Kernels of Truth: Has your sweet corn's DNA been messed with?

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We're now cruising into Connecticut's sweet corn season, and few things taste better on a summer's day than a brilliant, golden corn-on-the-cob slathered in butter. The question is, would those juicy kernels taste a little less sweet if you knew they were genetically modified?

It's not something you can tell from a package or a supermarket sign because there's no federal or state requirement that consumers be told if the products they're buying are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. (Connecticut's legislature again failed to pass a state labeling law this year.)

Organic farmers and state agricultural officials believe most of the corn-on-the-cob Connecticut consumers will buy this year isn't genetically modified. Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's have flatly guaranteed they won't be selling so-called "Frankencorn."

ButWal-Mart, for instance, may be selling GMO corn to its customers here, and it may not.

"It's possible,"Wal-Martspokeswoman Dianna Gee says of the possibility of GMO corn sales in the retail giant's Connecticut stores. On the other hand, she adds, "We are unaware of any of our current suppliers providing us with [genetically] modified sweet corn as it's not a specification we include in our sourcing requirements."

Sort of Wal-Mart's version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"We don't limit our suppliers as to what seeds they cannot plant," she explains.

"Our goal here is to make sure our customers have a wide variety of safe, quality produce at affordable prices, which must meet or exceed a number of food safety requirements," Gee says. "We see no scientifically valid safety reasons not to sell this product."

Stop & Shop is one of the largest supermarket chains in Connecticut, so it seemed appropriate to ask the company spokeswoman Suzi Robinson if GMO corn is being sold in its stores this summer. Here is her reply to that simple question:

"We support the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling policy that appropriate labels be required if genetic engineering significantly changes the structure, functions or nutritional makeup of the food."

Which the FDA doesn't think is happening with GMO corn, so no such labeling is required.

"They didn't answer the question," says Tara Cook-Littman, head of Right To Know Connecticut, a coalition that's been working to get this state to require labeling of GMO foods. "For me, that sounds like [Stop & Shop stores] probably are selling GMO corn."

The FDA (which happens to have as its food safety czar a former vice president of Monsanto, the world's biggest GMO seed producer) isn't alone in believing there's no risk in GMOs. Neither does the American Medical Association, which last month issued a policy statement saying "There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods."

TheU.S. Department of Agriculturealso doesn't think there's any reason to do it, arguing that it would only confuse consumers, since USDA experts say there's no difference between natural and bioengineered or GMO foods. Monsanto insists its patented and highly profitable products are safe and that there's no need at all for human testing.

(Monsanto also won't sell its patented seeds to outside researchers looking to do that kind of testing.)

The claims for GMO corn and other such crops are that they require less pesticides and herbicides, can be made drought resistant and thus produce more and cheaper food for the whole world.

Lots of foodies, some skeptical scientists, and organic farmers like Bill Duesing say there are a host of reasons why we should be able to choose between natural foods and GMOs. Critics say far too few real studies have been done on the effects of genetically modified foods on humans and on the environment and they fear we're not going to find out the bad stuff until it's too late.

Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, cites studies indicating that GMO foods do leave traces of insect toxins or other residues within the bodies of humans that eat them.

He says that, in some cases, "the corn itself is registered as a pesticide."

Until now, most GMO corn has been used for things like cattle feed and to make additives like high fructose corn syrup, which is in all sorts of processed food products on Connecticut store shelves. Sweet corn has been such a small part of the agricultural market that it has, until now, been almost untouched by the GMO debate.

Monsanto, however, last year announced it would introduce a new drought-tolerant sweet corn seed and the federal government approved its use for human consumption. The expectation was that it would begin appearing on American supermarket shelves this summer.

(Most of Europe and at least 40 nations worldwide now either require GMO foods to be labeled or ban their use for human consumption.)

According to the latest statistics available from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, Connecticut farmers planted about 4,000 acres of sweet corn in 2010 and ended up harvesting about 3,500 acres.

That year's crop produced something like 29.6 million ears of corn, with an estimated value of more than $10.9 million dollars.

"We very seriously doubt that any GMO sweet corn is being grown in Connecticut for human consumption," says George Krivda, a spokesman for this state's agricultural agency. But again, no one knows for sure because there's no requirement for the state to be notified when such crops are planted.

Duesing says most of the corn-on-the-cob eaten in this state is grown locally but that "places like Wal-Mart are sourcing their corn from very far away, from very large producers."

If you do want to know if your local farm stand or farmer's market or grocery store is selling natural corn, says Duesing, the best thing to do is simply ask.

Not only will that get you the information you might want, says Duesing, but it can help educate the people selling you these vegetables: "The more people ask, the more [the retailers and farmers] will know that people care about this."

Cook-Littman has the same advice for Connecticut consumers this summer: "If you're going to eat corn-on-the-cob, it must be organic or from a farmer you can look in the eye and have him tell you his corn is not GMO."

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