The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday it would deregulate industrial corn that is genetically engineered for ethanol production, saying the crop does not pose a plant risk.

Syngenta Seeds, which developed the corn, said its Enogen seed would be available for the upcoming season for a small number of growers and by 2012 for larger scale commercial planting under contracted, closed production.

The corn had previously been found by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be safe to eat, but it is an industrial crop, intended to cut the cost of ethanol production. The corn is genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that speeds the breakdown of starch into sugar, which would increase efficiency in making the biofuel.

The fear of groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists is that it will contaminate corn grown for food.

“The USDA’s decision defies common sense,” said Margaret Mellon, director of UCS’s Food and Environment Program, in a news release. “There is no way to protect food corn crops from contamination by ethanol corn. Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip. In this case, there are no required precautions.”

Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, wrote on his group’s website,  “Syngenta’s biofuels corn will inevitably contaminate food-grade corn, and could well trigger substantial rejection in our corn export markets, hurting farmers.”

Food processors are also concerned about the cost of monitoring their corn supplies for contamination, UCS noted. Syngenta acknowledges that processors will have to test food supply corn, forcing millers to cover that cost.

Syngenta Seeds maintains the corn will reduce the amount of water, energy and chemicals used to make ethanol; a third of all corn grown in the U.S. already goes to ethanol production. David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds, said in a statement, “The adoption of Enogen grain by U.S. ethanol producers can unleash a cascade of efficiency and environmental benefits industrywide.”

The Center for Food Safety argued that “it is irresponsible to engineer corn for fuel use at a time when massive diversion of corn to ethanol has played a significant role in raising food prices and thus exacerbating world hunger.” 

In the wake of recent announcements that USDA was deregulating genetically engineered  alfalfa and  partially deregulating GE sugar beets, UCS’s Mellon said,  “The USDA has placed the interests of the biotechnology industry over the interests of food processors and the general public. The agency’s priorities are upside down. Food is far more important than ethanol. USDA needs to stop throwing the food industry under the biotechnology bus.”