I find few modern topics more fascinating than the continuing uproar over genetically modified corn. Mix superstition, religion, ignorance and genetic engineering together with one of the most important food crops in the world and you have to expect trouble. Since the introduction of GMO corn, able to produce its own species-specific insecticide as it grows, we’ve heard numerous end-of-the-world stories about what will happen if planting of GMO corn continues. Now that it’s been part of world agriculture for years, we’re starting to see what real effects emerged, past the fringe of the short-term studies required to get the seeds on the market legally.
One of the intriguing stories that came out of this scientific effort to improve corn resulted from Monsanto’s wish to keep control of profits, something any company hopes to do until their patent expires. Patented GMO corn spreads its genes quickly and without regard for fences, throwing pollen to the wind and mixing with nearby corn crops born without the special BT protection. Isolating crops by a hundred yards prevents most but not all of the cross-pollination trouble, and GMO corn genes started showing up in corn literally miles from test plots. Anyone who plants corn has to deal somehow with this organism’s native promiscuity, by separating varieties or by staggering plantings to ensure asynchronous blooming. If you grow sweet corn near field corn you can wind up with corn on the table that tastes like cattle feed if you’re not careful, because it cross-pollinated with field corn and it is cattle feed. Farmers seldom complain about sweet corn from gardens crossing over into their fields, since it makes very little difference overall, but it does happen. Keeping open-pollinated corn strains genetically pure is a tough project.
Monsanto worried about beneficial genes from its patented crop winding up in neighboring fields where farmers could harvest seed and replant, effectively stealing Monsanto’s product. The company included a genetic marker to make identifying crosses simpler, and in Canada, sure enough, GMO genes showed up in the neighboring fields and became the subject of lawsuits. If you’re the neighboring farmer, you wonder what all the fuss is about, since corn has always crossed lines at will. Legal efforts to punish farmers for living next door failed, so Monsanto considered a technical solution instead. With a little more gene-tweaking they could produce a crop that bore imperfect seeds, good for food but not good for planting. Any seed crossed with the “suicide” corn produced a plant that died after sprouting.
That created a real firestorm among farmers, in both the Third World and the developed nations. Although the trait literally dies out in one generation, neighboring farmers who depend on gathering their own seed would have at least seen a reduction in the numbers of plants from their own corn seed. Rumors about the real intent of the Monsanto company included an evil plan to control the world’s food supply by spreading a Doomsday gene and forcing all farmers everywhere to buy and plant Monsanto seed. There are several good reasons that wouldn’t happen but few people paid attention to them, preferring emotional outrage to logic. Never mind that corn will only pollinate corn, or that the suicide trait can’t survive to contaminate future generations, it was still a horrible public relations blunder on Monsanto’s part and they did drop the idea. The company has apparently returned to the traditional farming habit of ignoring what the neighbors do. What happens on the other side of the fence is none of your business if you farm.
We’re seeing quite a lot of good effects, over the long term, from GMO corn. Plants modified to resist the European corn borer by generating Bacillis Thuringiensis proteins in their own tissues can kill well over 90 percent of the corn borer larvae that hatch on a crop. The ploy works so well that GMO corn farmers must plant decoy plantations of regular corn alongside the GMO fields to ensure that susceptible corn borer generations survive and dominate the species. If everyone planted GMO corn only, the corn borers would soon evolve tolerance to the toxin and Monsanto would need to start over. GMO corn plantings even benefit farmers who don’t plant GMO corn, by cutting down the numbers of the non-native European corn borer in the U.S. If you grow corn organically and you’re seeing more ears of corn without those ruined kernels and fat green worms, thank Monsanto for decimating an insect that shouldn’t be here anyway.
Nobody’s perfect, and Monsanto’s idea has caused some unforeseen ecological problems. Even the pollen of GMO corn contains BT, and although BT focuses its deadly effects on the target species, pollen and crop residues traveling beyond the fields into waste areas and waterways have had bad effects on important insects such as Monarch butterflies and caddis flies. Monarch larvae feed on milkweed, not corn, but heavy coatings of BT-laden corn pollen on milkweed leaves can kill Monarch larvae living near corn fields. Caddis fly larvae feeding on corn stalks and leaves washed into streams might also die, and these native species show less tolerance to environmental problems than do vigorous foreign invaders such as the European corn borer. Responsible farming should always include shelter belts and food plots designed to encourage wild plants and animals, but farmers often fall short of that ideal.
Sadly, some long-term health concerns are coming to the front also. Recent laboratory studies that put lab animals on a GMO food diet for extended periods revealed an increased incidence of liver and kidney problems. Living only on GMO crops might not be wise, but few of us do that and the possibility of successfully growing some perfect ears of GMO sweet corn in the back garden is pretty darned tempting. Monsanto announced a new line of GMO sweet corn in the fall of 2011, and although prejudice against the idea may prevent marketing in major retail outlets and through popular garden seed companies, you may be able to find Monsanto’s Seminis GMO sweet corn seed in your local farm supply store in the Spring of 2012. I doubt that eating a few ears of good sweet corn will kill me, and the opportunity to grow borer-resistant corn probably won’t last long. Pests always catch up with crop gimmicks quickly.
For more about GMO sweet corn for the home garden click
I’m still reading a lot of panic-driven, illogical material about the dangers of GMO corn, and although I do agree that some concerns are justified, I don’t see much value in promoting irrational conclusions. The Rodale website, for example, published an article in early 2011 that begins by warning that GMO crops could decimate your garden tomatoes. If you read the article, you find that the logic behind this is that herbicide-resistant crops will allow farmers to use more potent herbicides that might drift over property lines and damage plants in your garden. That’s already a potential problem for anyone who plants a garden next to a commercial field. Here, I’ve not seen any real trouble of that sort, there’s a honeysuckle hedge and some open space in between me and the soybeans next door and I’m fairly sure the honeysuckle will filter out nearly everything and shake it off with a sneer. Also, the farmers like to put their expensive chemicals on their own fields, it saves money. I don’t see the GMO crops themselves as a threat to the garden, but I’d prefer not to eat the beans from the field next door, GMO or not.
Another rumor I can’t take seriously is that pigs and squirrels are smarter than humans and won’t eat GMO corn. People have tested this by turning hogs into a lot with a choice of troughs, one filled with GMO corn and another with the brand they’ve always been fed. Hogs fill up on the old familiar corn and just sniff at the new stuff. Pinning an ear of regular corn and an ear of GMO corn to a tree proves in similar fashion that squirrels won’t eat GMO corn.
Animals don’t eat new things right away. I’m having wonderful luck with daikon, without fences or any sort of protection, even though rabbits and deer constantly roam the yard and garden here. They haven’t seen those plants before and they aren’t hungry enough to try them. Planting daikon as a bait plot for grazing deer won’t work if the deer don’t know the plant, and it takes two or three years of availability for them to discover and carefully test it. Once the deer take the plunge, the daikon will draw whitetails from miles away. For the same reasons, it’s no sign of mysterious intelligence when a squirrel prefers familiar corn to new corn. New corn smells different and animals stick with what they know. Maybe GMO corn doesn’t taste as good as the older hybrid corn, but if I’ve eaten any I couldn’t tell the difference. On the other hand, I know I don’t like greenhouse tomatoes, to me they don’t qualify as food and if you set one of them next to one of my home-grown yellow Better Boy tomatoes, I’m tossing the market tomato into the garbage bin. That doesn’t mean the market tomato is a health hazard, I’m just reacting to quality. I’m hoping Monsanto’s Seminis sweet corn will be delicious, and will outsmart the invading European corn borer for another five or ten years at least. If I get the chance, I’ll try some in the back garden this year and see if it opens up a vortex between universes or something. Probably it’ll just taste like corn.
Interesting Links about GMO Corn:
- Monsanto Blog: The Buzz on Sweet Corn — http://monsantoblog.com/2011/11/08/the-buzz-on-sweet-corn/
- Monsanto: Biotech Sweet Corn Varieties Deliver Sustainable Benefits to Growers — http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/gmo-sweet-corn-variety-coming-soon.aspx
- The Bulletin: GMO Corn — An Organic Farmer’s Best Friend? http://www.bendbulletin.com/article/20101018/NEWS0107/10180311/
- Institute for Responsible Technology: GMOs Linked to Organ Disruption in 19 Studies — http://www.responsibletechnology.org/blog/1340
- Rodale.com: Protect Your Home Garden from New GMO Threats — http://www.rodale.com/new-gmos?page=0,0