Stories tagged corn

Sep
29
2010

Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.
Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.Courtesy Paranoid
Check this out, my little ducks: Scientists have genetically modified corn, so that it produces a deadly toxin. And that toxin is now appearing in waterways across the country.

O.M.G.

But you should also check this out, my little chickpeas: That toxin (called “BT toxin”) is also naturally produced by the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which is already found sort of all over the place, including on leaves of plants. Also, all evidence indicates that while the toxin is deadly to certain insect species, it is utterly harmless to vertebrates (including people). Which is good, because most of the corn planted in this country has been engineered to produce the toxin in its leaves and stems,a nd that’s the way it’s been for years. And that may be good itself, because the bug killing toxin the plants produce can allow farmers to use a lot less synthetic, broad-spectrum pesticides (broad spectrum pesticides kill off lots of different bugs, instead of a specific few).

And consider this, my little Turkish delights: Those manufactured pesticides definitely run off fields into ground and surface water. See? So it seems like pointing out that the chemicals produced by the plants themselves also find their way into the water is a little bit of a “well, duh,” situation.

But science doesn’t run on “duhs,” my little Faberge eggs, it runs on empirically confirming or disproving explanations and ideas, whether or not they initially seem obvious. Because the toxin was contained in the leaves and stalks of the plants, it seemed less likely to get washed away in the same way sprayed-on pesticides usually are. But it got washed away nonetheless.

It got washed away, my little candy apples, but not in the same way—the toxin was present in streams 6 months after harvest, inside the floating detritus from cornfields. That is, the toxin was inside the bits of leaves and stems that had washed off cornfields, and into streams.

That doesn’t mean that the BT toxin is harmless, my little floral prints, but nor does it mean that it’s necessarily harmful. BT toxin appears to be a pretty environmentally safe pesticide on land, but that doesn’t say much about effects it could have in an aquatic ecosystem. It could be that the presence of BT toxin in the water is still much safer than the alternative (chemical pesticides), or it could be that it will have far reaching effects—Corn Belt streams end up in the Mississippi and Missouri River basins, and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico, after all.

So, my little rabbits’ feet, we should try not to be all, “well, duh,” or to get too freaked out about the whole situation. Before that happens, scientists will have to figure out what environmental effects the BT toxin has, and how those compare to other pesticide run-off, and how each might balance against our need for crops that haven’t been eaten by bugs.

Scientific American’s brief article on the presence of BT toxin in streams also brings up the issue of no-till farming. Scraps from corn fields ending up in streams is very common, apparently, but the SA article suggests that no-till farming might be increasing the amount of that kind of organic matter that end up in the water. No-till farming is a method of farming where the soil isn’t regularly plowed or turned over, and scraps from crops (crop residue) are left on the field after harvesting to increase soil quality. No-till can increase the amount of water in the soil and decrease erosion, but the remaining crop residue might end up in nearby streams to a greater extent.

If this is the case, my little supernovas, it makes me wonder if the crop residue from no-till fields is worse for the water than soil washed off of tilled fields (and whatever washed away with that soil).

I also wonder what becomes of the toxins in BT-producing crops when the crop residue is not left on the field. Because, of course, that stuff doesn’t just disappear. Crop residue can be burned on the field, or processed into ethanol fuel, burned in a power plant to generate electricity, or maybe dumped into the ocean. So, my little chitterlings, even without bringing our thirst for fuel and electricity into the mix, what happens to BT toxin in those scenarios? Probably nothing, for the most part, but, again, we don’t want to invest too much time in saying “duh.”

It’s all very complicated. But you knew that already, didn’t you, my little safety goggles?

Jun
29
2009

Super Corn!: Resistant to bugs AND delicious!
Super Corn!: Resistant to bugs AND delicious!Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

While every other industry in the world seems to be tanking and going to visit their loyal bankruptcy lawyer, science and the genome project is on top!

The cost of sequencing has drastically decreased over the past few years and now smaller institutes can afford to contribute to the genome project. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has recently opened a new research center in Norwich, England to aid farmers in the face of climate change.

Their main overarching goal is to help boost food production for future generations. They take seriously the threats of climate change on the global food sources. As such the institute is hoping to develop crops that are more resistant to harmful insects and can withstand severe drought. Outside of issues surrounding climate change there is great interest on the board to develop new strains of vegetables that will contain compounds that reduce the incidence of some cancers.

With more institutes like the one in Norwich and affordable genome sequencing we may well survive the terrors of climate change!

As Midwest flooding and rising demand for ethanol pushes the price of corn ever higher, Cornell researcher Norman Uphoff is developing a new way to grow rice. His method produces more grain to feed more people; uses less water; and releases less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Jun
13
2008

We’ve talked a couple of times before about using corn to produce ethanol, and how this increases the demand for corn and thus the price. Well, now there’s more bad news: the recent flooding in the Midwest is wiping out some farmers’ fields, reducing this year’s corn crop and pushing prices to an all-time high.

Aug
07
2006

Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85.  Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85. Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Biofuels are fuels that are derived from recently living organisms, such as corn or soybeans, or their byproducts, such as manure from cows. A recent study at the University of Minnesota examined the total life-cycle cost of all of the energy used for growing corn and soybeans and converting these crops into biofuels to determine what biofuel has the highest energy benefit and the least impact on the environment.
Corn grain ethanol vs. soybean biodisel
Two types of biofuels are becoming more visible as we look for alternatives to petroleum because of increasing gas prices: soybean biodisel and corn grain ethanol, such as E85. The study showed that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. However, the amount of energy each fuel returns differs greatly. Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy than is used to produce it.
The study also compared the amount of greenhouse gases each biofuel released into the environment when used. Soybean biodiesel produces 41% less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel while corn grain ethanol produces 12% less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.
Not a silver bullet
The researchers conducting this study caution that neither biofuel is ready to replace petroleum. Even if all current U.S. corn and soybean production were dedicated to biofuels production, it would still only meet 12 percent of gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand, and we still need to produce these crops for food. Biofuels are steps in the right direction, however, and can be a piece of the overall puzzle needed to be put together to solve our energy needs.