A Taste Test of Biotech Sweet Corn

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Ready to go in the pot!

You may remember a while back when I wrote a post about biotech sweet corn, and how it could greatly reduce pesticide applications. Thanks to the popularity of that post (which still gets hits almost daily) I was afforded an opportunity by Monsanto to take delivery of a few freshly harvested ears of Seminis® Performance Series™ sweet corn. I received 11 ears of fresh Texas sweet corn a few days ago compliments of Monsanto neatly packaged in a styrofoam container with a cold pack inside. That being said, it should be known that this post contains my own thoughts derived from my personal research and experience with other Bt crops.  Let’s see what the benefits of this new (although not the first biotech variety) sweet corn may be, and then I’ll let you know how it tastes!

What are the Benefits of Biotechnology?

The biotech trait in this variety of sweet corn is known as Bt.  Bt is a protein that is expressed in many corn varieties other than sweet corn.  We use Bt corn in our commodity corn fields.  The protein targets specific insect pests that can damage corn and reduce yields.  Growers using Bt corn are able to greatly reduce pesticide use as well as reduce the consumption of fuel needed to apply pesticides.  And farmers don’t just save on fuel and chemicals.  Less equipment in the field means less engine hours and lower maintenance costs along with less yield robbing soil compaction from vehicle tracks.

Does Bt Sweet Corn Reduce Consumer Pesticide Exposure?

I wondered this myself, so I did a bit of digging.  Sweet corn appears on EWG’s Clean 15 for pesticides in produce.  I saw that apples were on the Dirty Dozen list, but that made sense because the apple is hanging out there “naked” on the tree and sweet corn is inside the husk when it’s sprayed.  But then I read the methodology behind the lists.  The Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen are based on over 50,000 tests from the USDA and FDA.  EWG says, “Nearly all the studies on which the guide is based tested produce after it had been rinsed or peeled.”  That statement made me take pause for a second.

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This is what my corn looked like when it arrived on my doorstep.  With the husks peeled back I didn’t find one creepy crawly inside.

If I’m just basing my thoughts of pesticide exposure on what I’ve gleaned from EWG, then exposure from sweet corn would be minimal.  Yet the amount of pesticide used on conventional sweet corn is quite high compared to commercial corn.  If you’re like me you aren’t thrilled when you peel back the husk of some fresh sweet corn and find a big, fat corn-eating caterpillar inside, but that’s why multiple applications of insecticide might be made on a plot of sweet corn.  The bugs are protected once inside, so growers need more than one application in hopes of catching the pests outside the plant.

Biofortified has a great post on this matter entitled “The Frustrating Lot of the American Sweet Corn Grower.”

So maybe biotech corn that expresses Bt protein doesn’t lessen consumer exposure through the handling and eating of corn, but we do know it can greatly reduce how much pesticide growers use.  I think we can all agree that anytime we can reduce pesticide use it’s a good thing for all parties from grower to consumer.

But what about that Bt trait woven into the genetics of biotech varieties?  If the insecticide is in the genes you can’t wash it off, and I understand that is a concern for many people.  Anastasia Bodnar is a maize geneticist with a passion for all things corn.  Her post simply titled “Bt” sheds light on the issue.  In regard to EPA testing of the toxin she states, “they are looking at the specific Bt protein in question, albeit expressed in a bacteria or yeast instead of in the crop itself – because the crop doesn’t produce enough of the protein to result in a toxic response.”  I should also note here that insects and humans are very different biologically.  The Cry proteins in Bt crops specifically target the gut of certain corn pests.  These toxins do not have the effect on us that they do on bugs.

Bodnar goes on to say:

“Despite the fact that the EPA and various scientific bodies find it unnecessary to perform additional toxicity testing of Bt proteins, scientists do it anyway. Numerous tests have been conducted feeding Bt crops (mostly corn, but also cotton and potato) to livestock, other animals such as quail, and yes, even monarch butterfly. Few have found significant differences between Bt and non-Bt feed, and those that have found differences often have methodological or statistical errors that have been well covered elsewhere.”

If you’ll take the time to read her entire Bt post you’ll find that biotechnology reduces exposure to potentially harmful things in many other ways than reduced insecticide use.

I’d also like to add in some reference material concerning the clean and dirty lists.  Sam Vance over at Edible Intelligence has written his own post that puts the so-called dirty foods into perspective.  Apples may indeed be “dirty” when compared to sweet corn, but are they really dirty?  According to Sam the average adult male would have to consume 571 servings of apples in a single day to consume a harmful level of pesticide.  So be careful of what you read.  Even on here!  I rely on the readers to keep me on my toes!

Enough Science! Is it tasty?

It certainly is!  It tastes like any other other freshly picked sweet corn I’ve eaten.  I might have even annoyed my wife a bit each time I pulled an ear out of the styrofoam cooler just to smell it.  I smelled it a lot because previous plans dicatated that I hold onto my corn for three days before I could give it a taste.

Boiling!

For lunch my wife, son, and I tried a simple recipe from allrecipes.com.  It was pretty standard fare for sweet corn.  Place the ears in boiling water with some sugar and lemon juice until tender then eat!  It was very good with no noticeable difference from conventional sweet corn other than I didn’t find any worms inside the husks.  My wife and I ate off the cob, and I sliced off the kernels for my son who is a big corn lover.

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Here’s the little guy enjoying his first fresh corn of the year.

Sweet corn. Potatoes. Cheeseburger. Fresh fruit. Yum!

Round two of corn eating came that evening at my in-law’s house.  My mother-in-law fixed up the ears in her usual way of wrapping each ear in wax paper followed by a little time in the microwave to heat them up.  I took a nice warm ear, slathering on a helping of butter along with some salt and pepper.  Again pretty standard, but it sure is delicious.  The kernels were plump and juicy.  The corn is good plain too, but the combo of the sweet corn with butter, salt, and pepper is hard to beat in my book.  I ate mine off the cob again.  My father-in-law pulled out a neat tool that shaves the kernels off the cob.  I like to eat corn that way too although I just employ a sharp knife.  I’m going to have to find one of those corn shavers.

I would definitely eat GMO sweet corn again, and I personally am not concerned about feeding it my family.  If you’ve read many posts on this blog it should come as no surprise than I’m a fan of biotechnology in agriculture.  I use it on my farm, and I’ve studied a good deal of plant pathology, chemistry, human biology, and both animal and plant genetics in college and I strive to keep learning.  I’d like to think I might be smarter than the average bear on those subjects (not smartest bear by any account), but I want you to come to your own well informed opinions as well and make your own choices.  I just hope to bring a little insight from the perspective of someone who is both a grower and consumer of products like this one.

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Focused on what I believe was my third ear of the day.  Maybe fourth.

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All done!

So that’s my take on biotech sweet corn, folks.  What do you think?  Is it something you would try?  Would you like to see it labeled?  Please leave a comment below with answers to those questions or anything else regarding Bt sweet corn.  I’d love to hear all of your thoughts.  Thanks for stopping by!

The Farmer’s Daughter USA “My Dog, Chocolate, and Bt Sweet Corn”

Comments

  1. This is a great piece, with one quibble:

    >>I saw that apples were on the Dirty Dozen list, but that made sense because the apple is hanging out there “naked” on the tree and sweet corn is inside the husk when it’s sprayed.”<<

    This actually makes no sense whatsoever. Nothing the EWG says makes sense. It's "organic" propaganda. Steve Savage and others have eviscerated the claims of the EWG and their egregious "Dirty Dozen" list:

    http://sustainablog.org/2011/06/dont-let-the-environmental-working-group-diminish-your-quality-of-life/

    I'm a small farmer with a little orchard, so, as you might imagine, the EWG's "poisonous apples" claim really burns my a–. I practice Integrated Pest Management, which includes hand-thinning the damaged/infected applets after fruit set (which takes several days), raking and burning all the scab-infected leaves in the orchard (which takes a couple of weeks), and removing all drops from around the trees (which we practice all season long). This is the beauty of being small. IPM greatly reduces the need for pesticides, but, yes, we still use them as part of the package.

    Scab is a huge problem in the Northeast, as well as plum curculio, codling moth, and sawfly, just to name a few of the critters that can make my life miserable. Here are my choices: Spray regularly with "conventional" pesticides; spray nearly-continuously with less effective "organically-approved" pesticides; or practice IPM and spray less frequently. Some organic orchardists here spray nearly twice as much as "conventional" growers. Not spraying is not an option. As I have to walk through the orchard with a spray wand connected to a tractor-mounted sprayer, I try to spray as little as possible.

    All my spraying is completed several weeks, even months, before harvest, so the pre-harvest intervals required by the EPA are exceeded many times over.

    Residue detection does not equal toxicity. I have arsenic in my well water, but as the level is well below set tolerances I have nothing to worry about.

    Eaters of "conventional" apples have even less to worry about. The EWG "Dirty Dozen" list is a marketing scam.

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Mike. You’ve provided a lot of useful information.

      I’m not a great believer in what EWG posts either, but I know many people are familiar with those lists. The one thing they are lacking is how much residue is on an apple. In my opinion, while it may be true apples have more residue than sweet corn that doesn’t mean either one has a harmful level. Just because they say it’s “dirty” doesn’t mean it is.

      Thanks for the quibble!

      One of these days I may write a post about their list of tax dollars paid out to farmers. Like the dirty and clean lists, the information may be accurate but may also be misleading in some ways. I still think the information provided in this post is relevant to the topic however.

        1. Great post, Sam. I’m so glad you posted that link. When I get a few minutes I may work it into the body of the post. Do you have figures on the clean list?

    2. IPM is the only way to go. I’m a produce grower. My biggest battle is fighting 3 chief insect pests of cucurbits.

      1. I’m sure that is a tougher battle than I fight with bugs from year to year. Spider mites devastated some soybeans this year.

  2. Very good post Brian. I’m a cattleman with limited exposure when it comes to row crops. So I learn something from many of your posts. I am glad to know that farmers like yourself are able to use technology to produce safe food with fewer trips across the field, fewer inputs. Many don’t realize all that goes into growing crops (I know I’m probably missing a lot), and love hearing your thoughts! Now to get myself some sweet corn…

  3. I am Brian’s wife. I would like to add that not only were they delicious, they seemed to be juicier than normal. This just added to the flavor. I’m sure it wasn’t because they were biotech, but delicious nonetheless.

    1. Hello Nicole! I think a few things may be happening. First, the corn was packaged in the field and sent straight to you guys so there was very little time from field to plate, much like what happens when you pick it in your own field. And secondly, our breeders put a major emphasis on taste and other qualities that impact enjoyment! So glad you enjoyed it and nice to meet you virtually. 🙂

  4. I would just love to know where I can get seed. We farm close to 6000 acres and wouldn’t mind trying some in the garden. I know how nice having biotech seed is in the field, now just to help along my garden. I even called Monsanto and got a the run around they gave me three different numbers to call and no one answered any of them.

    1. Nancy, this product is not available for gardens — believe me several of us who work at Monsanto tried whole heartedly! Currently the product is only sold in 25,000 seed count bags and that is due in part to the regulatory package for the biotech component Bt, requires certain stewardship measures, etc. If you’d like to try an acre or so next year, your local retailer should be able to make that connection for you. It is the Seminis brand and the hybrid is called Obsession II

      1. What does that bag weigh? Field corn bags are 80k/bag from 45-60lbs give or take a bit, unless you’re using bulk boxes of course.

    1. Thanks, Janice! And let’s just say after the results of the following day, he might not eat two ears of corn in one day for a while. Serious diaper changing.

  5. A local Dekalb dealer had some Roundup Ready sweet corn which would sure be nice as I seem to remember my non-RR sweet corn about the time my spray booms pass over it. My sweet corn patch is always in a conventional RR cornfield. 🙂
    As for the bt, be nice not to have those pesky ear worms without having to spray small patches with insecticide.

  6. I’m curious about why you waited 3 days to eat it. I was spoiled by growing up on a farm where we grew and sold sweet corn by the road. I would eat some right in the field. Now I will only buy sweet corn at a farm stand where I know it is fresh. (spoiled on maple syrup too but that is off topic)

    1. I had other plans at the time the corn was delivered, that involved eating elsewhere. Wish I could’ve eaten it right away!

  7. We grew the rr Obsession II this last summer. I planted two acre plots. It grew wonderfully in a dry year. Ears fully developed. High yielder. No pests or worms. Most incredible taste with this sweet corn. Better than any brands we’ve grown in the last 10 years.

  8. Hi
    Are any of you concerned with what it does in your body chemically? I need to send you an article about how the roundup ready seeds effect our gut bugs, the ones that keep us healthy. The round up ready seeds have been researched at MIT and seem to bind to receptors on our healthy gut bugs that we need to keep our bodies healthy. I understand our population is demanding lots of food, there must be another way.
    Jwn

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