GMO Corn Farming in a Nutshell

Which is to say genetically modified farming, the use of genetically engineered corn strains to stave off pests and increase yields. Though again, that’s just the beginning of what GMO corn farming actually is. But we’ll get to that. At this juncture I should once again emphasize that everything I’m about to write applies to field corn only, since GMO corn has yet to be approved for human consumption.

So when people say a particular strain of corn is genetically modified, what do they mean? They mean that specific genes have been inserted into the corn’s DNA to make it more resistant to the various pests I talked about earlier. The first genetically modified corn product went by the name of “Bt” corn, since it contained a gene from a common bacteria found in soil, Bacillus thuringiensis. The gene causes the corn to produce a toxin (which is also found in certain types of caterpillars and moths) that repels a variety of unwanted bugs.

The next step in the evolution of GMO involved the insertion of a gene that made the corn resistant to a Monsanto-produced herbicide called Roundup. The active ingredient in Roundup is a chemical called glyphosate, which isn’t particularly toxic to humans (in fact far less so than many conventional herbicides) though deadly to just about any type of plant, particularly perennials like weeds. Applied to a field, it wipes out pretty much every plant-based form of life it touches, except the plants that have been engineered to resist it. Amazing…if a touch on the scary side.

Today the leading edge of GMO corn agriculture is a Monsanto product that goes by the name “Triple Stack”; a type of corn genetically engineered to be at once resistant to Roundup and to two especially, pernicious pests: corn borers and root worms.

So what does it all add up to? Farmers who use Triple Stack scarcely need to till, and can vastly reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides they apply to their crops. That means significant savings in time, money and fuel, plus an increase in yield. From the standpoint of the land and environment the benefits are just as striking, since all that reduced machine time means a lot less pollution, carbon release, and vastly reduced soil compaction and erosion.

What are the drawbacks? Mostly in public perception, since the GMO technology that’s in current use has yet to be linked to any significant risks to either nature or human health. True, in 1999, GMO corn was blamed for inhibiting the reproduction of monarch butterflies, though that theory was disproved definitively in 2001. Fears that GMO corn would hybridize with native grasses causing an environmental crisis have never been come to fruition. More recently, GMO corn has been blamed for Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), that mysterious bee disease we’ve all been hearing so much about. The problem with that idea is that in Europe CCD is every bit as bad as it is here, and they grow virtually no GMO corn (about 0.04% of their annual field corn crop compared to 40% in the US). All of which seems to indicate that the media hysteria about GMO corn isn’t very well founded.

For my part, I’d be lying if I said that GMO corn doesn’t intimidate me a little. But then the more time that goes by and the more I learn about it, the better I tend to feel. Critics of GMO will forever claim that not enough testing has been done to absolutely, positively prove that GMO corn is safe. My feeling, though, is that as the years pass, the benefits of GMO will become increasingly hard to deny.

I’d also like to add that blogging from the inside of a McDonald’s play place, crammed with screaming children, is extraordinarily difficult.

2 thoughts on “GMO Corn Farming in a Nutshell”

  1. Joe, thanks for your website, I have found many useful tecniques and recipes here.
    I urge you to revisit the subject of GMO s. Lots of data has been collected since you blogged on the subject. Some of the claims in favor of GMO s have been found to be made prematurely.

    1. Hey Roseann,

      Thank you very much, I appreciate that. The thing about the GMO debate is that there’s always more data, both pro and con, and that’s a good thing. I’ve watched the debate with interest since this post was written in 2009, and of course have noted all the “opting out” of GMO crops that’s been going on in the EU the last year or so. In the end I still have to come down on the GMO side of the argument, if only because I think pesticides are so much worse, both for the environment and for the farmers who have to handle them. Mark Lynas’ conversion from anti to pro a couple of years had a big impact on me, I think it did for a lot of people. His remarks, whatever you think about the issue, are very interesting indeed. They can be found here if you’re curious: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/

      Of course I’ll be happy to read anything you’ll like to send along on the issue, as science is never fully settled (and that’s the great thing about science!) Many thanks for visiting. I hope you’ll come back soon.

      – Joe

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