioneer is working to increase the starch
content of the kernels.

Two federal agencies have oversight responsibilities for Syngenta's product
- the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA considers whether a
crop is safe for human consumption and decided that it was after reviewing
Syngenta's data. The USDA had to determine whether the crop could be a
"plant pest," a threat to other plants and the environment, and concluded
that it wasn't.

Now, a conventional ethanol producer buys a liquid version of the enzyme,
known as amylase, mixes it with grain and water and heats the resulting
slurry so that it can be fermented into alcohol.

Steve McNinch, who has experimented with the Syngenta product for more than
a year at the ethanol plant he runs in Oakley, Kan., says the corn enzyme is
more effective. Less heat is needed, cutting energy costs by 10 percent a
gallon, and the slurry is thinner, which means the plant can increase its
alcohol output.

Before using the Syngenta corn as its enzyme source, the Western Plains
Energy plant could produce 46 million to 47 million gallons a year. Now it's
putting out 50 million, McNinch said. "I wouldn't want to run my plant the
way we used to," he said.

Lowering the plant's natural gas bill could yield a benefit beyond cutting
production costs: Ethanol made using less energy would show a greater
reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That could be important in qualifying
for federal or state low-carbon rules.

The nation's leading ethanol producer, Poet LLC, sees yet another reason to
get the Syngenta product on the market beyond its impact on existing
facilities. The company told the USDA that designing crops like Syngenta's
that can produce their own enzymes could speed the development of
next-generation biofuels, which would be made from grasses, wood and other
sources of plant cellulose, which is much harder to convert to sugar than
cornstarch.

So Vilsack's choice appears pretty stark: food or fuel. He has to pick
between the food and ethanol industries.

It won't be the last time he has to make that choice.