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Clearing Up the Confusion About Genetically Modified Corn

By Barry Estabrook, "Sweet Summer Corn," July/August 2012

Learn more about the debate on genetically modified corn versus organic corn, and find out how to buy the best corn.


READER'S COMMENT:
"Yeah u cleared that right up alright. "

I wanted to know more about that corn my grandparents grew up on. So I went to visit Kevin Smith, who runs Sycamore Farms in upstate New York. To say that the buff 31-year-old’s corn-growing roots run deep is an understatement; his father and grandfather before him made their livelihoods from fields of sweet corn. And it’s not just any sweet corn. From the 237 acres that he tends an hour and a half north of New York City, Smith grows sweet corn for some of the most demanding palates in the country, including high-end Manhattan restaurants like Gramercy Tavern. Smith eschews the newest ultrasweet types of corn, instead growing varieties like Providence, Revelation and Delectable, which strike a perfect compromise, staying sweet longer but still packing plenty of real corn flavor. “I love everything about sweet corn,” he says. “It’s almost like nature’s fast food. It comes in a neat little package. You just snap it off the stalk. There’s nothing better.” Smith often shucks a cob and eats it raw in the field for breakfast.

But a few years ago, Smith noticed a decrease in sales at his stand in Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket. “I think my customers were lumping all corn into the same bucket,” he says. “Field corn, sweet corn, GMO, high-fructose corn syrup... some people just gave up eating it.”

There’s a lot of confusion over corn. It’s gotten a bad reputation due to what’s happened with field corn, which is distinctly different from sweet corn. Harvested when its kernels are hard and dry, field corn is a commodity crop used in the manufacture of products like livestock feed, ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, liquor and all manner of processed foods: cookies, mayonnaise, margarine... Introduced in the mid-1990s, genetically modified (GMO) seeds now produce nearly 90 percent of the field corn in the United States (along with more than 90 percent of the soy and canola). Unlike hybridized plants, which are ­created through cross-pollination, genetically modified plants have strands of DNA added to achieve desired characteristics.

And in late 2011, DowAgrichemical upped the stakes with field corn by applying for permission from the FDA to ­market GMO corn that is resistant to 2, 4-D, an herbicide that was a component in the Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange and is still used in many home lawn-care products. In people who work with 2, 4-D, the chemical has been linked to cancers, hormonal disruptions, reproductive difficulties and birth defects, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In wheat-growing states where 2, 4-D and related pesticides are used in large quantities, the Environmental Protection Agency has found higher-than-normal rates of circulatory and respiratory birth defects.



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