GM agrofuels

[img_assist|nid=111|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=100|height=43]Since it became common knowledge that fossil oil supplies won't stretch endlessly, a hectic search started for other sources of oil. Especially the debate about so-called 'biofuels' or 'agrofuels' was high on the agenda in the last months, even though problems become obvious. GM agrofuels will also bring their own problems.

The idea behind them is to turn different plant commodities into fuels; not only by using plant oils but also by turning plant matter into for example ethanol. In this context, the prefix 'bio' - biological - is used to show the difference with fossil fuels; but it does not stand for organic or sustainable production.

The more appropriate term therefore is 'agrofuel' to describe it as an agricultural product.
But the name is really not the main problem. Oil prices are raising and in a lot of industrialized countries it is becoming obvious, that the price increase or even the loss of crude oil as commodity for numerous industries will lead to massive problems. It also is common knowledge by now that burning fossil fuels is one of the key factors of global climate change. Measures needs to be taken and therefore the EU for example decided that by 2010 10% of transportation fuels should come from agrofuels. This means that they should come from agricultural products that need to be grown somewhere, preferably - from a European point of view - somewhere else in the world. Somewhere where already now plants are grown as animal feed, cash crops or commodities for food processing. The potential producer countries are not asked. At the same time some EU countries (like the Netherlands, the UK and Germany) are trying to develop criteria under which the production should take place in these countries. Social criteria as they were for example though of by the Dutch Cramer Commission, are already abolished again.

”Solvent pigs”

The probably biggest problem in this context is already visible now. Commodity buyers for ethanol production are willing to pay much more for maize then the buyers from the food precessing industry. When US farmers had the chance to sell their maize harvest for high prices to ethanol producers, the tortilla prices rocketed in Mexico. This was also caused by the economic ties of the free trade agreement between the US and Mexico. By now, even the US giant CocaCola complains that the prices for high fructose syrup from maize increased drastically.
Already today, millions of people world wide have to compete for their daily food with 'solvent pigs and cattle' in industrialized countries because more money is available for their feed. In future, car drivers and industries with even more money to spend will take part in the battle over agricultural land.
A number of political groups are working very determined on these and further questions of food safety and food sovereignity, but there are also additional problems concerning genetic engineering.

No fulfilment of promises made so far

Until lately, keywords such as 'world hunger' and 'too little agricultural land' were the usual arguments to explain why genetic engineering would be necessary. Time and again it was repeated that some time in the future, biotechnology would produce higher yielding crops, and crops that would thrive under all kind of unfavourable conditions. In praxis however, none of these plants materialized. But now suddenly the lack of agricultural acreage is no problem any more. According to some politicians and to the industry it won't be any problem to use at least some part of the existing agricultural land for agrofuel production without decreasing the amount of food produced. In very general terms they talk about higher yields and the use marginalized land by better adapted plants. No word is lost why this would suddenly work when it hasn't worked for food crops.
At the same time calculations show that there simply is not enough land available for such high-flying plans: If for example all agricultural land in the EU would be used for growing agrofuels, then that would still not be sufficient to cover the current targets.

Running your car on eucalyptus trees?

[img_assist|nid=111|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]There are also a number of idea for specialized genetically modified (GM) crops for agrofuel production. Especially GM trees are often mentioned in this context.
An procedure is currently under way in the US to approve of GM eucalyptus trees for ethanol production. The problems with GM trees are well known by now.See for example GID 171 – Gentechnik auf dem Holzweg, August/September 2005, in German In contrast to the typical annual GM crops like maize or soy, trees grow for several years, they are ecosystems in themselves that act as food, habitat and symbiotic partners of numerous other organisms (animals, plants and fungi), and they can spread and reproduce vegatively as a well as sexually over great distances. The dangers associated with GM trees are therefore discussed with concerns in different circles in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
Another major problem lies in the genetic modification of food crops and the contamination during the food production.
The market for fuels and therefore also for agrofuels is extremely strong. Potential producers will therefore concentrate on crops that are already now can produce high yields on large scale and with industrialize practices: maize and soy for example. Ideas not to use food crops or not to grow GM agrofuels in the cultivation areas for food crops are doomed to fail. In the US, it was not even possible to restrict the growing of GM pharmacrops even though these plants obviously produce substances that are unsuitable for human consumption.

Contamination cannot be avoided

Imagine it would be possible to genetically modify food crops like maize, soy or rape seed so that they would be especially suited for the production of agrofuels, maybe through a changed composition, through the production of enzymes that break down cellulose more easily, or through completely new traits. Such GM crops would certainly have less nutritional value, or they might be completely unsuitable for consumption.
But what happens if these GM crops contaminate crops for food production? It is obvious that such contamination cannot be avoided: Take for example the case of Starlink maize where a maize not approved for food production was discovered in more than 300 products, or the contamination by LL601 rice that was only planted in a limited field trial but still managed years later to contaminate whole fields in the US and that is still causing massive export losses.See also
In nearly all of these known cases the contamination happened with GM plants that were at least intended for food and feed production. Not in all cases approvals were given, and in many cases different opinions exist in the US and the EU on whether they are safe to eat, but at least the aim was to produce food or feed crops. However, this will not be the case with plants for the agrofuel production, and if food plants get contaminated by such GM plants then these contaminated plants, harvest and seed cannot be used as food any more. Contamination then also means a danger for food safety and it can threaten food security and sovereignty. So far, attempts were made to smooth over contamination cases by stating that the GM crop might not be approved (everywhere) but that nevertheless it would not cause a health problem. But where does such arguments stand when seed is contaminated in such a way that the harvest cannot be eaten any more?
Specialized GM crops will also cause new ecological problems. Currently the approval policy bases its risk assessment on the assumption that the GM crops only differ in their one additional protein, and that it therefore would be sufficient to only test this new substance. This approach has been critiqued as insufficient for quite some time now. But how should GM crops with completely new traits be tested? How can one assess the (ecological) risks of a maize event that produces enzymes that should turn cellulose into ethanol at a specific temperature? A project like that has just been announced by US scientists. Or what about specialized bacteria grown in tanks that would fast and effectively turn cellulose into ethanol? Fermenter sludge is often used as animal feed or as fertilizer. It's easy to turn that into a horror scenario... and it's not a new one either.
Already at the end of the 1990s, a GM soil bacteria was developed in the US to turn plant material into ethanol, known under the name Klebsiella planticola SDF20. US authorities had already declared the GM bacteria as safe, when it was tested – more or less accidentally – by Ingham and her colleagues.M.T. Holmes, E.R. Ingham, J.D. Doyle, C.W. Hendricks (1999): Effects of Klebsiella planticola SDF20 on soil biota and wheat growth in sandy soil. Applied Soil Ecology 11, 67-78. They released Klebsiella on a plot of a test field that was left unused in another experiment. They got the then surprising results that Klebsiella significantly inhibited the growth of wheat plants. Presumably the ethanol damaged the mycorrhiza fungi that colonize the roots of the wheat plants. In the end it became clear that the previous risk assessment studies had used sterile soil to be able to compare the results.

At what price?

GM agrofuel crops will certainly cause a number of problems that go beyond those we know from GM food and feed crops. There will completely new ecological risks and the loss of food security due to contamination of food crops. All of that will happen in a situation where the food sovereignty of millions of people in the Global South is already now under threat due to the demand for agrofuels. The decisions taken by the EU show that authorities only demand a percentage of agrofuels, but that they care little where and at what social and ecological price these plants will be produced.
One thing is sure: In this situation GM crops will only harden the situation, but there won't be any miracle crops.

pdf: Transgener Treibstoff

A. Lorch, GID 182, June 2007.