Stacy Malkan | First appeared in Civil Eats | November 2013
As we were roasting sweet corn over our barbecues this past summer, we wanted to know: Was this the same corn on the cob we'd been eating all our lives, or was it a new type of corn genetically engineered by Monsanto to contain pesticides and tolerate herbicides?
Until now, Monsanto's genetically modified organisms (GMO) have been commodity crops for processed food and animal feed. Very few GMO fresh foods are in stores — just papaya from Hawaii and a little bit of squash. While Syngenta has offered GMO sweet corn for about a decade, most farmers opted not to grow it.
But the DNA of sweet corn is changing. In 2011, Monsanto began selling seeds for its first direct-consumption vegetable product, a "stacked trait" sweet corn genetically engineered with two Bt-toxin genes that make the corn an insecticide, plus a "Roundup Ready" gene that enables the corn to survive Monsanto's weed-killing chemicals. Yum.
How much do we know about the safety of this corn? According to a review of Monsanto's website by geneticist Belinda Martineau, the site offers no peer-reviewed studies on this new GMO fresh vegetable (which many kids consume in large quantities) that has three different genetically engineered traits. No peer-reviewed studies?
However much they haven't studied the GMO sweet corn, they've had a lot of fun marketing it. Monsanto calls the new corn Seminis® Performance Series™ and it comes in three varieties: Passion II, Obsession II and Temptation II. (See the marketing brochure for yourself. You couldn't make this stuff up.)
Naturally, we wanted to know: How far has this GMO sweetcorn penetrated the market? Did we feed it to our families this summer? There was only one way to try to figure it out.
Up to Our Ears in Sweetcorn
Between June and September of 2013, Friends of the Earth worked with volunteers across the country to gather 71 samples of fresh, frozen and canned non-organic sweetcorn from eight regions: Washington State, California, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington D.C.
We tested the corn using a highly sensitive strip-testing method designed to detect the presence of the Cry1Ab proteins expressed in genetically modified corn plant tissue, both the Monsanto and Syngenta varieties. We sent the positive samples to an accredited independent lab to confirm the corn as genetically engineered.
The tests yielded surprising results. Despite reports that Monsanto was targeting 40% of the sweet corn acreage in the U.S. with its new GMO seeds, we found very little GMO sweet corn in U.S. stores. (See Friends of the Earth analysis.)
Just 2.4% of the corn we tested — two samples out of 71 — tested positive as genetically engineered. Both were fresh corn on the cob products, which the lab confirmed to be Monsanto Seminis® Performance Series™ sweet corn.
So Where's the GMO Sweet Corn?
If you bought sweetcorn at Stop & Shop in Everett, Massachusetts, during the first week of August, or at City Market in Breckenridge, Colorado, in the third week of July, you bought Monsanto's stacked-trait GMO sweetcorn — without knowing it, since it's not labeled.
The Everett Stop & Shop corn was grown in Ontario, Canada. The Breckenridge City Market corn was of unknown origin but labeled "King Soopers Yellow Corn, three count, store code 430, bar code 204426001997."
It's worth noting where we didn't find GMO sweet corn. We didn't find it at Stop & Shop in Medford, Mass., less than a mile away from the Everett Stop & Shop where we did find it. The Medford corn was grown in western Massachusetts (not Canada).
We didn't find GMO corn at Walmart stores in Denver and Seattle, even though Walmart has said it will carry the GMO corn (three more Walmart stores we checked had no fresh corn at all). We didn't find GMO corn among the 25 samples we tested from eastern and western Washington State (a top sweet corn-growing state), despite rumors of farmers there growing it. We didn't find it in any frozen or canned samples.
It's possible we would have found GMO sweetcorn at other Walmart stores, at other retailers, or in other states where we didn't buy corn. This analysis is not definitive; it's just a snapshot in time.
But a picture is emerging: "Monsanto's genetically engineered sweet corn appears to be a flop in the United States," said Lisa Archer, Food and Technology Program director at Friends of the Earth U.S. "Food companies are starting to reject genetically engineered foods, and rightly so. They know their customers, particularly parents, are leery of unlabeled, poorly studied GMOs."
Monsanto disagrees with this interpretation of the data. "Our GM sweet corn business has grown tremendously this year and the business is proceeding quite satisfactorily," spokesman Thomas Helscher wrote to WBEZ, in response to the Friends of the Earth study. "There has been high consumer satisfaction and extremely positive feedback from growers about improved plant health and yield."
Since most consumers have no idea that GMO sweet corn exists, the "high consumer satisfaction" line is a bit hard to swallow. And if Monsanto's GMO sweet corn business has "grown tremendously," where is the stuff being sold?
According to another recent study, there is one place you'd be much more likely to find GMO sweet corn.
Is Monsanto Targeting the Canadian Market?
At the same time testing was underway in the U.S., and unbeknownst to the Friends of the Earth team, an environmental group in Canada was conducting a similar investigation to look for GMO sweet corn there.
Using the same strip-testing method to detect the proteins present in genetically engineered corn, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network tested 43 fresh sweetcorn ears purchased from a variety of venues in four Canadian provinces — 15 of the corn ears (35%) tested positive as GMO.
The genetically engineered sweet corn came from Loblaw, a large Canadian grocery chain, and also from smaller venues - small grocers, farmers' markets and roadside stands.
"Our testing clearly shows that genetically engineered sweet corn is present across Canada, from all types of vendors," said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. "We were alarmed to find a significant amount of GM sweet corn in Canada, and shocked that Canada could actually be a source of genetically engineered sweet corn to U.S. consumers."
Focusing on the Canadian market may make sense for Monsanto, given that the U.S. market is showing increasing signs of skittishness about GMOs.
As a few recent examples: dozens of leading grocery chains have pledged to not sell genetically engineered salmon if it comes to market; McDonald's and Gerber have said they do not plan to sell a GMO apple that is pending approval; and Whole Foods Market will require all GMO-containing foods in its stores to be labeled by 2018. When the restaurant chain Chipotle announced plans to phase out of GMOs, its stock prices went soaring.
All this is the result of consumer-pressure campaigns that are largely absent thus far in Canada. But one thing the two countries have in common: they're two of the only places in the industrialized world where shoppers have to use lab equipment to find out if their sweet corn is genetically engineered.
Friends of the Earth spent over $2,000 on laboratory analysis, testing kits, shipping and packaging to find two positive samples of genetically engineered sweet corn in the U.S.
"Obviously it's not possible for the average shopper to conduct such testing. Yet we have a right to know if the corn we're feeding our kids has been genetically engineered to contain an insecticide," said Lisa Archer.
"Transparency is non-negotiable. We need labeling so we can track GMOs in our food supply, especially since new DNA-altered vegetable and meat products are in development and may be headed to our supermarkets soon."
Stacy Malkan is the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and a longtime advocate for safe chemicals, healthy food and clean production. She worked with the Friends of the Earth Food & Technology Program on the sweet corn testing analysis.