Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, is known for developing engineered crops (i.e. corn and soybeans) that end up in many of the food products found on grocery store aisles, as well as in fibers and animal feed. Up until now, the company's GM crops have only been available in processed foods—in other words, in little bits and pieces. But now Monsanto is making a move into the consumer market with GM sweet corn, which will be found in a supermarket produce bin or farmer's market near you starting this fall.
There is a good chance you've already eaten GM sweet corn: Syngenta—a Monsanto rival—has been selling it for a decade. And Monsanto already sells GM squash developed by Seminis, which the company bought in 2005. So why is Monsanto's sweet corn a big deal? This is the first consumer product actually developed by Monsanto. While previous industry attempts to introduce GM consumer-oriented vegetables in the 1990s failed miserably (see Calgene's Flavr Savr tomatoes), Monsanto may be warming up to the idea. "I think Monsanto is trying to test the waters here," says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety. If GM sweet corn works out for the agri-giant, we might see even more GM produce on our supermarket shelves.
Monsanto, which already controls 60% of the U.S. corn market, is including traits in the new sweet corn that make it resistant to both Monsanto's Roundup herbicide and to insects (through the inclusion of Bt toxin, a trait that disrupts insect digestive systems and eventually kills them). As we have mentioned before, at least 21 weed species have become resistant to Roundup. And Bt toxin may have negative health effects—a recent study found the toxin in the maternal and fetal blood of pregnant women, though the implications of that aren't known quite yet.
"There's a concern with these GE crops that we eat with minimal processing [like sweet corn]...we're exposed to a lot more of whatever is in it versus a processed corn product," says Freese. This may be one of the rare cases where processed food is better for you than fresh food.
The market for sweet corn is smaller than the market for grain corn, and up until now GM sweet corn sales have been dominated by Syngenta, which also uses Bt toxin in its product. Now that Monsanto is entering the game, there will be even more room for cross-pollination with non-GM corn crops. "Corn is very promiscuous, meaning it's easy for cross-pollination to occur," says Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network North America. "Farmers won't be able to access conventional seeds, and they may lose local varieties."
Think that consumers would never buy a Monsanto-branded ear of sweet corn given the company's controversial reputation? Maybe not—but it doesn't matter. A Monsanto representative told the LA Times: "It's up to us to make sure we help tell people about the benefits...given how sweet corn is normally sold—by the ear, in larger bins in produce sections of the market—it's not really something that can be easily branded."
In an email, Monsanto explained to Fast Company that "Food retailers have the latitude to label or not label sweet corn. Just as they do today, consumers will continue to have the ability to purchase corn from growers or retailers of their choice that provide the quality they are looking for."
This may be to Monsanto's advantage, explains Ishii-Eiteman. "There would be a huge negative effect if they said, 'This is Monsanto GM corn.' We won't know which corn is which."