The GM industry now plans to reinvent itself, following the example of the nuclear industry, on the back of climate change. "Producing genetically modified crops for non-food purposes, as a renewable source of alternative fuels, may provide the basis for a more rational and balanced consideration of the technology and its potential benefits, away from the disproportionate hysteria which has so often accompanied the debate over GM foods," suggests the Agricultural Bio technology Council, an umbrella organisation for the biggest biotech companies. The Swiss corporation Syngenta is already marketing a variety of GM corn - one not approved for human consumption or animal feed - specifically inten ded for ethanol biofuels. It has just applied, with support from the UK, for an EU import licence - even though it admits it "cannot exclude" the possibility that some of this corn will find its way into the normal supply chain. The European biotech association EuropaBio is delighted with the EU's biofuels initiative. "Biotechnology will help to meet Europe's carbon-dioxide emission reduction targets, reduce our dependence on oil imports and provide another useful income stream for our farmers," enthuses its secretary general, Johan Vanhemelrijck.
But not everybody loves biofuels. David Pimentel, professor of insect ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, hates them. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," he complains. Pimentel's own studies have concluded that making ethanol from corn uses 30 per cent more energy than the finished fuel produces, because fossil fuels are used at every stage in the production process, from cultivation (in fertilisers) to transportation. "Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidised food burning," he fumes.