The Crestone Eagle, January 2005:

Biodiesel and GMOs in the SLV
by Linda Spade

This past October, Blue Sun Biodiesel held the grand opening of its plant in Alamosa. Biodiesel is a good thing, right?

Gas prices have only recently come down from over $2 a gallon. Like a junkie looking for the next fix, the hunt for the last vestiges of petroleum is global, from the Amazon to the Alaska wilderness.

Blue Sun will be producing B20, a mixture composed of 20% locally grown canola oil and 80% regular old petroleum-based diesel fuel. Well, 20% is better than nothing, but since it is possible, why not 100%?

Legislation

So how are we so lucky to have a biodiesel plant right in our neighborhood? The Energy Policy Act of 1992 was passed by Congress to reduce our nation’s dependence on imported petroleum by requiring certain fleets to acquire alternative fuel vehicles. It was amended by the Energy Conservation Reauthorization Act of 1998 to include biodiesel fuel use as a way for federal, state and public utility fleets to meet requirements for using alternative fuels.

On October 21, Blue Sun opened their biodiesel plant. The next day, President Bush signed a bill containing a biodiesel tax incentive effective January 1, 2005 which lasts two years. It is structured as a federal excise tax credit, and amounts to a penny per percentage point of biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel for first-use oils like canola oil, and a half penny per percentage for biodiesel made from other sources, like recycled cooking oil. According to biodiesel researcher Nick Chambers, “there are 3.5 billion gallons of used cooking oil sitting in American alleyways.” The tax incentive is expected to increase biodiesel demand from an estimated 30 million gallons in 2004 to at least 124 million gallons per year.

Funding

Blue Sun’s crop research and development program is funded by a Department of Energy grant of $100,000 awarded in July 2003 and another $750,000 in July 2004. Their team consists of agronomists from the University of Nebraska, Kansas State University and Colorado State University. Blue Sun is paying a subsidized 12 cents per pound for harvested canola seed due to a $450,000 grant from the USDA.

Farmers

Blue Sun is contracting with local SLV farmers, primarily in Center, to grow canola for their biodiesel production facility in Alamosa. They are required to be part of a grower’s cooperative called BlueSun Producers. The farmers who sign up will not only be compensated for their crop but will participate in BlueSun profit sharing. Blue Sun met with valley growers at Adams State College and has 10 farmers under contract now and hopes to have 50 by February or March 2005. Fifty thousand acres a year of canola seed is required to produce 430 gallons a day of biodiesel. Once a farmer joins the cooperative, they obtain their seed through this coop and can choose whether to purchase open-pollinated “Oscar” from Australia or a genetically engineered variety. Two-thirds of the canola crop grown in the United States is genetically engineered.

Genetically Modified Canola

Canola is in the mustard family. Other species include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussel sprouts, horseradish, mustard greens, rutabaga, rape, collards, kohlrabi, turnip, Chinese cabbage, arugula, radish and watercress. All members within each of the species cross with one another. Canola pollen can travel up to 2 miles. Judging by spring wind velocity in the San Luis Valley, the pollen will likely travel somewhat farther.

According to Nick Chambers, Croplan Genetics, a North Dakota seed company involved in much of the San Luis Valley’s canola, offers 16 varieties of canola seed. They claim that the open pollinated canola is “the simplest type to produce and is normally less expensive. They show consistent performance and are comparable to synthetics and hybrids under less than ideal growing conditions.” They also offer three “herbicide tolerant” canola varieties: Monsanto’s Roundup Ready®, Liberty Link® and Clearfield®. They claim that these three synthetics make canola growing an option as previously “weed management had prevented canola as an alternative in a minimum or zero tillage rotation.” There is no difference in the oil yield between open pollinated and genetically modified canola seed.

Glyphosate Herbicides

Caroline Fox of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (www.pesticide.org) wrote an herbicide fact sheet on Roundup®. “Studies of farmers and other people exposed to glyphosate herbicides (Roundup) have shown that this exposure is linked with increased risks of the cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, miscarriages, and attention deficit disorder. There is evidence that they can reduce production of sex hormones and can commonly contaminate streams in both agricultural and urban areas. They have caused genetic damage in laboratory tests with human cells. Symptoms of exposure to glyphosate include eye irritation, burning eyes, blurred vision, skin rashes, burning or itchy skin, nausea, sore throat, asthma and difficulty breathing, headache, lethargy, nose bleeds and dizziness.” Anyone here have any of these symptoms during spring planting when there’s so much dust in the air you can’t see the car in front of you?

A farmer can spray Roundup herbicide over an entire field, kill all the weeds growing there, and not hurt the canola crops, as long as it comes from Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready”. Of course, the “weeds” develop a greater and greater resistance to the herbicide, requiring more and more of it just as we develop resistance to antibiotics.

According to the Center for Food Safety, a number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune suppression and cancer.

Genetically Modified Crop Bans

Genetically engineered crops have been banned in Europe, Australia, Africa and most recently, Medocino County, California. Apparently Europeans are looking at Americans as guinea pigs, and if we don’t show any ill effects from GMO’s, they might consider using them. The European Union has blocked imports of Monsanto’s GM oilseed rape.

Farmer Dependency

It has become illegal for a farmer to save his own GMO seed. Farmers can now be forced to buy products from multinational corporations without even knowing they are doing so.

Growing canola in the San Luis Valley is a great idea. It is a short season crop that can be rotated with winter wheat, it uses little water and tolerates cool weather. But let’s make it open pollinated canola. Then the biodiesel will truly be a win-win situation for everyone in the San Luis Valley.

GMO 101
by Linda Spade

Recently KRZA aired a Bioneers program titled “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop”, tidily summarizing the possibilities. In the program, a soil scientist was screening some genetically engineered plant organisms and found one that had a bacteria that produced alcohol in 17 ppm, which, if released, would have killed all plant life globally.

Genetic Engineering

Take a gene for a desired trait from an unrelated species (plant, animal, bacterium, or virus) and introduce it into a crop. The resulting genetically modified crop is sometimes called a "GMO," or genetically modified organism.

Example: Roundup Ready crops contain a gene from a bacterium that breaks down the herbicide Roundup.

There are two common methods for introducing foreign genes into crop plant DNA:

1. The gene gun shoots microscopic gold particles coated with genetic material into plant cells. The particles penetrate the cells, and some genes enter the cell nuclei and become part of the cell's genetic material. This applies primarily to narrow-leaved plants such as grasses and grains.

2. Researchers place the foreign gene into the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens then infect the plant with it. The bacterium transfers the gene into the plant's cells, where it becomes part of the cells' genetic material. This works for broad-leaved plants such as tobacco, tomato, and potato.

Mutation Breeding

Treat seeds or plant tissue with chemicals or radiation to modify (mutate) the plant's own DNA. Then grow the seeds into plants, and screen the plants for new qualities.

Example: Imidazolinone-resistant wheat contains a gene that prevents the herbicide from binding to its target site.

Seeds are agitated in a beaker with the mutating chemical. The chemical modifies certain bases in the DNA molecule, resulting in gene mutations.

GMO—a genetically modified organism.

Genome—the sum total of the genetic material (DNA) of an organism.

Genetic engineering—taking genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another organism. You can come up with such novel creations as potatoes with bacteria genes, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes or tomatoes with flounder genes. These creations are being patented and released into the environment without any testing.