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What's in Season at the Farmers Market: GMO Blues + First Summer Corn

Bi-color corn from Yasukochi Farms at the Hollywood market
Bi-color corn from Yasukochi Farms at the Hollywood market
Felicia Friesema

When you Google Monsanto, the website link has both the company's name and its slogan -- A Sustainable Agriculture Company. It's a website that works very hard from the first click to reframe the conversation around the most controversial issue in worldwide agriculture. Perhaps with good reason. The search was prompted by overheard conversations at the market last week as customers eyed the season's first corn with unmasked suspicion, asking if it was genetically modified. A quick survey of farm employees revealed that few even knew what GMO crops were. And the customers who asked didn't know exactly why GMO corn might be bad for them. They had simply been told to avoid it, either by friends or via one of thousands of links on the Internet.

According to Monsanto's website, more than 16 million farmers are growing genetically modified or biotech crops in more than 28 countries, including the U.S. And according to the Non GMO Project -- North America's only third party verification and labeling for non-GMO foods -- 40 percent of the sweet corn market in the United States is grown from genetically modified seed. Monsanto claims that people have been eating GM crops since 1994 with no ill effects. Unsurprisingly, many beg to differ. The Non GMO Project says there's "a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers' and consumers' rights." Neither website provides access to impartial third party info that might shed some light on the issue.

Bottom line: Is the corn we so desperately want to toss onto the grill and slather with butter and salt genetically modified? And what does that mean? Is one of summer's most cherished farm foods actually a pesticide?

The increasingly vitriolic back and forth about GMOs does nothing to illuminate whether or not the big, juicy ears of sweet corn piled high on that rickety market table are genetically modified. But according to the Non GMO Project, eating certified organic corn is your best bet. Growers aren't allowed to knowingly plant GMO seed under certification rules. If you buy your corn already processed, the Non GMO project also has a list of trusted brands that don't grow GMO.

The catalyst for most of the GMO hubbub around corn can be traced back to a patented corn seed called StarLink. StarLink corn was genetically modified to produce Cry9C, a pesticidal protein that would cling to the digestive lining of invading bugs and destroy them from the inside out. According to UC Davis, Cry9C has no effect on other living creatures. But the EPA played it safe and approved StarLink for animal feed, but not for human food, until additional testing was completed.

Despite the EPA limits, Cry9C was found in taco shells made by Kraft Foods in 2000. That's about when GMOs went from agricultural curiosity to a lightning rod of controversy. Numerous recalls went into effect after Cry9C was found in many other processed human foods, putting a giant, and highly negative, magnifying glass on all genetically modified crops. Seed companies destroyed stocks of StarLink seed and ceased offering it for sale. The public outrage continued to balloon as patent lawsuits started thwarting seed saving traditions and the evolution of super bugs and super weeds resistant to increasingly toxic plants and their partner pesticides began to emerge.

There may be some hope on the horizon. Scientists are now investigating a new avenue for genetic crop improvement called Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS). MAS uses existing DNA within the plant to enhance production and disease and pest resistance, not the transgenic DNA -- genes inserted from one organism into another, different organism -- necessary for GMO production.

Back to the issue at hand: Is farmers market corn genetically modified? Highly unlikely, although it doesn't hurt to ask -- politely -- if the corn in question isn't certified organic. Ironically, if you happen to find a corn worm snuggled into the silk at the top of the ear, rejoice. Corn worms would get one bite and then dessicate from the inside out, which would happen at a very early stage of their life so you wouldn't ever find one fully grown living inside the silk at the top of genetically modified corn. Organic or not, it proves the crops in question will safely sustain all life, turning a previously unwanted pest into the most reliable non GMO label at the market.

Early corn is here from the warmer areas out near Coachella and will grow in quantity, diversity and sweetness as summer progresses. The long corn season into fall starts now.

Find your local market on our interactive farmers market map.


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