Roadside GMO Corn
BillPowellIsAlive (blog), Feb 2 2008
Yesterday I went to a day of Vegetable School offered by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Twenty or so farmers and fakers like myself learned about soil, cover cropping, pest identification, and crop varieties. I enjoyed most of the talks, and I enjoyed listening to actual farmers. But next time you stop at a roadside stand, you might want to ask whether that juicy, fresh corn is genetically engineered.
Scientists are doing all kinds of nifty stuff to your food these days, and one of the speakers was quite enthusiastic about Bt corn. Bt is a pesticide that is comparatively benign, since even organic growers can legally use it. So someone got the bright idea to mash up the genes so that the corn produces the pesticide itself. And then you eat it.
As this speaker put it, what's the difference between spraying normal corn and growing Bt corn? What, indeed? Paid professionals have promised that all they wanted to do was to make the corn produce this pesticide, ergo, that must be all that happened when they played Legos with the genetic structure of a living organism. Why get all persnickety about the possible long-term health effects of eating plants that produce their own poisons? The professionals promised. They've been doing this sort of stuff for whole years. They even ran a few tests.
True, the Bt pesticide is considered harmless to humans, as opposed to many other pesticides farmers might use instead. But there is that slight difference between applying sun tan lotion and trying to tweak your genes so you excrete it.
So why grow the stuff? We were treated to enthusiastic charts demonstrating a comparison among yields of Bt corn, sprayed normal corn, and unsprayed normal corn. And the market yield of the Bt corn was roughly twice the unsprayed. But the total yield, e.g., how much corn was actually harvested, was roughly the same. The unsprayed grew fine, but half of it got worms in the tips, so no one would buy it. Thus the loss of the market yield.
Now, it's not really fair to compare unsprayed corn yields if they were grown in conventional, dead soils. Organic farming isn't just about stopping pesticides, but also feeding and nourishing the soil. In a healthier soil, the healthier corn might have resisted attack. Still, even in conventional conditions, the unsprayed corn yielded nearly as much. A lot of it just had worms. And corn worms are gross. I've seen them.
So would you rather cut off a wormy corn tip, or ingest a corn that's been engineered to make its own pesticide?
Maybe you don't consider the question rhetorical. In that case, you should have no trouble with the next one: Should Bt corn be clearly labelled? Genetic engineering may be the true modern miracle, the end of starvation, the glory of the age””fine. Great! Then GE should be a badge of honor, even at a roadside stand. Sure, I use Bt corn! Don't you know, boy? Frankenfoods are going to save the world!
Well. When one of the organizers (a pleasant lady who did her Master's on genetic engineering) asked whether farmers should let their customers know, what do you suppose the answer was?
Embarrassed silence. Then, assurance that no law requires a clear identification. More silence. Then one farmer said that if they ask, you should tell. That got a general, hurried agreement.
So I recommend that you ask.
After a bit more not really answering the question, one guy finally said in a low voice that eighty percent of consumers won't touch anything if it's genetically engineered. No one disagreed. And then they kept talking about Bt corn as a tool.
Now, it's possible that most of those folks, like me, just kept quiet because they were horribly embarrassed at the question. Or not so much embarrassed as dumbfounded. If eighty percent of your clientele don't want to touch the stuff, how can you not warn them? Maybe almost everyone thought it was a given. But it sure didn't seem like it.
It's hard for me to lambast the actual farmers””I'm not the one whose livelihood depends on a nation trained to shriek at an apple with a scratch. On the other hand, it's hard not to think that even farmers ought to have a lower tolerance for using poison on and experimenting with, well, what everyone eats. Defenders of GMOs get all excited that with GMOs, farmers don't have to use all those nasty and dangerous pesticides that, er, people like them were so excited about fifty years ago. And farmers still use today.
This particular speaker, for instance, also shared that he used to have a problem with mice and on critters chewing his irrigation lines over the winter, until (chuckle) he 'cheated' and put something in the line that kept them away. I didn't catch what it was. No one ever told me there is some substance that can both keep mice away and also be rinsed out into my salad. I should find out what it is.
Real nice guy, and he's not dead yet, so maybe I'm wrong. But I'd rather cut off those wormy tips, thank you. Worms have been around for awhile. We know even less about genetically engineered food than the Radium Girls should have known when they were licking the brushes to paint those nifty glow-in-the-dark watches back in 1917. Yes, I know, they've done lots of tests. For over ten years! I guess none of us can think of any health problems that might take more than ten years to surface. Looks like we'll find out.