The Maine Board of Pesticides Control recently approved for growing in Maine Bt sweet corn, a genetically engineered, or GE, food product developed by Syngenta. This summer when locally grown sweet corn hits the market consumers won’t be able to tell if the corn they’re purchasing is a genetically engineered or traditional variety.
Bt sweet corn is a genetically modified organism, or GMO, and is fundamentally different from the sweet corn that traditionally has been grown in Maine. Through biotechnology, traits from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, are permanently inserted into corn’s DNA. The Bt gene produces a protein within the corn plant that kills moth and butterfly caterpillars. Bt sweet corn seed is marketed as “insect protected” and, in this case is intended to kill the European corn borer. However, collateral damage to monarch butterfly caterpillars was documented in the May 1999 issue of Nature. A Cornell University laboratory study reported monarchs that ate Bt corn pollen died, while those that ate regular corn pollen survived.
The Maine Board of Pesticides Control has statutory authority to regulate the sale and application of chemical pesticides and is charged with safeguarding the public health through the safe, scientific and proper use of chemical pesticides. Bt sweet corn seed is regulated as a pesticide. When the technology was new, corporations developing the technology touted the tagline, “The pesticide’s right in the seed,” because by inserting the toxic Bt protein into the permanent genetic code of the corn, every cell of the seed and the resulting plant — including the ear of corn we consume — contains the protein.
The tagline was intuitively unsavory to the consuming public. The biotech companies quickly changed its marketing, emphasizing that farmers would benefit from use of this technology.
In fact, at its recent meeting one member of the pesticides board said he favored approval of Bt sweet corn because it would reduce the need for applying other pesticides aimed at controlling the borer. At one meeting this winter, he said, 30 to 40 growers, by a show of hands, said they would grow the GE corn if available.
Consumers have valid concerns about the possible health side effects of ingesting Bt corn. Several board members — noting virtually all of the sweet corn grown in Maine is consumed in Maine — expressed concern over having unlabeled Bt corn in the food system. The board’s staff reported that analyses of the data regarding the undesirable effects of the product were incomplete and that some of the data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency were “lacking in some of the basic science.” Another board member admitted, “A lot of this is over my head.”
If the data are incomplete, not carefully scrutinized, and not fully understood, why approve the corn? Upon approving the crop, board members noted they could deny it renewal next year if problems with human health were found in the scientific literature. This seems counter to the board’s mandate for precaution.
People know something is gravely wrong with a food system when life-giving seed — the source of our nourishment — is regulated alongside chemical pesticides. It’s important to offer farmers the tools they need to produce crops and minimize exposure to pesticides. But in a society where less than 2 percent of the population produces food and 100 percent of the population consumes food, it is likewise important to protect human health from untested technologies and only fair to label food so 100 percent of the people know what they are eating.
Why isn’t GE food labeled? If manufacturers of Bt sweet corn, Bt sugar beets, Bt cotton and Bt soybean are so confident about their technology why don’t they brand it from seed to supermarket shelf? Could it be that if we knew what we are eating we wouldn’t buy it? Could it be that if it were labeled the ill effects might be traceable over time?
People who oppose the genetic engineering of food have been branded as anti-progress, anti-science and anti-technology. Opposing GE is not a question of slowing down progress. There is no human progress where people living in the most free, most industrialized nation on the planet are denied the most basic human right to know what they are eating.
Eaters, raise your hands, be counted, and let’s start working for GMO food labeling.
Diana George Chapin lives in Montville and has a master’s degree in plant, soil and environmental science from the University of Maine.