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.

"Besides the big C cancer and all that follows I read about to stay away from GM CORN because it bad for the belly bulge ! Apparently the 5 foods that are bad for you are: Orange juice, margarine, soy, GM corn, whole wheat bread - now you...

Although the FDA says that there is no material difference between kernels of GMO corn and those from traditional ­varieties, some recent research casts doubt on that conclusion. A study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences in 2009 by a group of French scientists found liver and kidney damage in rats fed Roundup-resistant corn.

There are also environmental concerns around GMO crops. Weeds and insects can develop resistance to herbicides and pesticides like glyphosate and Bt, meaning that plants will have to be created that can withstand increasingly toxic chemicals. More than 26 species of weeds in 20 states are now resistant to Roundup. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency has found Bt-resistant corn root worms in four states. And because corn’s pollen is easily transported by wind, conventional crops can be contaminated by neighboring fields planted with GMO varieties.

I asked farmer Kevin Smith about his take on GMO sweet corn. “I won’t grow it,” he said flatly. “If you want to avoid it, one way is to ask the farmers you buy from if they plant GMO corn.” (Syngenta’s Attribute and Monsanto’s Performance are the two varieties sold in North America.) Another way: choose USDA organic corn. GMO crops are forbidden under organic standards.

Also, many farmers’ markets (including New York’s Green­market and San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza) ban the intentional use of GMOs, so check to see if your market has a similar policy. In the U.S., genetically modified foods are not required to be labeled, but legislation is being considered in California and more than 20 other states that would require GMO labeling. (To learn more, visit

As for choosing the best-tasting corn, Smith abides by a self-imposed “one-day rule.” He won’t sell a cob that’s more than 24 hours out of the field. Although corn lovers often profess to have favorite varieties, Smith says variety is far less important than freshness. Time is corn’s great enemy. “Any corn can be ruined if it’s old,” he says.

In the height of summer, farmers’ market stalls are overflowing, stands spring up along rural byways and even supermarket bins are piled with local corn. My biggest concern is not finding super-fresh cobs or avoiding GMO corn, it’s overindulgence: moderation is not one of my strong suits when someone passes me a steaming platter of corn. Nor can I resist when it’s cut off the cob and tossed into a simple summer pasta, a cheesy dip or even crab cakes. Fortunately, corn has its own way of enforcing discipline. The season passes quickly, and when there is no longer local corn available, I abstain. Happily.

Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland delves into problems with modern agriculture.

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