Bond commits to corn-based ethanol industry despite critics

Wednesday, June 4, 2008 | 3:07 p.m. CDT; updated 3:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

CREVE COUER — Sen. Kit Bond renewed his commitment to the corn-based ethanol industry Wednesday, despite a growing number of critics who blame rising food prices on crop-based fuels.

“The cost-of-food impact of ethanol is almost immeasurable,” Bond said. “Ethanol, by lowering the cost of transportation, is helping lower the cost of food.”

Bond made his comments after hosting a panel discussion about the future use of biofuels at The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. The biofuels business has boomed since Congress mandated renewable fuel use in 2005. But the recent spike in global food prices has caused many to reconsider the wisdom of diverting food into gasoline tanks.

The current controversy didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm for biofuels for the panel of researchers and professors who spoke.

“To me, it’s polarizing the discussion. I am among the group of scientists who believe it’s not an either-or choice,” Roger Beachy, Danforth Center president said. The center is helping boost biofuels use, having received a $1.2 million grant to enhance oil production from soy beans.

Panelists laid out a number of research projects they say could one day help replace fossil fuels with biofuels, from energy-producing algae to the use of trees to make cellulosic ethanol.

Washington University Professor Himadri Pakrasi said small “reactors” full of algae could be placed near coal-powered plants, using carbon emissions from the coal stacks as a feed stock to generate power.

Jerry Steiner, Monsanto Co. executive vice president, took a more conventional approach. He said corn-based ethanol will only become more practical as the corn plant becomes more efficient. Genetic engineering and advanced breeding could make an acre of land yield twice as much corn as it does today by the year 2030, he said.

“Our focus is on growing yield sustainably,” Steiner said. Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company, is trying to break further into the market for corn seeds by developing drought and pest-tolerant seeds.

As food prices climb, the biofuels industry is facing opposition from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food lobbying trade group. Spokesman Scott Openshaw said the group is calling on legislators to reconsider the mandates for renewable fuels.

“There is no question that there are many members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, that are looking at this anew,” Openshaw said in a phone interview.

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