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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...

Risking a rear-end collision, I braked and swerved into the gravel pullout of a roadside produce stand in our town. Deep-green ears of sweet corn were stacked like cordwood, the first of the year. I picked one up and peeled back the husk, sniffing the fresh, vegetal scent and salivating at the plump, pearly kernels.

“Is this local?” I asked the skinny, sunburned fellow who was pulling ears from a burlap bag. He averted his eyes. “Nope,” he mumbled, “my cousin grew it over in Monkton.” Monkton is the neighboring town, about three miles away.

His frankness could have been motivated by either honesty or self-preservation. No doubt some of his customers viewed the harvest from our town as far superior to anything grown in that other town. After I got back home, I gave the cobs a quick dip in boiling water and began devouring my first corn in nearly 10 months—buttery, sweet and rapturously corn-y—and felt no qualms about betraying hometown loyalty.

Americans take their sweet corn seriously: nothing says “summer” as eloquently as the crunch of kernels being gnawed off a cob. And there is merit to the purists’ stance: the closer to your stovetop sweet corn is grown, the better it will be. A generation ago, corn dictated a strict locavore policy, long before the term was invented. In a day after being picked, half of the sugar in older varieties, such as Golden Bantam (introduced in 1902) and Silver Queen (1955), will turn into starch. That changed in the 1950s when John Laughman of the University of Illinois cross-pollinated three varieties of corn to create a hybrid strain that was not only sweeter but able to retain its sweetness longer. Laughman’s work launched a saccharine revolution that has resulted in cobs that are up to five times sweeter than yesteryear’s and can stay sweet for weeks, which means the supermarket industry loves the stuff. But by focusing on “sweet,” breeders have neglected the other vital word, “corn,” and the signature taste of summer is often muted in sugary sameness.



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