Story and Photography by Aube Giroux
A light wind swept over the corn, and all
nature laughed in the sunshine.
– Anne Bronte
I have a complicated relationship with corn. It wasn’t always that way. I used to sink my teeth into an ear of corn without hesitation, anticipating only the pure pleasure that a juicy, golden cob can provide on a sunny summer day. That was before 1996, the year the first genetically engineered foods started making their way onto farmers’ fields, grocery store shelves and, ever so discreetly (so much so that most of us didn’t even notice until years later), our dinner plates.
I’ve never been a picky eater. In fact, aside from a short-lived vegetarian stint as a teenager, I have always considered myself a proud omnivore. I will eat anything and everything, and with gusto! I am what we call in French a gourmande. I simply love to eat. But in the late 1990s I read something that completely changed my eating habits: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes sold in Canada contain genetically engineered corn whereas the same product in Europe does not.
I was mildly annoyed to read that we Canadians had so passively allowed these new mystery ingredients into our foods and I wanted to know why that was. So I dove headfirst into a research and film project about genetically engineered (GE) foods, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as they are more commonly known. I was so dismayed with what I found out that I decided to do everything in my power to avoid eating them. But this is not as easy as it seems since the three main genetically engineered foods – canola, soy and corn – are in over 80 percent of the processed foods found in our grocery stores. Which means that, suddenly, I went from being an omnivore to being a very, very picky eater.
Avoiding GMOs is a major challenge for Canadians since, unlike in Europe and many countries around the world, GE ingredients are not labelled as such here. Thus a convoluted guessing game begins. Take a peek at any food label in your cupboard and try finding something that doesn’t contain canola oil, soy lecithin, cornstarch, or some other soy/corn/canola derivative. These are just the obvious ones, because many common ingredients, including baking powder, maltodextrin, vitamin E, whey powder, glycerin and lecithin, to name only a few, have hidden GE sources. And, since most farm animals are fed GE soy and corn, meat and dairy are out for me unless they are certified organic. (Organic certification prohibits the use of GMOs.) It doesn’t help that every year, Health Canada quietly approves new GMOs, so avoiding them requires some serious effort in our true north strong and free.
Add to this challenge the issue of how to explain your dietary restrictions. It just doesn’t come out very smoothly, no matter which way you cut it. At least vegetarians, diabetics, heck, even vegans get a little understanding and respect. But try explaining that you’ll take a pass on those nachos because they are likely made with genetically engineered corn, cooked in genetically engineered canola oil, and smothered in cheese from cows that were fed genetically engineered soy and corn. If you ever want to create an instant awkward silence followed by a raging debate at a dinner party, I recommend this technique. But seriously, you do end up sounding like an annoyingly paranoid food snob who asks way too many questions; someone nobody wants to eat dinner with. So over the years I have learned to be increasingly discreet about my non-GMO inclinations when dining in public. But then again, isn’t that what landed us here in the first place? We Canadians are just so polite and docile about everything. Maybe it’s time we put up a good food fight. Then we might stand a chance at proper labelling of GMOs and actually knowing what we are eating, as they do in Europe.
I used to be somewhat comforted by the knowledge that most of the GE corn on the market was field corn intended for animal feed or processed foods. There were virtually no genetically engineered sweet corn varieties being grown in Canada. I could still indulge in my beloved slathered-in-butter corn on the cob as much as I wanted. But all of this changed last summer when a variety of not-so-sweet sweet corn called Attribute, from the company Syngenta, started being grown and sold in Ontario. Using Monsanto’s Bt technology, the variety has been genetically engineered to be toxic to the European corn borer and corn earworm. With a heavy heart, I scratched yet another one of my favourite foods from my list.
I wanted to find out if I should be on the lookout for any other new GE sweet corn varieties this summer, so I consulted Health Canada’s list of approved “plants with novel traits,” as our government agencies prefer to call them. I could see that various GE corn had been approved over the years, but that they were all field-corn varieties. So I contacted Health Canada to inquire about sweet corn, specifically. They informed me that they do not provide “information on which varieties of sweet corn are currently being grown in Canada.” I then contacted Lucy Sharratt, coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), who confirmed that it is next to impossible to obtain this kind of information from our government. As she relates, “You practically have to be a detective to find out what GE crops are being grown and sold in Canada.”
Thankfully, CBAN is willing to go through the trouble of doing the detective work that provides Canadians with basic information about what is in our food supply. Lucy informed me that, in addition to Attribute, there are three varieties of Monsanto sweet corn on the market this year, modestly dubbed Temptation II, Obsession II and Passion II. When I hear these names, I can’t help but simultaneously think of bad perfumes. . . and the witch and her shiny, poisonous apple in Snow White.
By now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. Why not just eat the darned corn and stop worrying so much. Usually, when people ask me why I go through all the trouble, I recommend that they watch The World According to Monsanto, a film by awardwinning journalist Marie-Monique Robin. It answers a lot of questions and is a real eye-opener. But I suppose that, fundamentally, it’s the idea of genetic engineering that disturbs me most since it involves artificially forcing genetic material from one organism into the DNA of an entirely different species, something that doesn’t happen in nature, and with consequences that are difficult to predict. Then there are the increasing number of peer-reviewed animal-feeding studies showing evidence of organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, and reproductive failure. And earlier this year, scientists at the University of Caen in France showed that the Bt protein found in genetically engineered corn can be toxic to human cells, an alarming discovery given that last year doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt toxin from GE corn in the blood of 93 percent of the pregnant women they studied.
When people hear of my aversion to GE corn, I am often asked if I would rather have pesticides on my food. The answer, of course, is no. But the reality is that if GE corn isn’t sprayed with pesticides (which it usually is), that’s because it has been engineered to create its own pesticide. The pesticide is now inside the plant rather than outside of it. In fact, the cultivation of genetically engineered crops has led not to a decrease, as we are often told, but to an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first thirteen years of GMO cultivation. This increase is due in part to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds (or “superweeds”) caused by herbicide- resistant GMOs, such as Round-Up-resistant crops.
Perhaps most alarming is that, since these herbicide-resistant superweeds are becoming harder and harder to control using conventional herbicides like Round-Up, companies are now turning to stronger and more toxic chemicals. Monsanto is currently trying to commercialize soybeans genetically engineered to be Dicamba-resistant, and Dow Chemical has requested USDA approval on 2,4-D-resistant sweet corn. 2,4-D is a major component of Agent Orange, which U.S. troops sprayed widely during the Vietnam War, killing several hundred thousand people and causing maiming and birth defects that continue to be seen in many children born now, forty to fifty years later. The chemical has been linked to cancer, lower sperm count, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption, among other disorders.
Given all of this, you’d think that our government would conduct thorough scientific studies before approving new genetically engineered foods but, instead, it relies on industry studies done by the very companies seeking approval (and profits) for these new foods. In 2001, the federal government was blasted by an Expert Panel of the Royal Society of Canada for its flawed and inadequate regulatory system when it comes to GMOs. The panel, a senior body of preeminent scientists and scholars, made fifty-eight detailed recommendations for improving the regulatory system and approvals process to ensure it does what it is meant to do, which is to protect Canadians. Alarmingly, only two of the fifty-eight recommendations were implemented.
As I write this article, I have just finished planting several rows of organic sweet corn. The variety I’ve planted is called Bodacious! I had to look up “bodacious” in the dictionary to jar my memory and this is what it said: “Remarkable, noteworthy, bold, audacious, sexy, and voluptuous.” Yes, these are all attributes that I will happily sink my teeth into later this summer. I’ve had a bounce in my step just thinking about how tender and delicious these cobs are going to be. On top of this, my sweetheart is growing three other organic, openpollinated varieties at his farm. One of these produces rosy pink kernels! The act of growing our own sweet corn represents for me a little kernel of hope for a world where we can one day have the basic human right of knowing what we are eating and, more importantly, knowing that our summer pleasures are not harming other living things. I’ll possibly find a worm or two in my corn. But I will happily take the worm over the spliced DNA.
For further information and to take action on genetically engineered foods, please visit:
A video created by Aube Giroux to accompany this story, which includes a powerful interview with Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC, can be viewed below.
SUMMER CORN CHOWDER
By Aube Giroux
This is a light, summery chowder best made with fresh sweet corn and new potatoes. The addition of cream and cornmeal gives it a velvety texture that is creamy but not too thick. The chipotle is optional as it can be quite spicy and overpowering for some. For a GMO-free chowder, you’ll want to watch out for the following ingredients to be either organically grown or non-GMO-certified: sweet corn, bacon, chicken stock, cornmeal and cream.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 small bunch of fresh thyme (about 15 sprigs)
4 ears of sweet corn
4 slices bacon, finely chopped, or 2 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 tbsp finely chopped chives or green onion
1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more if needed
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup cornmeal or corn flour
2 to 3 cups cubed potatoes (new potatoes are best), skin on or off
1 canned (or dried and rehydrated) chipotle chile, finely chopped (optional)
2 cups 10% cream
1 tsp smoked paprika
Using a short length of kitchen twine, tie together one-half of the thyme sprigs; reserve the other one-half of the sprigs for garnish. Using a sharp knife, remove the corn kernels from the ears of corn; set the kernels aside. In a medium stockpot over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Stir in the celery, chives, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.
Stir in the broth and the tied thyme sprigs and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Transfer 1/2 cup of the liquid to a medium bowl. Add the cornmeal to the bowl, whisking until smooth. Stir the cornmeal mixture back into the chowder. Stir in the potatoes and chipotle (start with one-half of the chopped chipotle and add more if desired, to taste). Cook 10 minutes and then stir in the corn kernels. Cook until the potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Stir in the cream and paprika and cook until just heated through, about 2 minutes. (After the cream is added, do not allow the chowder to boil.) Remove and discard the tied thyme sprigs. Garnish with sprigs of thyme or chives and serve with warm crusty bread.
Aube Giroux is a writer, filmmaker, and award-winning food blogger based in Toronto. She is currently doing an organic farming apprentice and learning how to grow delicious GMO-free food. Visit her video food blog at www.kitchenvignettes.blogspot.com.