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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:
"Nothing at all wrong with GMO products. The corn kernel itself is identical to those from conventional breeding. The French study referred to in the article has been refuted. The journal that published it has stated that it was faulty...

Unlike with field corn, growers of sweet corn have been slow to plant GMO seeds. At approximately 700,000 acres, sweet corn occupies less than one-hundredth­ of the amount of acreage devoted to field corn in the U.S. Most is canned or frozen. The corn we eat fresh is grown on only 250,000 acres. Last year only 3 to 4 percent of the sweet corn raised in the United States came from the genetically modified sweet corn seeds Syngenta, a global agribusiness company, introduced 15 years ago. Monsanto hopes to change all that.

This summer for the first time, farmers are planting Monsanto’s newly approved, genetically modified Performance sweet-corn seeds. Monsanto is aiming its marketing muscle at iconic corn on the cob. “Our sweet corn is a fresh-market product that will be sold on the ear.” said Carly Scaduto, vegetable communications manager at Monsanto. She wouldn’t divulge how much will be planted this year.

The new corn has been bioengineered to survive applications of glyphosate (sold under the trade name Roundup), an herbicide that destroys competing weeds. Planting “Roundup-resistant” varieties allows farmers to control weeds by spraying, an alternative to expensive and time-consuming­ methods like mechanical tilling. Monsanto has also spliced genes into the corn that produce toxins that kill corn-eating caterpillars, helping farmers reduce their use of pesticides. The poisons are derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria that occurs naturally in soil and is approved for organic agriculture. Fatal to insect larvae, most experts say Bt is harmless to humans and animals. However, Cana­dian researchers reported in 2011 in the journal Reproductive Toxicology that they found residues of Bt in the blood of mothers and fetuses. “More research is needed. The impact of Bt on a fetus’s development is unknown,” says Aziz Aris, M.D., Ph.D., study principal investigator and professor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Sherbrooke.



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