While the world has been transfixed by events in the Middle East, food safety czar Michael Taylor (senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA and formerly chief lawyer at chemical giant Monsanto) quietly helpled win a major victory for the ethanol industry, striking a potential blow to the health of corn crops used for food. On February 11 the Department of Agriculture (with the FDA's blessing) approved a new type of genetically modified "self-processing" corn, Enogen, that completes the first step of conversion into the automotive fuel ethanol all by itself, before it's even harvested. With a full 40% of all corn being grown today currently earmarked for ethanol (which requires vastly more fertilizer and pesticides than other potential biofuel feedstocks, such as perennial grasses) that's a lot of corn with the potential to harm food crops and impact people's health.
This sleight of genetic engineering is great for Ethanol producers, who have been under pressure for concerns about pollution and for driving up the price of corn. Developed by Swiss company, Syngenta, Enogen corn produces an enzyme that spontaneously breaks down the starch contained in the kernel into liquid sugar, saving an entire step and reducing water utiilzation in the manufacturing process. But what about the rest of us?
If we've learned anything over the past decade of growth of GMO crops, it is the very real potential for accidental mingling of GMO crops with conventional crops. It's highly possible the ethanol-ready corn seeds will jump the fence into corn destined for the food supply. Security is based on an industry plan to grow the Swiss-made self-processing corn in contained fields near the roughly 200 ethanol plants in operation in 27 states. The escape of just a few kernals could wreak havoc on one of the great icons of American agriculture. It was a feature of the first Thanksgiving Feast for goodness sake!
Even the industry-friendly Miller's Association is calling for a more thorough scientific review, and has raised concerns about Syngenta's own data showing that as little as one fuel-corn kernel mixed with 10,000 conventional kernels could be enough to weaken conventional corn starch and disrupt food processing operations. Just such a contamination happened in 2000, when a genetically modified corn approved only for animal use got into the human food supply, prompting huge recalls and disrupting American exports. If Enogen were to co-mingle with conventional crops, corn lovers everywhere could have puddles of sugar on their plates when they bite into their first golden ear of summer corn. Corn chips would crumble, corn flakes would not crunch.
Most disturbingly, like all GMO crops, we don't understand the potential health effects of this new corn, which contains a synthetic gene derived from micro-organisms that live near hot-water vents on the ocean's floor. There's growing concern in the scientific community over the lack of GMO safety research. Says Chuck Benbrook, Chief scientist at agricultural watch-doc The Organic Center, "They don't know whether the promoter gene, which has been moved into the plant to turn on the new piece of genetic material, will influence some other biosynthetic pathway that's in the plant, turning on some natural process of the plant when it shouldn't be turned on, or turning it off too soon." In general, GMO science is rife with unknowns, including how GMO crops will evolve and effect eco-systems, agricultural systems and human health over time.
Clearly, government policy should err on the side of caution in approving new GMO crops. Instead, approvals appear to be accelerating. Just two weeks before the Enogen approval, the Agricultural Department approved the unrestricted cultivation of biotech alfalfa over the objections of some environmental groups and the organic food industry. A week later, it cleared a partial de-regulation that will allow continued planting of biotech sugar beets (currently 90% of all beets under cultivation) even though the department has not finished its own enviornmental impact statement regarding GMO beets. Both the alfalfa and beets (developed largely by Monsanto) have a gene making them tolerant of the herbicide Roundup (also a Monsanto product.) At the very least, these approvals mean more of the endocrine disrupting pesticide Roundup will be used on American cropland, with the potential to contaminate the food supply and leach into water tables. In the worst case, the stage is now set for widespread exposure to genetically modified plant foods with the potential to harm people's health.
This latest approval of ethanol-ready corn, in which government regulators appear to place corporate interests over all else, represents one of the first times a GMO plant was designed to be used strictly for industrial purposes. It's unchartered territory for corn. And if ingested (albeit by accident) it would be unchartered territory for the human body.