New York — A type of maize on its way to becoming obsolete is getting a lifeline: it could be a key to making the beef industry greener.

Switzerland-based Syngenta Group’s Enogen seeds is a brand of maize used for ethanol production that seemed to be on its way out as biofuels demand took a dive during the pandemic. But a recent study discovered that when fed to cattle, the maize improved efficiency in beef output by 5%.

For 1,000 cattle, that means a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions equal to removing 35 cars from roads for a year, or sparing 50 football fields of feed crops in a year, the company said.

Enogen seeds may have soon phased out if it were not for the unintentional find, Justin Wolfe, Syngenta’s regional director of North America seeds, said in an interview. The sustainability of ethanol “over time, I think, is a question”.

Syngenta sees farmers pivoting away from ethanol production. Biofuels and petrol have seen demand setbacks as stay-at-home orders due to the Covid-19 pandemic kept cars off roads. Longer term, improving battery technologies are boosting the outlook for electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, the beef industry has been battling criticism over its environmental footprint, especially because cattle emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Alternative meat companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have achieved stunning growth in recent years, partly won by demonising beef as unsustainable.

In 2020, half of Enogen seeds produced maize for the biofuels sector and the other half went into feed. This year closer to two-thirds will be used for feed, and that could “easily” reach 90% in several years, Chris Cook, head of Enogen, said in an interview.

The research on Enogen is part of Chinese-owned Syngenta’s $2bn investment in reducing carbon emissions caused by agricultural operations, a plan announced in 2020. The company is conducting similar research, feeding the maize to dairy cows.


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