GM Crops and Biofuels

Are European biofuels producers being disadvantaged because some countries won't allow the production or importation of genetically modified crops?
By Jon Evans | July 08, 2008
In many ways, genetically modified (GM) crops and biofuels are made for each other. The enhanced yields available from the current generation of GM crops such as corn and soybeans can help farmers meet the growing feedstock demand for biofuels while still producing sufficient quantities of food and animal feed. In the future, GM crops with even higher yields and entirely novel GM varieties of grasses and trees should make biofuels production even more efficient and inexpensive.

This relationship between GM crops and biofuels has blossomed most fully in the United States, which isn't entirely surprising as it is the largest single market for both GM crops and biofuels. In particular, it is GM corn that has encouraged the relationship to blossom, with GM varieties accounting for 73 percent of all the corn planted in the United States in 2007 and corn being the main feedstock for U.S. ethanol production.

According to Brent Erickson, executive vice president, industrial and environmental section, at the U.S. Biotechnology Industry Organization, GM crops have helped U.S. farmers to increase yields by 30 percent over the past 10 years. This should provide sufficient feedstock for the United States to meet its biofuels commitments, as set out in the recent Energy Bill, which requires that biofuels account for 36 billion gallons of the U.S. fuel supply by 2022 (up from 9 billion gallons in 2008). "With agricultural biotechnology, farmers can continue to increase yields of crops to meet the demands for food, feed and fuel," Erickson says.

GM Crops Not Welcome in Europe
In Europe, however, the relationship is essentially forbidden, with biofuels prevented from fraternizing with GM crops. Part of the reason for this is simply because the European biofuels sector is different than the U.S. sector (see the "Vive la Difference" feature in the May EPM), with many of the crops used as biofuels feedstocks in Europe lacking commercially available GM varieties. This is especially the case for ethanol, which tends to be produced from wheat and sugar beets rather than corn.

More important, however, is the continuing negative perception of GM crops in Europe. This arises from two main concerns: that the foreign genes added to GM crops might escape into wild plants; and that food derived from GM crops could pose a health risk to consumers.

Despite the fact that GM crops have been grown and consumed around the world for more than 10 years now without causing any major environmental or health problems, some European environmental and consumer groups continue to assert that GM crops pose unacceptable risks. As a result, although the European Commission introduced a comprehensive regulatory regime for GM crops in 2003, the vast majority of GM crops still haven't received regulatory approval in Europe.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, eight EU member statesSpain, France, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania and Polandgrew just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of GM crops in 2007 (solely comprising of insect-resistant corn). In contrast, farmers in the United States, which has a similar area of arable land to the EU, grew almost 58 million hectares (143 million acres) of GM crops.

The question is: Could biofuels offer a way to rehabilitate GM crops in Europe? European consumers are most concerned about the health effects of eating food products derived from GM crops, but there would be no such concerns with producing biofuels from GM crops.

Anti-GM campaigners obviously think so, with a number recently warning about the danger that biofuels would let GM crops in through the back door. For example, in February 2008, the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which prefers the term agrofuels because they think biofuels sounds too environmentally friendly, published a briefing titled "Agrofuels: Fuelling or Fooling Europe?" As the title suggests, this report is generally critical of the proposed environmental benefits of biofuels and had the following to say on the relationship between GM crops and biofuels. "Proponents of genetic engineering promote agrofuels in an attempt to break worldwide opposition to GM foods, even though current GM crops provide no advantage when producing agrofuels. GM crops raise unacceptable health and environmental concerns as well as lead to the further intensification of agriculture and increase corporate control of agriculture. In addition, crops engineered with traits specifically intended for industrial agrofuel use will inevitably contaminate food supplies. The use of GM crops and trees should not be permitted in the production of agrofuels."

Losing a Competitive Edge
But their fears are currently unfounded. Even European proponents of GM crops admit that, at the moment, there is no specific need to grow GM crops for biofuels. According to Dirk Carrez, director of public policy and industrial biotech at EuropaBio, the association of the European biotechnology industry, EU member states should be able to meet the target set by the European Commission for biofuels to make up 10 percent of transport fuel by 2020 without GM crops.

However, GM crops would help to make the European biofuels sector more competitive. "The more that you can increase your yields, the more competitive it is and the more bioethanol and biodiesel you can produce," Carrez says. "So is there an advantage with GM crops? Yes, of course, like there is for all other applications."

Despite what Friends of the Earth claims, GM crops and food are accepted and welcomed in many other parts of the world. According to the ISAAA, GM crops are now grown on almost 115 million hectares (284 million acres) in 23 countries, including major agricultural producers such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China.

In Europe, however, not only are most GM crops not approved, but the produce from those crops, such as the grain from GM corn, are not allowed to be imported. This situation is beginning to create real problems, because it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain non-GM grain from outside Europe.

This is already impacting European livestock farming, because it's becoming more cost-effective to import meat from outside Europe rather than try to purchase non-GM grain to feed cattle. It is having a similar impact on the European bioethanol industry. "We cannot import GM corn to produce biofuel," Carrez explains. "So what some European companies are doing now is producing ethanol in Canada and the United States and importing it to Europe. This of course consumes more energy and means that European ethanol producers are building production capacity in other parts of the world and not in Europe. That's a little bit crazy."

So although Europe doesn't currently need GM crops to help it meet the European Commission's 10 percent target for biofuels, having access to GM crop-derived biomass would enhance the competitiveness of the European biofuels industry, especially the bioethanol industry. In addition, recent European Commission figures show that Europe will only meet the 10 percent target if it imports 20 percent of its biomass, and if cellulosic ethanol makes up 25 percent of the biofuels supply. If that doesn't happen, Europe will struggle to meet that target.

Furthermore, future generations of GM crops should offer even more benefits to the European biofuels industry. The global GM crop market is currently dominated by the U.S. plant science company Monsanto, with its GM varieties accounting for 87 percent of all the GM crops grown in 2007. It sees the biofuels industry as an increasingly important market for its GM crops.

As such, it is putting a great deal of effort into further increasing the yields of crops used for both food and biofuels. This includes developing varieties of corn that can "fix" atmospheric nitrogen rather than requiring fertilizers, and that can tolerate low water supplies. "Monsanto is very focused on helping farmers around the world deliver more yield from the same amount of acres," says Monsanto spokesperson Darren Wallis. "This yield can be used for food, feed and increasingly energy needs."

The company has also developed a variety of corn known as Processor Preferred, which contains more starch for fermenting into ethanol, and is looking to develop varieties that can produce even greater quantities of starch. But Monsanto isn't just concentrating on corn. At the end of April 2008, Monsanto announced that it had signed a collaborative agreement with a U.S. company, Mendel Biotechnology, to develop varieties of perennial grasses as feedstock for cellulosic ethanol.

This next generation of GM crops will provide more benefits to biofuels producers and could put European producers at an even greater disadvantage if they are not able to utilize them. Eventually, this may provide the necessary impetus for the widespread acceptance of GM crops in Europe, especially GM nonfood crops like grasses, but Carrez doesn't think it will happen in the short- to medium-term. "We can continue in Europe for a few years to make biofuels without GM crops, but in the longer term we have to think about using GM crops if we want to have a competitive biofuels industry," he says.

Until then, it may be problematic for GM crops and biofuels even to be seen together in Europe, lest the negative perception of GM crops begins to rub off on biofuels. EP

Jon Evans is a freelance science writer and editor based in Chichester, U.K.