By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Last year, there was a big fuss over Monsanto’s new genetically modified (GMO) sweet corn, which has been injected with a trait that makes the entire plant toxic to corn worms.
This was either a major breakthrough for agriculture (edible corn that produces its own pesticide!) or a dark development in food history (edible corn that produces its own pesticide!).
Food advocacy groups, and many citizens, reacted strongly when they heard that sweet corn would be joining the growing list of GMO foods, which already includes field corn (used mainly for livestock feed and in high fructose corn syrup), soybeans, canola and sugar beets.
Some consumers even petitioned Walmart, which announced it would sell the GMO (genetically modified organism, also known as GM or GE for genetically engineered) corn. Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s made news when they pledged not to sell it.
The problem capsulized: Food safety groups are worried that GM sweet corn, which has been modified with a bacteria called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) to kill predator insects, and also has been engineered to resist the pesticide RoundUp, could cause allergic responses, increase cancer vulnerability or aggravate human digestive systems. Some studies suggest as much, they say, though most acknowledge that more study is needed to sort out the potential health effects of GMO produce, such as sweet corn.
One study found inflammation in farm animals fed GM grains and another made headlines reporting that rats got tumors after consuming a GM corn and ingesting RoundUp residues. A study published in March 2013 found hemotoxicity, effects on the blood, in mice that were fed the proteins found in the Bt bacteria, prompting the Brazilian researchers to assert that more study is needed on the effects on vertebrates of Bt crop foods.
Biotech industry leaders scoff at these fears about GMOs, which they say are based on a few flawed studies. The biotech industry, they say, has performed many more tests, including animal studies, on GM seeds and foods to satisfy government regulators that they’re suitable for human consumption.
“There’s no debate over the safety of genetically modified foods,” said Paul Minehart, head of corporate communications for Syngenta/North America, because regulatory groups “all over the world say it’s safe.”
Monsanto stresses the same point in its application to the government for approval of its Bt sweet corn: “The history of safe use and data from multiple studies support the safety of MON 89034 and the Cry1A.105 and Cry2Ab2 proteins [the proteins in Bt].”
The critics counter that industry’s tests need to be replicated or double-checked by independent researchers without a financial interest in the outcome before they’ll feel comfortable about eating genetically engineered foods. Some also point to how big biotech firms are positioning themselves to control the science journals, purportedly to quell dissent.
In the view of the groups lining up with questions about GMOs, the potential health effects — be they irritated intestinal linings, allergies or depressed fertility to name a few suspected effects — are great enough that governments should investigate further now.
America leads the world in GMOs
Safe or unsafe, U.S. residents stand to be most affected, because the highest percentage of GM staple crops of any country are grown in America. About 90 percent of U.S. field corn and more than 90 percent of soybeans are genetically modified.
And yet, the U.S. stands nearly alone among leading nations in not labeling GM foods.
So when it comes to sweet corn, American consumers don’t know if that delicious corn on the cob they’re eating is GM or not. That’s true also for frozen or canned corn. And it’s been true for many years for the field corn that pervades packaged foods in various forms, as cornmeal in snack bars or high fructose corn syrup in soda, ketchup and dozens of other processed edibles.
Most Americans have taken government and industry assurances that transgenic foods are safe, or remain in the dark about the controversy. But many aren’t buying the safety argument, even if they’re inadvertently buying the foods.
Increasingly consumers are demanding that GMO foods be labeled. Connecticut and Maine passed labeling legislation this year, while six more states are actively considering labeling bills. More than half of states have some activity underway around this issue in their state legislatures. Washington state voters will decide the issue on a ballot initiative in November, which will be the one year anniversary of the first labeling initiative to come before U.S. voters, California's Prop. 37, also known as the Right to Know bill, which failed to pass.
Advocates for Prop. 37 blamed their near-miss on a multi-million dollar counter campaign by Monsanto, other big biotech companies and grocery associations. The anti-37 forces claimed that the labeling requirement would raise the cost of groceries for families by several hundred dollars a year. Proponents of Prop 37 argued that labeling had not raised costs in the 60 or so countries like Japan, China, all the European Union countries and Australia that already require labelling for GMOs.
The loss in California, however, seemed only to fuel the grassroots push for labeling in other U.S. locations, putting on display a confidence gap that’s grown between the biotech industry and the public, a slice of which is suspicious and angry at the chemical companies and government regulators. They've organized around Internet campaigns like Millions Against Monsanto, Just Label It and March Against Monsanto, which marshaled protests in several cities this spring.
Several big environmental groups have jumped into the debate, on behalf of food safety and the land, such as the Environmental Working Group and Sierra Club, which both advocate for labeling and stricter controls of GMOs. Friends of the Earth is targeting the middleman, by appealing to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is meeting this week, to side with consumers on labeling.
“We already have a right to know other important information about the food we eat and feed our families: we know about sugar and sodium levels; whether flavors are natural or artificial; whether our salmon is wild or farm-raised.
We should also know if our food is genetically engineered or not,” FOE wrote in a newsletter to members.
In the U.S., the biotech industry has rested its case that GMOs are safe on the FDA conclusion in the 1990s that engineered foods are “substantially” the same as conventional foods. And their reports to the government for many crops, not just corn, stress that the GM food is nutritionally equivalent to its non-GM counterpart.
At the same time, biotech marketing presents GMOs as newly imagined plants (which they are) that can conquer major problems like corn worm infestations and potato beetle damage, producing a bounty of food and thereby conserving land.
“Our approach is simply to help farmers grow more from less: more crops from less land, water, fossil fuel, carbon emission, and soil and biodiversity degradation. In this way we can help farmers grow more for food, feed, fiber and fuel to meet the rising demand while preserving our planet for future generations,” said Minehart of Syngenta. (The emphasis is his, in an email follow-up.)
Bt sweet corn, says Monsanto spokeswoman Carly Scaduto, is a blessing for farmers. It allows them to stop spraying a heavy array of chemicals against the crop-damaging worms, because Bt corn itself zaps the invaders itself. The pesticide is built in. For corn-on-the-cob (also known as fresh market corn) this is especially valuable, she says, because retailers can reject a whole truckload if they see a worm on an ear of corn. (See Monsanto’s video on farmers for more on the perspective of GM growers.)
The problem, counter the critics, is that the magic of GMO innovations wears off. At first, crops genetically modified to resist pesticides or to carry their own Bt pesticide do drive away the pests — but eventually nature battles back. The weeds and/or the insect pests become resistant to the pesticides and return in force, claiming crop land and driving up pesticide usage.
The plan, in essence, backfires.
Take the RoundUp Ready resistance that has been built into field corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops; the idea is that these crops can be sprayed with a “safer” herbicide like RoundUp (whether it’s safer is debatable) and survive the spraying while the weeds around them wither.
The weeds do in fact die. Miraculously, these crops survive and the weeds don’t. And then, over time, the weeds become resistant to the RoundUp and come back, stronger than ever.
The EPA has stepped in to try to help, requiring farmers to plant “refuge” acres, where some of the corn they grow does not carry the pesticide resistance or Bt traits.
The chemical companies’ solution: Switch to a new chemical or apply more RoundUp, a profitable prospect for big biotech, but expensive for the land, the farmer and the consumer.
“We are going to leave the land depleted. We are going to leave the water poisoned,” laments Sivia Migro, a teacher in Argentina, where virtually the entire soybean crop has been converted to GM varieties. (She appears in a video entitled Growing Doubts by Greenpeace, another large environmental group that's gotten involved in the fight over GMOs.)
But if the health costs (if any) to consumers have yet to be fully understood and the environmental costs difficult to measure, a recent report by Food & Water Watch homed in on some hard costs to farmers. It calculated the cost of weed resistance, placing it at around $12,000 for an average-sized corn or soybean farm in the U.S..
The FWW report, Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster The Pesticide Industry, found that RoundUp use had increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds used in 1996, when GM crops were first commercialized, to 159 million pounds in 2012.
Presumably that increase in RoundUp was caused by farmers trying to stay ahead of weed resistance.
The Sweet Corn Maze
It’s against this backdrop of growing uncertainty about both the environmental and health consequences of eating GMOs, that sweet corn hit the market in 2012.
Specifically, Monsanto’s sweet corn went commercial. Switzerland-based Syngenta had already been selling a GM sweet corn for about a decade in the U.S., although it comprises only about three percent of the American sweet corn acres grown.
This was a big deal because until 2012, not many vegetables that we eat directly were GMO. Some papaya and crookneck squash were on the market, along with the small amount of Syngenta’s sweet corn, but these represented much smaller quantities. Sweet corn, by contrast, is a popular vegetable, behind potatoes, but ahead of most other veggies in the volumes grown and sold, according to the Produce Marketing Association.
Monsanto is known for dominating the markets it enters. So the news that Monsanto was getting into the produce market with edible, iconic sweet corn, caused great consternation in the non-GMO camps. The growing organic movement reacted with protests and website campaigns. In late 2011, a coalition led by Center for Food Safety and other nonprofits, collected 264,000 signatures from consumers asking retailers to not buy GMO corn.
Monsanto was reportedly aiming for 250,000 acres of GMO sweet corn for the first full crop year in 2012.
Did it happen? Was the new corn a sensation or a flop? We cannot really tell, because, well, all that corn looks alike. Also, government agencies aren’t keeping track of it. Once the FDA, EPA and USDA issue their approvals, the followup appears to be left largely to Monsanto, as the director for Food Additive Safety for FDA indicates in her 2007 approval letter to the biotech giant:
Based on the information Monsanto has presented to FDA, we have no further questions concerning grain and forage derived from corn event MON 89034 at this time. However, as you are aware, it is Monsanto’s continued responsibility to ensure that foods marketed by the firm are safe, wholesome, and in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.
Monsanto reports that its new sweet corn, officially known as “Performance Series Sweet Corn” or MON89034, has been selling well.
“The sales far exceeded our expectations,” said Scaduto, a Monsanto communications manager, because “it brought a lot of value to the farmers growing it.”
But she would not or could not give specific numbers or say how much of the American sweet corn market is GMO vs. non-GMO.
Monsanto, though, would like consumers to quit worrying so much. In its application to the government for MON 89034, it assures regulators that tests show GMO sweet corn is safe for human consumption and non-toxic to mice, birds and non-target insects. Furthermore, the food content of MON 89034 shows it is “nutritionally and compositionally equivalent to, and as safe, nutritious and wholesome as its conventional counterpart.”
If that all turns out to be true, then Monsanto hsas gotten some undeserved bad PR.
But these statements come in a vacuum of independent information, say critics, because biotech firms keep the methodology of their studies private, citing patent privileges and competitive concerns. Even independent studies done on engineered foods often come from academics at institutions that take biotech money, they say, tainting the results.
The research is simply not definitive, says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.
Even the Bt trait, which has been promoted as safer because it is derived from a naturally occurring bacteria and has been used in spray pesticides allowed for organic farming, is not necessarily as safe when it is genetically transferred into the plant itself, Lovera said.
"We need to ask a lot more questions about what's left in the food when we eat it," she said.
And then there is Monsanto’s track record. The company regularly turns up on lists of the least-trusted corporations because of its history of producing dangerous products and hiding information about them. Monsanto gave the public a key chemical (2,4-D) in the human health-destroying defoliant Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War and more recently, the cow-crippling, potentially carcinogenic recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) used to jack up production in dairy cows.
As Lovera points out, Monsanto, DuPont and other big biotech firms were chemical companies first and FWW believes they’re still primarily focused on selling chemicals.
That point that might explain why the company flies under the radar with many of its seed products, which come bundled with an herbicide-resistance built-in.
For many years, the wider public barely took note as Monsanto single-handedly shifted the U.S. field corn market toward the GMO varieties it controls. Stories emerged about farmers being sued for inadvertently “using” the patented seeds when they drifted into their fields by mistake, a Monsanto tactic used to secure the market and dissuade independent-minded farmers from fighting the tide.
The corporation also bought numerous smaller seed companies. But American consumers barely knew that vast swaths of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas had gone GM.
Most of Monsanto’s field corn, like its newer sweet corn, was designed to be RoundUp Ready. Some of it also carries the Bt trait and a large portion of the crop is considered to be “stacked” varieties, imbued with resistance to multiple chemicals.
Those two qualities appealed to farmers who were promised increased yields and respite from excessive pesticide applications. It’s true that the Bt trait resulted in less pesticide passes because the plant grows its own pesticide.
And overall, the U.S. corn crop remains robust — but with cracks around the GMO vision. In parts of the Midwest, corn worms have developed resistance to the Bt “trait” and weeds have overrun fields, outfoxing RoundUp. So Monsanto and others are developing new GMO corn lines that will work with different chemicals, such as dicamba and 2,4-D.
Meanwhile, critics who see GMO as being mostly a marketing scheme, note that conventional crops may do just as well as those using GMO seeds. (Organic farmers make a similar case that yields can be just as good with land-friendly methods.)
“A report that analyzed nearly two decades worth of peer reviewed research on the yield of the primary GM food/feed crops, soybeans and corn (maize), reveals that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase US crop yields,” reports GMO Watch, citing a study by Doug Gurian Sherman.
Will this be the story of sweet corn too? An initial surge of beautiful, unmolested product, followed in later years by crop lands plagued by resistant bugs and weeds?
The years will tell, but first, how much GMO sweet corn is out there? Who’s growing it and who’s buying it?
The funny story about how little we could find out about GMO sweet corn
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. harvested about 244,000 acres of sweet corn worth about $821 million for fresh market sales in 2012. Sweet corn sold for processing as canned and frozen corn brought in $373 million, for a grand total of nearly $1.2 billion.
That compares with a mammoth field corn market, which is more than 70 times greater, with 87.3 million acres turning out a crop worth $77.3 billion at last count. But this is the corn that feeds livestock, is used to create distillers grain for alcoholic products, converted to ethanol for fuel and turned into high fructose corn syrup, which is used to sweeten soft drinks and snack foods.
But the USDA spokespeople could not tell us how much of the U.S. sweet corn crop is GMO vs. non-GMO. USDA spokespeople suggested we ask the trade associations.
The Corn Growers Association also told us they didn’t know how much sweet corn was GMO vs. non-GMO. They said they deal only in field corn, which accounts 95 percent of all corn (as we mentioned).
United Fresh is the trade group that represents fruits and vegetables, including sweet corn. We asked them how much sweet corn is GMO vs. Non-GMO? They’ve got no idea, they say.
“Unfortunately, we don't keep statistics like the ones you're looking for,” said Shelby Rajkovick, “so USDA will probably be your best bet.”
USDA? Yeah, they’ll know.
Can what you don’t know hurt you?
So here’s what we’ve learned: Monsanto probably knows something about how much of the sweet corn market is GMO vs. Non-GMO. You can bet they did some research before they came out with MON 8934, and now that they’re selling GMO sweet corn seed, it stands to reason they’d have some idea of the market size. But they’re not sharing.
Since they developed the product, own the patent on it, and have won approval from a government that doesn't track where it is grown, there's really only one way to break through the information wall:
If sweet corn were labeled at the point of sale, consumers could at least make a choice, say the food and environmental groups fighting for labeling. A few members of Congress say they agree and have written a law, though no one expects it to get through the House of Representatives, which has shown itself to be Monsanto-friendly during recent debates over biotech issues.
The drumbeat from regular folks across the political spectrum (from the left to the libertarian right) continues: Let consumers know what they’re buying, and if they’re not choosing GMO foods, then the biotech companies, the seed owners and the retailers will have to support alternative growing programs (organic?) or come up with a better marketing plan.
The government, especially, should own up, says Lovera of FWW.
“If you’re going to approve the stuff, you should at least let people know [when they're buying it].”
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