Fiber Watch: Corn Spun Into Fibers is Natural, Right?

Corn becomes a popular fiber.

Although the U.S. is largest producer of corn crops in the world, it still comes as a surprise that cornfields cover a whopping 72.7 million acres of land in the country. A high yield of fibrous matter from the crop has brought about developments in processing corn fibers for spinning yarns and fabrics, alongside technologies that bond corn fibers together to create non-woven materials like diapers and plastic containers.

Much of the fibrous part of the corn plant (stalk and leaves) is fed to animals, although a material called PLA (poly-lactic acid) is fast becoming an alternative that allows corn fibers to be in AND on our bodies.

Image: Nature Works LLC

During the last decade, a fiber processing company called Nature Works has been developing corn fibers for large-scale production of plant-based plastics and textile materials under the product name Ingeo. Acting as a replacement for polyesters, PLA is a fiber that can be turned into a range of textile grade yarns from its pelletized form. The material is said to use 20-50% less petroleum based resources than polyesters, is compostable and can be grown and processed annually to yield high amounts of fiber.

Considered part of the plant-based synthetics fiber group, PLA is derived from a plant sugar called dextrose obtained mostly from corn, as well as sugar beets, wheat or sugar cane, all common and necessary food crops. However, a somewhat green-washed notion that corn fabrics, or dextrose-based fabrics and materials are environmentally-friendly because they are “natural” and come from plants is covering up some of the larger issues in the corn and sugar processing industries.

Image: Fiber Innovation Technology

Up to 85% of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, and incorporated into food like corn chips, cereals, sodas and peanut butter, as are the several other highly refined and chemically infested sources of sugar. Cargill was the first company behind the development of PLA, and coincidentally also the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered corn crops.

Fossil fuels are still largely employed for the harvest, processing, chemical production and shipping within the corn market, keeping the oil industry closely tied to corn production. Basically, PLA can be seen as a way to cover up the degradation caused by genetic engineering and chemical processing of resources for the food and livestock feed industries. So does supporting the production of corn-based textiles then give manufacturers another excuse to push farmers towards growing GMO crops and creating mono-crop cultures?

Image: Fiber Innovation Technology

Nature Works has come up with an offsetting program where buyers can choose to receive PLA fibers with GeneScan certified non-GMO corn, as well as a half GMO, half non-GMO fiber material. But why doesn’t Nature Works drive the production of completely GMO-free PLA, and even better, the production of PLA made from organic corn? The company claims to be looking into other sources of cellulosic feedstocks, but have not yet made a leap that excludes genetic modification or chemical intensive processing.

It seems that if the company were truly interested in developing sustainable material options for companies that require fibers, they would invest in experimenting with diverse materials that are by-products of environmentally friendly processes. Nature Works is looking into using agricultural waste from the rice and corn industries for fiber production in the name of closed-loop systems, but can that be called anything more that greenwashing if the sources for agricultural waste are not sustainably produced?

Image: Nature Works LLC

PLA has gained favor with outerwear companies that are always on the lookout for greener material options, such as Portland-based Nau and REI. Patagonia, one of the most environmentally conscious outerwear giants has, however, rejected the fiber. They view Nature Works’ choice to incorporate GMO corn in some of their materials as a largely negative factor that will not change the production processes of the corn industry in the long run.

Patagonia has taken a very realistic stance towards PLA production, and one that will hopefully cause apparel producers to put pressure on fiber suppliers to completely exclude GMO crops from their processes. PLA is a great technological development, but the industries and processes it currently relies on do not make it a sustainable option. That is why all of us along the demand and supply lines of fibers must begin to understand how important the sources and processing of these fibers are to the health of our planet and ourselves.