Map the Corn Genome, Keep the Subsidies Flowing

corngenome.jpgWe all know that corn-based ethanol isn’t the route of choice to a sustainable future, but what if corn wasn’t really corn at all?

Researchers at Iowa State have pieced together the genome of maize and will announce it Thursday at the oh-so thrilling-sounding Annual Maize Genetics Conference in Washington, DC. Mapping the corn genome is actually remarkably complicated, as it contains about twice the number of genes as our own DNA and the act is being hailed as a milestone. The researchers even got their school’s president, Gregory Geoffroy, to opine, “Understanding the corn genome will accelerate efforts to develop crops that can meet society’s growing needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel.”

But oddly enough, the press release doesn’t mention genetically modifying crops at all. And genome mapping, of course, is a step towards enabling genetic modifications of various kinds to a species of plant or animal.

We’re all aware of the arguments against genetically modified crops both in terms of genetic spread and also consumer resistance to them. And whether you agree with them or not, if you had a choice, you would likely naturally choose a bred crop. So, it left us asking, what’s the upside to genetically modifying corn?

The answer: corn subsidies. From 1995 to 2005, the US government doled out $51 billion to the corn industry. By continuing to use nominal maize with some new genes (say, some draught resistance and overall hardiness from jatropha), farmers could continue to get subsidies while producing what could eventually, in effect, be a different plant.

Researchers like those with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of DuPont, are already trying to charge up corn’s oil output by locating a key gene in corn that controls oil yield.

In the greentech world, we might all be over corn, but the subsidies remain, and genetically modifying corn for biofuels is a great example of how that spending ends up impacting research priorities.