Texas A&M University scientists showed off to state and federal officials Tuesday a genetically engineered crop of sorghum they believe will be a more efficient and economical option to corn in drier parts of the country as the nation pushes for alternative energy sources.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M University scientists showed off to state and federal officials Tuesday a genetically engineered crop of sorghum they believe will be a more efficient and economical option to corn in drier parts of the country as the nation pushes for alternative energy sources.
Sorghum, which as a plant resembles stalks of corn, is a centuries-old grain common around the world but used more in the United States as a livestock feed. At Texas A&M, researchers have been working over the past several years to extend its growing season, allowing it to double its height to more than 10 to 15 feet, thicken its stalk and be even more drought tolerant.
The genetic changes make it ideal to raise in the South and Southeast where the growing season already is longer than in northern sections of the country. The climate also makes it more suitable than growing corn, which has emerged as a biofuel alternative used in ethanol production, particularly in the Midwest.
The cellulose from one version of the sorghum and sugar from another version similarly can be processed for fuel. Researchers said energy yields could top those from corn and at a more reasonable cost, making it an economic windfall for farmers.
"It's really a matter of national security if we can lessen our dependence on imported oil and turn to those we can trust, and that is our nation's farmers," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said after a briefing and tour of A&M agriculture and biofuel labs.
"For decades we have depended on what's below the ground for our nation's energy and now we can turn to what's above the ground. With the yields that are being forecast, with the continual growing season in certain parts of Texas and in particular the lower water usage, it offers great promise."
Some of the new crop could allow for as many as three harvests annually in areas like the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
"Agriculture already has been highly successful in providing this nation and the people with an abundant supply of food, feed and fiber," said Undersecretary of Agriculture Gale Buchanan, who also participated in the half-day briefing. "I'm equally convinced it will be just as successful adding energy to that portfolio."
Texas, with 1.3 million acres harvested in 2005, and Kansas are the nation's leading sorghum-producing states. A&M researchers said they've been working with their counterparts at Kansas State University in developing sorghum for ethanol use. About 15 percent of the domestic grain sorghum crop already goes into ethanol production, according to the National Sorghum Producers, an industry trade group.
Bill Rooney, an associate professor and coordinator of the A&M sorghum breeding and genetics program, said he hopes to have the genetically engineered crop commercially available in three years. Petrochemical companies already have been to College Station to discuss their interest.
Brett Cornwell, commercialization services director with the Texas A&M System, touted the economic benefits of the sorghum project for farmers.
"If a farmer's breaking even, they're not going to grow our product," he said. "What we're looking at with the sorghum is a solution that works in the right places with the right farmers and delivers to the farmers. They're not just in the game for God, America and apple pie. They will make money."
Cornwell said sorghum could be a "regional solution that works in the Southeast and may work in California."
"The reality of the bio-energy program in the U.S. is it's not going to be a silver bullet. There's going to be regional solutions. Corn works in Iowa. Obviously, it's where the feedstock is."
Buchanan agreed, saying he believed a key to energy independence "is each part of the country has got to focus on what it can grow and use."
"And clearly this is sorghum country," he said. "I think that's a reflection of what we've got to do throughout the country."
Source: Associated Press