but is it tasty on the BBQ?
Generally, if our food kills living organisms, it is viewed as a negative. For Monsanto, however, this feature is a great new selling point. New genetically engineered (also called genetically modified or GM) sweet corn designed to kill insect pests is now being harvested across Canada. Of course, without labelling, we need to conduct our own investigations to learn where GM sweet corn is being sold.
Until last fall, there was only one US seed company selling a limited number of GM sweet corn varieties from Syngenta, to farmers in Ontario and Quebec. Now, Monsanto, the largest seed company in the world, has introduced three varieties of GM insect resistant, herbicide tolerant sweet corn. Across Canada, the first GM vegetable has hit some, but not all grocery stores and farmers markets.
Sobeys grocery chain (in Eastern Canada) has confirmed to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network that they have no GM fresh sweet corn in their stores. At the time of publication, however, Loblaws and Metro had yet to comment on the status of their fresh sweet corn supply. Whole Foods Market has also pledged to keep GM sweet corn out, but Walmart says it won’t be looking for a non-GM supply. Farmers selling at local farmers markets could also be selling GM sweet corn. As Monsanto’s vice president of its global vegetable business told the LA Times in August 2011, “Given how sweet corn is normally sold – by the ear, in larger bins in produce sections of the market – it’s not really something that can be easily branded.”
GM corn has been one of the four major GM crops grown in the world – along with canola, soy and cotton – but, until now, this was mostly hard corn used for processed food ingredients and animal feed. Different corn varieties have different qualities and are grown for different reasons. There are no GM popcorn varieties on the market, for example.
GM sweet corn will be the first GM insect resistant (Bt) crop in the world to be widely consumed as a whole, unprocessed food. While GM soy, corn, canola and cotton are used in many processed food ingredients, GM fruits and vegetables (with the possible exception of some U.S-. grown squash varieties and papaya) have yet to make it to the produce section of Canadian grocery stores. Monsanto removed its insect resistant potato from the North American market in 1995 because of consumer pressure. Last year in India, Monsanto’s Bt eggplant was stopped and while GM tomatoes are iconic GM foods, they barely made it onto shelves and have not been seen since 1998. (For an updated list see, see www.cban.ca/gmfoods ))
Monsanto’s GM sweet corn is both insect resistant and herbicide tolerant. This means that the new GM sweet corn can be also sprayed more often with Monsanto’s herbicide called Roundup. Monsanto calls its new sweet corn the “Performance Series” and the varieties are sold to farmers with names like Temptation II, Obsession II and Passion II.
Monsanto’s GM sweet corn is engineered to be toxic to particular insects. The GM technology transforms the corn plant into a pesticide. In fact, the toxin from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, is expressed in every cell of the plant including the corn kernels. If certain insects, including the European corn borers, corn earworms, fall army worms and corn rootworm larvae, try to eat the corn, they will die. The Bt toxin attaches to receptors in the gut of some insects, rupturing the gut and killing the insect.
Health Canada approved the use of different GM insect resistant (Bt) and herbicide tolerant traits in corn between 1995 and 2011. However, none of these safety assessments explicitly evaluated the consumption of GM corn as sweet corn. Instead, Health Canada assumed the dietary exposure of Canadians would be limited to GM field corn used for animal feed and processed food ingredients. Canadians have no way of knowing how extensively Monsanto has studied safety questions relating to human consumption of sweet corn/whole, unprocessed kernels. Such studies remain “Confidential Business Information” and Health Canada does not conduct its own safety tests, such as animal feeding trials.
While Monsanto is right that “Bt protein comes from a helpful, naturally occurring bacteria that is often used as an insecticide by organic farmers,” spraying Bt on plants is entirely different from splicing Bt genes into the plants, which then become toxic. Studies show the Bt toxin protein is not always fully broken down in the gut and a comparative analysis of available data conducted by researchers in France shows that three Monsanto GM corn varieties (two of which were Bt) show signs of toxicity in rat feeding trials, affecting the immune system, liver and kidneys. (de Vendomois et al, “A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health,” International Journal of Biological Sciences, 2009). The researchers conclude, “These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown.”
Last year, researchers at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec found significant levels of the Bt protein in the blood of pregnant women and in the blood supply of foetuses. Though the detection method used in the study is being questioned, this and other research results need to be investigated through long-term studies. In the meantime, Syngenta is facing new criminal charges for concealing the results of a 1996 company study on a Bt corn that was shut down when four cows died after just two days of consuming the GM corn. Ten years after his initial court case, German farmer Gottfried Gloeckner is charging that the company withheld information about a known link to animal mortality.
Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator at Canadian Biotechnology Action Network www.cban.ca