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Power Science

Switchgrass Makes Better Ethanol Than Corn 560

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the seemingly-easy-choice dept.
statemachine writes to mention that the USDA and farmers took part in a 5-year study of switchgrass, a grass native to North America. The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent. "But even a native prairie grass needs a helping hand from scientists and farmers to deliver the yields necessary to help ethanol become a viable alternative to petroleum-derived gasoline, Vogel argues. 'To really maximize their yield potential, you need to provide nitrogen fertilization,' he says, as well as improved breeding techniques and genetic strains. 'Low input systems are just not going to be able to get the energy per acre needed to provide feed, fuel and fiber.'"
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Switchgrass Makes Better Ethanol Than Corn

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  • by Hatta (162192) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:29PM (#22006524) Journal
    Switchgrass gets you more ethanol than corn sure, but that's all you get. Growing corn gets you fuel and food. Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.
  • by gujo-odori (473191) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:31PM (#22006542)
    Almost anything is better than corn. Corn is only popular in the US because corn farming has a powerful lobby. Sugarcane and practically anything else commonly used to produce ethanol is better than corn.
  • by nonsequitor (893813) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:34PM (#22006606)
    However switch grass can be farmed on less desirable farmland than corn, which leads me to believe that it will become a cash crop. This is just a preliminary strain of the grass and this experiment was to establish a baseline for future comparison. Something this heavily modified genetically I would not want to eat anyway so its a moot point.
  • Follow the carbon (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tepples (727027) <tepples@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:35PM (#22006624) Homepage Journal

    ...how switching one hydrocarbon for another (ethanol being two carbons, five hydrogens, and a hydroxyl group) will solve man-made global warming?
    The production of fuel from dead dinosaurs pulls carbon from the ground. The production of fuel from plants pulls carbon from the air.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:35PM (#22006626)
    Growing corn gets you fuel and food.

    Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other.

    Also, should your fuel sources be competing with your food sources?

    Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

    Hemp doesn't produce a sizable amount of food.
  • by primalamn (716272) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:39PM (#22006710)
    Because you are no using hydrocarbon that are in carbon sinks [oil] that would almost never see the light of day had we not dug it up. By using something like cellulose or grains, you have a carbon cycle. You grow the plant, which takes carbon from the air to grow, becoming the carbon holder, then you use it, releasing the carbon. But when the next crop is grown, the plant uses the carbon you emitted using the fuel from the last crop.

    Now, I am sure it is not a net-zero result, probably a net-gain in carbon, but you are at least using something that can take much of the carbon that is emitted for use back to make a new plant.

    And IMHO, anything is better than using resource heavy and subsidy heavy corn for ethanol and bio-diesel.
  • by Surt (22457) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:40PM (#22006720) Homepage Journal
    Please, please let it be sugar cane. Real candy is so much better than corn syrup candy.
  • by j1m+5n0w (749199) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:42PM (#22006764) Homepage Journal

    This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.
    If I'm interpreting this right, it means corn ethanol is returning 125%, not 24% as the summary implies. Also, switchgrass requires refineries that can deal with cellulose, which we don't have. (Not that I'm saying that switchgrass or miscanthus based ethanol is a bad idea, just that the summary is misleading.)
  • Ethanol is a good way to extend our comfortable behavior with little downside.
    Except it's not, really. If it was, I'd be a much bigger fan. But it's really just a red herring; a way of pulling the wool over the public's eyes, continuing to empower the oil companies, while also pumping some taxpayer dollars into the agribusiness and farm lobbies.

    I've only looked at corn ethanol in much detail, but that stuff requires MORE oil to produce, per unit of burnable energy (that you can actually pump into your car), than gasoline does. It gets fertilized with oil, harvested with tractors that run on oil, transported with oil ... by the time it gets to your tank, it would have been better just to use the stupid oil to begin with. At least the oil companies have an incentive, when they crack petroleum to make gasoline directly, to do it efficiently. When you're going oil->fertilizer->corn->ethanol->gasohol, with tons of subsidies along the way, the efficiency motive gets lost. It's not even carbon neutral -- it just makes you think it's carbon-neutral (and might let you *call* it that, depending on who's doing the accounting).

    Maybe switchgrass is a little better than corn, but I have some serious reservations, and this study doesn't dispel them (considered how deep in the pockets of ADM and the oil companies the government is). Show me a large-scale ethanol process, sunlight-to-tank, that doesn't take petroleum as an input and then I'll be much more impressed. So far I haven't seen one that seems practical.
  • Hmm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by richardtallent (309050) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:47PM (#22006862) Homepage
    Unfortunately, I don't see any candidates supporting the "Big Switchgrass" lobby (lol) with federal grants and subsidies.

    The government is *ALWAYS* ten years late on supporting technology, and usually picks the wrong one. Same situation with PV, hybrid cars, and nuclear power... about the time some lobbyist gets enough "representatives" to sign on to some legislation that makes their life easy, a new start-up or breakthrough makes them obsolete.

    One more reason to vote for someone who believes that open markets will drive innovation a lot faster than corporate/agricultural welfare, and that states can be more responsive when government needs to have a role.

    I know, I'm yet another rabid Ron Paul supporter. But at least if we elect him, hemp will have a chance to compete with switchgrass. Which will be great, except your car will have the munchies and will insist on calling you "dude" and "bro" when your door is ajar. ;)

    When your application doesn't work, refactor the code.
    When the government doesn't work, refactor the system.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:53PM (#22006954)
    Growing corn gets you food and fuel? No. Growing corn gets you food or fuel not both. And guess what, government subsidy making it more profitable to grow corn for fuel means corn prices are up since there is less suply available. This means feed for livestock goes up which means more expensive beef/etc. A one trick pony is what we need at this point. Something that is much more practical/efficient, and that won't have significant unintended economic impact.
  • Re:Balance (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CorSci81 (1007499) on Friday January 11, 2008 @05:54PM (#22006968) Journal

    since temps haven't risen in over a decade.
    This really depends on what temperature statistic you're talking about. Global annual mean? That's actually fairly variable on a year-to-year basis, but it is certainly hasn't been going down much in the long-term lately. And then you have things like the accelerating melting of the arctic sea ice that make it pretty clear something is going on. While the details of end result is still up in the air, it's pretty idiotic to think you can more than double the concentration of a significant greenhouse gas with zero effect on climate.
  • by FroBugg (24957) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:01PM (#22007106) Homepage
    Nonsense.

    E85 is available now. Not widely in the US, and the vehicles that can use it are uncommon, but it's definitely viable as a fuel source.

    Brazil uses ethanol from sugar cane in various formulations hugely, though. About a third of their automobile fuel is sugar-based ethanol.

    Regardless of what the article says, we're still a ways off from cellulosic ethanol. Once we master that, though, it's going to be a fantastic fuel source.
  • by AeroIllini (726211) <aeroillini@@@gmail...com> on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:01PM (#22007110)

    The production of fuel from dead dinosaurs pulls carbon from the ground. The production of fuel from plants pulls carbon from the air.
    ...which is then put right back into the air when burned in cars.

    Creation of ethanol also requires a great deal of heat and electricity. Most of that electricity is from coal-powered plants, and the heat comes from burning excess material, which continue to put carbon back in the air and pull carbon from the ground.

    Check out this graphic [nationalgeographic.com] for a comparison of the various biofuels. Click the Energy Balance tab to see input vs. output of carbon.

    Ethanol is better than straight-up gasoline, but it's not great yet.
  • by pigiron (104729) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:02PM (#22007128) Homepage
    Don't hold your breath waiting for the Democrat congress to cut back on farm subsidies.
  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:07PM (#22007188)
    Kind of like a cell phone hey? You can get one that makes calls really well, or one that makes calls and takes pictures, both poorly.
  • by Lost Engineer (459920) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:10PM (#22007226)
    If there's no corn lobby then why all the subsidies? Any economist will tell you we don't need them.
  • by thule (9041) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:13PM (#22007266) Homepage
    If I recall correctly, Bush mentioned a lot of good common sense things for energy back then, switchgrass was only one of the things mentioned. Didn't Bush also mention nuclear power plants? I wonder when people will also wake up to that idea again. I know here in California, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore has tried to put in bills for lifting the restrictions on nuclear power in California. So far, no luck.
  • by Jeremi (14640) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:16PM (#22007310) Homepage
    That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. I am not talking about being adjusted for inflation. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all. (not the case)


    Congratulations, you are a master of the non sequiter. The price of corn is not a good measurement of the power of the agribusiness lobby -- what you want to measure is how much influence they have over legislators. It's difficult to measure influence directly, of course, but what can be objectively measured is how much money agribusiness donates to politicians. And there we find that in the last 20 years or so, agribusiness has donated a total of 415 million dollars [opensecrets.org]. To put that in perspective, that is over three times the amount donated by defense lobbyists [opensecrets.org] in the same time period, and I don't think anyone would scoff at the influence of defense lobbyists on our government. So yes, I'd say the agribusiness sector (note I deliberately don't say "farmers" because what we are talking about here are massive farming corporations like Archer Daniels Midland [admworld.com], not mom and pop and their 40 acres) has plenty of influence in Washington. Which is of course why so many government handouts are going to corn-based ethanol, even though corn is clearly one of the least efficient sources for that product.

  • by anagama (611277) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:19PM (#22007366) Homepage

    Sure we may need better fuels then oil however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there.

    ANWR is not the be all end all that drillers tout. There are between 6-16 billion recoverable barrels (from pro-drilling site [anwr.org]). Right now, refineries use about 15 million barrels of oil per day (from the EIA -- scroll to bottom [doe.gov]).

    That means the US uses around 5.4 billion barrels of oil per year. If you buy the pro-driller propaganda, ANWR is AT BEST, 3 years worth of supply. If you took the highest estimate of oil in the ground and assumed the magically ability to extract all 30 billion barrels -- that's 6 years of supply.

    ANWR is just another method to enrich Cheney -- like the logic of paying contractor truck drivers 120k per year to drive truck in Iraq when a regular soldier makes about 1/6th of that. But that's another tale.

    In my view, the better plan is to consider ANWR to be "money in the bank". Oil price increases are just starting. We'd be better off sitting on it for 50 years because by then, we'll be lamenting the days oil only cost $90-100 per barrel.
  • by tfoss (203340) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:38PM (#22007590)

    That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all.
    Right, if only those lobbyists could figure out a way to get the government to pay farmers for growing corn, ignoring market forces & rewarding particularly big corporate farms. Maybe even figure out a way to have the gov't spend billions [grist.org] of dollars supporting a crop that is overgrown relative to demand. Like maybe some kind of farm subsidy. [ewg.org] If only those lobbyists were powerful enough to get that [freetrade.org] done [nytimes.com].

    The only reason corn is being used now is because it is plentiful and doesnt take any major changes to the current agricultural industry to start using for ethanol.
    And the only reason it is plentiful is because the federal gov't has been paying farmers to grow more corn than needed. Corn is energetically a horrible crop to use for ethanol production (as TFA points out).

    -Ted
  • by quanticle (843097) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:48PM (#22007710) Homepage

    however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there.

    The total proven reserves in ANWR are about 10 billion barrels [mediamatters.org]. Our daily consumption of petroleum is about 20,687,000 barrels/day [doe.gov]. Doing the math, that means the entire ANWR reserve discovered so far would give us about 10.4 billion / 20 687 000 = 502.731184 days of petroleum.

    <sarcasm>Yeah, real massive. </sarcasm>

  • Biofuel angst (Score:4, Insightful)

    by IronChef (164482) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:58PM (#22007824)
    This anecdote pertains specifically to biodiesel, but among friends surely we can discuss all kinds of biofuels?

    The other day I saw a diesel Passat with this bumper sticker, and I just wanted to rant to a crowd that would understand:

    BIODIESEL
    The 100% solution
    Kyoto compliant, carbon neutral, OPEC free

    I wanted to run him off the road and give him a math lesson as he lay torn and bleeding in a ditch. If we covered every square centimeter of arable land in the US with the most magical crop available, it could not make enough fuel for us to be OPEC free. Not by a LONG shot. And we need to grow food, too!

    Biofuels can be a great part of a solution. They are not a solution by themselves. But some people are driving around believing that "they" are stopping us from deploying perfect solution. I'm sorry, Passat man... It isn't that simple. I beg of you, do the math and reduce the scope of your conspiracy theories. The truth is bad enough.

  • by sydbarrett74 (74307) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .47tterrabdys.> on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:16PM (#22008082)

    The other major reason is to offset how cheap labor is throughout the world. In Mexico a farmer doesnt have to spend $4000/acre for his land, or pay his workers nearly what a US farmer makes for a living. The theory is that these subsidies are needed to help US farmers against this fact, to help combat the agricultural equivelent of "outsourcing" our farming jobs.
    That's the problem. Cheap farm labour shouldn't be 'offset' -- let comparative advantage do the work. I'm all for the outsourcing of farming jobs, because why should American farmers receive any kind of special privilege? It's not an unalienable entitlement to be able to farm for a living. And at any rate, farming in this country is mostly the purview of agribusinesses such as ADM and ConAgra. If people in this country want to farm, then they should offer produce (such as no-till or novel varieties of crop) that people are willing to pay a premium for. But stop bitching because Uncle Jim Bob in Iowa is being underpriced by some peasant in Bolivia -- the Bolivian has just as much right as Jim Bob to eke an existence from the soil.
  • by ehrichweiss (706417) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:20PM (#22008152)
    It is also considered inedible for the most part unless, assuming you're a man, you like having high estrogen levels among other things. The Chinese didn't consider it worthy of eating until they learned to ferment it, and those guys back then would eat fucking ANYTHING so that says a lot!!
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:24PM (#22008216) Homepage

    when President Bush championed swithgrass in his State of the Union speech a couple of years ago, and the news folks sorta laughed at him, he was actually right

    Well, the news folks were kind of right to laugh at him, as switchgrass isn't really a short term solution to the problem, and we don't really know if it's one of the long term solutions.

    The thing no one here is talking about is the fact that cellulosic ethanol just isn't really economically viable with current technology. It may be some day if we can find better enzymes to convert cellulose into sugar and ultimately ethanol or some other fuel.

    So no, I think championing a solution that's still at a research stage is not very accurate. Not entirely wrong to be sure, but not he definitely wasn't right.

    So really, Bush saying "don't worry, we'll use switchgrass" is a bit like Bush saying "don't worry, we'll just use hydrogen". It's a bit pie-in-the-sky at this particular time. That could change in 5 or 10 years, or it might not.
  • by Electrum (94638) <david@acz.org> on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:36PM (#22008396) Homepage
    I'm all for the outsourcing of farming jobs, because why should American farmers receive any kind of special privilege?

    Because destroying the country's ability to produce food internally is a bad idea. What happens when externally produced food skyrockets in price, or worse, is not available at all?
  • by Ironsides (739422) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:52PM (#22008620) Homepage Journal
    Correction, the article says:
    To really maximize their yield potential, you need to provide nitrogen fertilization,"

    Now, if I remember right, one can plant legumes and they will perform nitrogen fixation to resupply the soil.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_fixation [wikipedia.org]

    So, crop rotation?
  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:56PM (#22008660) Journal
    "So why the fuck is this racist shit not deleted? Clearly there are only WASPS running this increasingly shitty site."

    Because a racist post complaing about a racist post is just too funny.
  • by theophilosophilus (606876) on Friday January 11, 2008 @08:01PM (#22008712) Homepage Journal

    Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other. Also, should your fuel sources be competing with your food sources?
    Manufacture of corn ethanol yields fuel and distillers dried grain (DDGs). DDGs are heavily sought after for animal feed. So technically, you do get food and fuel. Is ethanol really competing with the food supply? The same UN officials complain that US subsidies make grain too cheap for the third world to compete against, and then turn around and complain that increased ethanol makes grain too expensive for the third world to purchase? It seems that the experts can't discern between whether too much or too little corn is being produced.

    There is good logic in the argument that tying food production to fuel production is a bad idea. However, the argument that food prices are rising because of ethanol production ignores the complexity of the equation. Corn production and price is tied to fuel production regardless of whether ethanol is added to the equation. Adding ethanol to the equation, corn production is actually stimulated. Also, one would expect some form of a fuel price decrease (on a macro level) with the replacement of gasoline with ethanol. Therefore, there are numerous variables to account for in analyzing the effects of ethanol on food and fuel price and production. It is simplistic to assume that ethanol production is the sole source of rising corn prices.

    Additionally, cellulosic ethanol is not a silver bullet. Encouraging the planting of high performing switch grass can have a few harmful impacts. Switch grass can be planted where other crops cannot. Some of this unplantable land is wetland which is important as habitat and a filter for our water supply. Also, if the economics work, switch grass may also displace food production.

    Finally, the headline "switchgrass makes better ethanol than corn" is misleading because it conveys the idea that this is some kind of revelation. The real news is the number the study has yielded. However, the article massacres the actual comparison. The article's quote is: "This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies." Without careful reading, it appears that the writer is saying that corn ethanol creates an energy deficit, this isn't true. The SA writer makes things confusing by comparing the actual energy produced by switchgrass ethanol with the amount of energy produced in excess of the input for corn ethanol. The writer of the SA article is comparing apples to oranges and I am skeptical of the motives of journalists that play with numbers. Also, don't forget that cellulosic ethanol can also come from corn. Plants in the Midwest have begun to to add stalks and husks to the ethanol process in the past two years. I really don't care where ethanol comes from, I think its a good idea. But the debate should not be a shadow game of massaged numbers.
  • by zogger (617870) on Friday January 11, 2008 @09:18PM (#22009436) Homepage Journal
    I agree with you on the sugar beets, but sort of disagree on the "why" of corn right now. The primary reason for the corn is because that is what we have the highest numbers of big farmers set up to grow with the equipment at hand, and that stuff just ain't cheap. Corn and soybeans, ethanol and biodiesel. We are in a transition stage now to all the various biofuels, so I wouldn't worry about it being corn forever, it just happens to be the handiest one we have right now. We are still at the 286 level with biofuels, it will get better, and in probably a roughly similar time frame.

          There are two good positives here, energy demands are just always going to be going up,so this biofuels idea will be continued to be worked on, and farmers love to farm, because it is a hard job, and if they didn't love it, they wouldn't do it, there are any number of easier ways to make a buck. So it will work out.

      In fact, a ton of the good innovations and tweaking with biofuels are going on right now in real world deployments directly on farms for fuel use on-site, because they are so tied to energy availability and costs. They are the serious beta tester devs right now for all of this...so I say support them in general terms, let them sort this out better, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

        Society is right now asking a minuscule percentage of the population to double their output, in two critical areas, food and now they are going to be tasked with being the liquid energy producers as well. This is an incredibly HUGE undertaking, and I think it is more than fair that the rest of society, who will be the primary beneficiaries of the food and now energy production, be prepared to cut loose a few dollars for this effort, to offer a bit of understanding and acceptance of the size of these projects in total and realize there will be failures as well as successes along this new energy path, and to give them a chance to tweak it out better without a lot of condemnation and outright dissin'.

        No other segment of our society has been tasked with a doubling or tripling of their projected work load en masse like the farmers have now accepted to attempt. The closest historical parallel we have would the durable goods manufacturers-with a much higher workforce total and much higher governmental support structure- who had to gear up and run triple time, plus alter product lines drastically, for the world war 2 effort. The coming transition to mostly biofuels as conventional petroleum sources become more iffy and more dear, is at least of such a scale the way it is being projected now.
  • by smaddox (928261) on Friday January 11, 2008 @09:28PM (#22009544)

    Something this heavily modified genetically I would not want to eat anyway so its a moot point.
    Do you eat corn? Do you eat beef? Do you eat chicken?

    All the major food sources have been "heavily modified genetically".

    It's called selective breeding/pollination.

    Direct gene manipulation is pretty much the same thing, but faster and more precise.
  • by urcreepyneighbor (1171755) on Friday January 11, 2008 @09:52PM (#22009794)

    So why the fuck is this racist shit not deleted? Clearly there are only WASPS running this increasingly shitty site.
    RTFM [slashdot.org].
  • by Al Dimond (792444) on Friday January 11, 2008 @10:28PM (#22010140) Journal
    Hydrogen is not an energy source, it's a way to store energy. It is not and will never be a solution to any energy crisis, it just pushes that energy crisis up to the level of mass electricity generation. It may be useful for alleviating pollution problems in dense urban areas because, similar to a battery, it doesn't pollute where it's consumed. Hydrogen isn't competing against ethanol, solar, water, wind, coal and nuclear power plants for power generation, it's competing against electric batteries for use in cars (I think the advantage over batteries is that they're better suited to long-range driving, which people are accustomed to in gas cars, but I'm no expert).

    Ethanol, on the other hand, takes much of its energy input from the sun. It could thus contribute to solving the energy crisis. It can also do so on the quick and on the cheap, since we have lots of experience utilizing the energy stored in it. Its use creates pollution where it's consumed, which is unfortunate for people like me that live in major cities.

    What do you think are the flaws inherent in ethanol that make it a necessarily bad energy solution? The worst things I've heard is that (when made from corn) it struggles to yield net-positive energy, and that it pollutes at point of use. To me, if the problem of efficiency is solved ethanol seems that it could be a source of power for cars in a generation.

    The other power sources you mention, wind, solar and nuclear, are (along with coal and oil) currently sources for electricity generation. They're competing for something totally different. I am not really an expert on this, but I'd guess based on this that gasoline and ethanol aren't as efficient for mass electricity generation; if this is true, then yes, the true energy solution is to centralize generation in big, efficient power plants and use electricity and fuel cells at point of use.
  • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @01:15AM (#22011450)

    All the major food sources have been "heavily modified genetically".
    It's called selective breeding/pollination.
    Direct gene manipulation is pretty much the same thing, but faster and more precise.
    Bullshit. Utterly and willfully ignorant bullshit.

    First off, we are seeing cross-species gene transplants, that does not ever happen naturally. But go ahead and forget about that issue since it is not so widespread yet.

    The other problem is exactly what you wrote -- faster changes. Faster change mean faster mistakes and less chance to catch non-obvious mistakes. With selective breeding you get multiple generations worth of time to discover problems with a new breed, long before it enters mainstream consumption. With gene-splicing a wholesale change can be made across thousands, even hundreds of thousands of animals/plants within the span of one generation.

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