Why Monsanto loves ethanol

Biofuel demand is boosting sales of the latest biotech crop products.

Published March 26, 2007 8:18PM (EDT)

American farmers, spurred by ethanol frenzy, are planting the largest corn crop in more than 50 years.The demand is so high, reports Farm News, that seed companies are running out of the most popular varieties of corn seed.

At the top of the list are "triple stack hybrids" sold mostly by Monsanto-owned subsidiaries. A triple stack hybrid combines genetic modifications that result in three different "traits." In this case, the corn comes with built-in resistance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, and built-in insecticides that target two of the corn plant's most fearsome foes, the dreaded corn borer and the equally devastating corn rootworm. (The corn borer and corn rootworm toxins are derived from two different subspecies of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis -- triple stack hybrids thus include two different "Bt" genetic modification "events.")

For Monsanto, the apparent popularity of triple stack hybrid corn seed is an opportunity to tout the market's embrace of its latest products. For critics of GM corn, the rush to such varieties presages a future filled with weeds that evolve to resist Roundup and new generations of corn borers and rootworms that shrug off Bt toxins.

No doubt Monsanto plans to come up with new, "improved" corn seed products that will target new, improved pests, and will be able to resist new, improved herbicides. That is the treadmill that the human race has put itself on, and whether we'll ever be able to get off of it seems a highly doubtful proposition, unless food prices rise so high that biofuels become politically impossible. But that dreary quagmire is not the point of this post.

For some time, How the World Works has been convinced that the rush to biofuels will significantly boost the ongoing rollout of genetically modified organisms. There's just too much money at stake in the energy business for it to be otherwise. The popularity of the latest biotech crops is a perfect illustration of this. These seeds aren't cheap -- they are top-of-the-line products. But for well-financed farmers and industrial-scale agribusinesses aiming to cash in on ethanol demand, seed costs are not a significant barrier. It seems reasonable to expect, in the not-too-distant future, quadruple- and quintuple- and sextuple-stacked hybrids that do all kinds of fancy things such as incorporate herbicide resistance, targeted pesticides, and modifications that make the corn cheaper and easier to industrially transform into ethanol.

As more and more modifications are incorporated into a single organism, our ability to understand and predict how wide-scale proliferation of those organisms will affect the greater environment will become even more difficult than it already is. So maybe "treadmill" isn't the best metaphor to describe the current dynamic. A rocket launch into territory unknown might offer a more appropriate analogy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Globalization How The World Works Monsanto