Syngenta CEO Michael Mack: Answers lie in sound scienceWritten by Jennifer Womack
“The biofuel industry is chipping away at petroleum’s market share, especially in recent years as we see a rapid growth in production,” says Aaron Brady of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Inc. In the U.S., ethanol now accounts for eight percent of the U.S. gasoline market. Some, with the support of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, are pushing to end the current ten percent blend cap on ethanol use in the U.S.
“If we were to imagine all of the world’s biofuel producers as one country, this biofuel nation would have been the number three source of incremental liquid fuel supply over the last two years,” says Brady. “This is really an indication of the important role of biofuels, especially ethanol.” Brady says that without ethanol, fuel prices in recent years would likely have climbed higher than they did.
Biofuels aren’t without challenges, but in most cases those challenges are coupled with science-based opportunity. Brady sums them up as:
The need to use land efficiently, harvesting the most liquid fuel per unit of land. Brady says the most optimistic predict that corn yields will once again double by 2030.
Economic challenges in the price of biofuels compared to the cost of fossil fuel.
Product quality, which he explains in saying. “Ethanol has only about 70 percent of the energy content as petroleum.” He says the next generation of biofuels needs to have performance levels equal to fossil fuels.
Brady says biofuels need to be produced in a sustainable fashion. He mentions water use in particular.
“The inherent solution to these challenges is increased technology,” says Brady.
Syngenta CEO Michael Mack agrees. “It is technology that can provide the solution to the persistent and growing problems in food security and environmental sustainability that the world faces today,” says Mack. “To be clear, for us at Syngenta, technology means an entire portfolio of products, techniques and expertise that bring out the best in biotechnology, crop protection products and seed care.”
Syngenta has several promising developments that Mack says “are just around the corner.”
“One,” says Mack, “which can power our cars as opposed to our bodies, is a Syngenta product called Corn Amylase, which we hope will be approved soon by the USDA. It could bring enormous bottom-line benefits to ethanol producers, about eight to 15 cents a gallon, which is a major impact on an industry that is struggling. By reducing the amount of water and energy needed to produce the same amount of ethanol Corn Amylase could improve the carbon footprint of ethanol plants by 10 percent or more.”
The company is also working on new enzymes that can convert the green material of corn, and not just the grain, so that the corn crop itself will be of greater value in ethanol production.
“We’ve also introduced a new variety of sugar beet that produces yields similar to sugarcane but needs less water, can tolerate the tropical climates of India and could be used for food or biofuel,” says Mack. “Plants can be an efficient and truly renewable way of translating the sun’s energy into our gas tanks, and with technology we don’t have to be forced into a no-win choice between growing more food or producing more fuel.”
Mack says, “Take sugar: Today, Brazil has become one of the world leaders in the production of ethanol from sugar, and no one bats an eye. The world is so awash in sugar, which is available from a variety of sources, including corn and beets, that people no longer think of it exclusively as a food crop, and sugar growers have had to actively seek and create new markets for their product.”
“The entire driver is productivity,” says Mack. “One hundred years ago, sugar was a coveted commodity. Twenty years from now, people will scoff at the idea that plants should be used exclusively for food.”
Long-term Brady predicts plants will be required to meet the worldís growing demand for fuels. “The world will likely need a more diversified energy platform for transportation if supply is going to keep up with future demand,” he says. “Undoubtedly, the biofuel industry is going through a painful time right now. There’s overcapacity and low oil prices are hurting the industry. But, at the same time it’s likely the huge growth we’ve seen in the biofuel industry is laying the groundwork for this diversified energy platform of the future, especially if the next generation of biofuels evolve and become a reality over the next several years.”
Noting some country’s opposition to genetic modification of key crops, Mack says, “So far, the United States regulatory system has been the gold standard on encouraging innovation through technology, and I have no doubt that if this nation can hold to its insistence on science-based regulation, we’ll find that other countries, such as Brazil, Argentina and others in Asia, will follow the U.S. lead.”