By: Mateusz Perkowski

Ceres Inc. has developed a biotech variety of sorghum for ethanol production but USDA is thinking of regulating it as a noxious weed.

Genetically modified sorghum used for ethanol production doesn’t fall under USDA’s biotechnology regulations, but the agency may still restrict the crop as a noxious weed.

Ceres Inc., a biotech company, inserted genetic information from several sources into the sorghum variety using a “gene gun,” avoiding the use of a soil pathogen to transfer genes.

The USDA has agreed that the genetically engineered sorghum isn’t a potential plant pest and thus cannot be restricted on that basis, but the agency has nonetheless considering regulating the crop as a noxious weed and “will discuss that subject in a separate communication,” according to a letter recently disclosed to the public.

Plant pests are viruses, bacteria or fungi that can cause disease within the plant, while noxious weeds are defined more generally as plants that damage crops or livestock.

Ceres’ biotech cultivar “produces greater biomass and contains more fermentable sugars than non-genetically modified sorghum checks, thereby offering a higher yield potential,” the company said in a letter requesting regulatory clarity from USDA.

It was transformed with synthetic genetic material and genes from mouse ear cress, which is considered a mustard weed, as well as other sorghum plants, the company said.

Capital Press was unable to reach Ceres for comment.

Ceres already has sorghum varieties available for sale, but the company is struggling financially, according to documents submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In its 2014 fiscal year, the company’s product sales dropped to $146,000, down nearly 70 percent from the previous year, which the company attributes to “changes and reductions in our sales incentive and promotional programs,” Ceres said in a regulatory filing.

Revenue from collaborative research and government grants fell by more than half, to $2.26 million, as Ceres completed various projects, the document said.

Ceres’ overall income was surpassed by the cost of product sales, research costs and administrative expenses, resulting in more than $29 million in losses in fiscal 2014, according to the documents.

Since the company raised $65 million with an initial public offering of its stock in early 2012, its share price has dropped from about $15 to less than 25 cents.