Americans are eating GM sweet corn and will likely eat more with Monsanto’s first GM vegetable. But without GM food labeling no one will know.
It’s one of America’s summer pleasures: sweet corn dripping with butter. And though most Americans aren’t aware, a small percentage of that sweet corn is genetically modified—and more will be coming courtesy of Monsanto.
Small amount of GM sweet corn grown
Sweet corn accounts for a small percentage of all the corn grown in the US, about 355,000 of the 92 million corn acres grown in 2011, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Most of the “field” corn goes to make animal feed or is processed into high fructose corn syrup or ethanol.
The majority of sweet corn, 87%, is grown for canning or freezing while the rest is sold fresh in retail food stores or farmers markets.
Of those 355,000 acres, GM sweet corn accounts for only about 10% of the total fresh market sweet corn in the United States—about 4,200 acres—while “a very limited” amount of Bt sweet corn is grown for processing, according to a report by Cornell University.
GMOs “freak out” home gardeners
The GM sweet corn known as Attribute® was developed by biotech giant Syngenta. The corn is genetically engineered with the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium to kill the European corn borer and corn earworms.
Syngenta’s Bt sweet corn has been grown in the US and Canada for more than 10 years. The company offers eight varieties of Bt sweet corn and these are sold in the US by vegetable seed companies including Syngenta-owned Rogers in Boise, Idaho, Rispens Seeds in Beecher, Illinois, and Seedway in Elizabethtown, PA, among others.
The seed is sold in 25,000 kernel bags and only to commercial growers planting a minimum of 20 acres; there are no sales to home gardeners.
A representative with a Midwest seed company that sells Attribute sweet corn says home gardeners aren’t interested in growing the GM sweet corn. “They want to grow naturally; genetic modification freaks them out.”
Not-too-sweet GM corn
Syngenta has cornered the market for GM sweet corn but that is about to change. Monsanto recently announced that it would start selling GM sweet corn seed to farmers this fall targeting sweet corn growing areas in the Southeast and Northeast US.
The corn will have three GM traits, including the Roundup Ready herbicide tolerant trait and two insect resistant traits.
With weed resistance to Roundup/glyphosate herbicide growing exponentially in the US, Monsanto’s GM sweet corn is likely to exacerbate the problem.
Adding to the concerns of GM sweet corn, a recently published study found the Bt toxin in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.
Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, told Fast Company that there may be more risks associated with eating GM crops, such as sweet corn, that are not processed. “We’re exposed to a lot more of whatever is in it versus a processed corn product.”
Sweet corn is the first GM vegetable (sweet corn is considered a vegetable while field corn is considered a grain) developed by Monsanto, which owns Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable seed company.
“Threat to human race”
Organic sweet corn seed producers see problems with increased production of GM sweet corn.
“It’s a crude solution to problems that need to be addressed at the root cause,” says Tom Stearns, president of Vermont-based High Mowing Seeds. “Monsanto and Syngenta scientists should focus in a different direction. They try to outsmart nature, but if we work with nature, we wouldn’t need technological solutions.”
Bryan Jones, co-owner of Arizona-based Organic Sweet Corn Nursery, fears that the proliferation of Bt corn, including sweet corn, will eliminate a valuable tool for organic farmers, a natural Bt spray that is an effective biological pest control. “It will create superbugs that will be resistant to Bt and render the natural Bt ineffective against those insects.”
Jones, who doesn’t even promote his corn as organic because of the contamination threat from GM corn, calls genetic engineering “a threat to the human race. We all need to push against this. We shouldn’t mess with the genetics of food crops.”
Americans won’t know that biotech companies are messing with the genetics of food crops, such as sweet corn, because the United States, unlike most other developed countries, does not require labeling of GM foods. And Monsanto’s name won’t appear on it either.
Tips to avoid GM sweet corn
The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) offers the following tips to consumers who want to avoid eating GM sweet corn:
- Buy organic sweet corn. Organic farming prohibits the use of genetic modification. Certified organic is your guarantee that your sweet corn is not genetically modified (and is also pesticide-free).
- Ask your local farmer or manager at the farm stand or grocery store if the sweet corn they are selling is genetically modified (also called genetically engineered).
CBAN has made a questionnaire that you can leave with your grocery store, produce or farm stand manager if necessary. Ask them to fill it out and get back to you. You can download the questionnaire here.