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Will the GMO Debate Ensnare Biomass?

Climate change not only presents difficult challenges for the energy industry, but also raises serious concerns about food security as loss of topsoil and desertification reduce arable land around the world.  Within this climate, genetically-modified crops (GMOs) will play a crucial role in supporting increased development and population growth.

GMOs are organisms, such as plants and animals, whose genetic characteristics are being modified artificially in order to give them a new property.  Last month, Monsanto, the world’s leading seed producer, announced that it expects African countries to increase plantings of GMOs in order to boost food security and economic development in the face of climate change.  Africa is the only continent where per-capita food output is falling, which also raises concerns about introducing fuel-dedicated crops.  GMOs could increase yields for both food and fuel, but international and regional rules governing GMOs represent a significant barrier to increased international trade.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one of the first international agreements to regulate the transboundary transfer of GMOs.  The Cartagena Protocol relies primarily on the precautionary principle, which reflects the recognition that scientific certainty often comes too late to design effective legal and policy responses for preventing many potential environmental threats.  Questions about the downstream health risks associated with genetically-modified food have invoked this principle and led to a zero-tolerance policy in the EU.

The EU continues to regulate GMOs despite a 2006 ruling by the WTO, which held that the EU ban violates international free trade.  The EU’s stance has limited trade between the US, Canada, and Argentina, which together grow 80 percent of the biotech crops sold commercially (EU’s ban contributed to Mansanto’s decision to remove their seed cereal business in Europe).

Given biomass crops’ heavy dependence on fossil fuel and water inputs, genetic modification will play an important role in shoring up the biomass industry’s future competitiveness.  However, with the US and EU still sharply divided on the issue, the biomass industry must dissociate from the GMO/food nexus debate and reassure the public that genetically-modified biomass fuel crops will not endanger public health.  At the same time, the industry would benefit from increased penetration of GMOs used for food, which would increase the agricultural yield of existing arable lands making way for more dedicated energy crops.

This post originally appeared in Biomass Intel

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4 comments on “Will the GMO Debate Ensnare Biomass?

Stephen Klaber

Why crops for biomass? There is enough weed biomass needing clearance to supply our fuel needs. I defy and implore you to deplete the Typha and water hyacinth infestations. If you do, you will quite drastically reduce many troubles such as desertification, diseases like malaria and yellow fever, flooding and cholera, and agricultural pests like Quelea. If you cannot deplete them, they are an inexhaustible resource. Aquatic weeds are the biomass resource whose use improves your water supply. The water they transpire is needed for farms, gardens and drinking cups. The silt that they leave turns lakes into grasslands. It can be used to repair and replace lost soil.

Russell Adams

Stephen makes some good points and we should always differentiate between biomass that comes from bio-fuels and biomass that comes from bio-waste.

The concerns Lawrence raises at the beginning of his article on food security, topsoil loss and desertification, are real and while bio-fuels may be a good idea in some areas that have plenty of spare farming land, in other areas such as the rainforest or Africa where the growth of such fuels is causing deforestation or hunger, it is not acceptable to put the needs of the developed world over the future of our planet or the developing world.

However, at is not practicable to differentiate between the sources of bio-fuels and I am pleased to see that some end users are beginning to refuse to use specifically grown bio-fuels and only use waste products. Even so the waste needs to be collected in a responsible manner to ensure the ecological balance is not damaged.

Using this subject as an argument for genetically modified crops seems flawed as does assuming it is possible to wholly segregate crops genetically modified for fuel and those modified for food, as surely cross pollination takes place.

Biomass waste is a no brainer once we work past some of the logistical issues, but is only a partial solution to Peak Oil and climate change.

Stephen wisely pointed out that there is an abundance of biomass waste we could collect for our fuel needs. However, we are lacking an efficient way to collect and transport these feedstocks, which would justify using them as a complete replacement to fossil fuels. Current technology is also incapable of converting all biomass waste feedstock presently available in a way that is commercially viable. Finally, our transportation infrastructure is not outfitted to utilize biomass-derived fuels to their full potential. Some drop-in fuels do exist, but the technology has not yet reached commercial scale. Even if these logistical issues were solved, we lack policies that would create incentives to encourage the widespread adoption of biomass waste fuel.

Biomass for biofuels faces similar limitations, but raises difficult questions as Russell wisely noted. The indirect land use issues Russell points to are important to consider, but GMO crops for energy, or even for both energy and food, should not be written off entirely. Genetic engineering of crops since the 1960s has drastically increased food yield in the US and could play a key role in reducing the ecological footprint of fuel dedicated crops.

Biomass and biofuels raise thorny issues, but also have the potential to help advance our efforts to utilize alternative sources of energy and combat climate change. We should keep every solution on the table for now.

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