This blog was originally published on December 9, 2021. It has been updated in celebration of "Popcorn Lover's Day."
For many of us, movies and popcorn go hand-in-hand. To have one without the other is only half the fun! While we sit in a dark theater, we give little thought to the fact that the popcorn was gloriously and naturally non-GMO.
Popcorn is naturally resistant to GMO contamination, which plagues other corn varieties across North America. The prevalence of GMOs (92% of U.S.-grown corn is genetically modified) and corn's reproductive habits contribute to the problem. Corn is, to be blunt, a promiscuous plant. Each stalk generates up to a billion pollen grains, which can drift 1/2 mile away on a gentle breeze, and insects and human activity increase the pollination radius.
In the end, growing corn is a balancing act between the crop's natural tendency towards a reproductive free-for-all and the farmer's desire for order.
For decades, non-GMO and organic farmers used a certain natural trait that protects popcorn to keep their field corn free from contamination. However, the biotech industry recently inserted this trait into GMO corn — a move that could destroy one of the most potent genetic shields against GMO contamination. It’s a bit complicated, so let’s get into it.
The best barrier against GMOs — and why big biotech wants it
Some corn varieties carry a trait known as "cross-incompatibility" or "CI." It's part of their genetic code. Pollen from corn with the CI trait can only fertilize another plant that also carries it. Think of it as an exclusive club, open only to card-carrying members. A tiny genetic bouncer guards each ear of corn, turning away prospective partygoers if they lack this gene. The CI trait is both the lock and the key, guarding against contaminants.
Popcorn naturally contains the CI trait, making it resistant to fertilization by corn that doesn't carry the trait. Because genetically modified corn hasn't held the CI trait, popcorn is naturally resistant to GMO contamination (that's why the Non-GMO Project does not consider popcorn a high-risk crop, unlike field corn or sweet corn). The CI trait is so useful that breeders have used it to their advantage for decades, incorporating it into non-GMO and organic field corn through traditional breeding techniques.
In 2015, agribusiness giant Corteva submitted a patent application for a seed blend containing a new kind of GMO corn. This GMO combined two traits that had not been paired before in a single seed:
- Genetic engineering, causing the plant to express an insecticide, and
- The CI trait.
Because of that CI trait, pollen from this corn can only pollinate other varieties with the CI trait. And because the seed also contains genetically modified material, this variety could pave the way for GMO contamination in non-GMO and organic varieties that used to have the highest security around. Popcorn and field corn varieties with the CI trait — previously impenetrable — would now be vulnerable to contamination. (Imagine that tiny genetic bouncer we mentioned earlier letting GMO party crashers into the exclusive club.)
Understandably, Corteva's new GMO struck fear into the hearts of the non-GMO and organic movement. Non-GMO corn is already a dramatic minority on North American farmland. Genetically modified corn covers more than 90 million acres of U.S. farmland (that's one of the reasons the Non-GMO Project considers corn — except popcorn — to be high-risk for GMOs). Non-GMO and organic need all the protection they can get.
In the end, the patent application for this particular product was denied, but the desire to capitalize on nature's ingenuity is still circulating in the biotech industry. For anyone wanting to hold back the tide of GMO contamination, the prospect of losing the best protection against crop loss and financial ruin is terrifying.
What's at stake for non-GMO and organic
GMO contamination has far-reaching effects. Consumers might experience ruined meals if contaminated corn flour doesn't set or bake through. Farmers face financial losses, and even international markets are at risk. According to the Center for Food Safety, an infamous contamination event in 2000 introduced GMO corn not approved for human consumption into the food supply. Three years later, traces of the contaminant were still detectable in U.S. corn.
Contamination events happen when protection methods fail or when different batches of corn commingle in processing facilities (that's why the Non-GMO Project supports a rigorously segregated supply chain for high-risk ingredients such as corn). Contamination of non-GMO corn is well-documented, and GMO contamination has been detected in varieties of heirloom native corn from Mexico, the birthplace of corn. These varieties are the product of thousands of years of traditional knowledge and indigenous expertise, containing genetic information vital to food security. The diversity of native Mexican corn will face even greater threats if genetically engineered corn with the CI trait becomes common.
Clearly, non-GMO crops need more protection, not less.
Learn how contamination impacts heirloom varieties in Mexico
How clean food labels protect each other
Grassroots organizations, including Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), work to protect growers, breeders and crops. The OSA knows all too well how contamination affects organic growers, reporting that "the reputational and economic harms fall squarely on the organic producer":
"Organic growers shoulder the lion’s share of the burden when it comes to protecting against [genetically engineered] contamination."
After all, organic production is a significant commitment. It requires careful planning and continuous learning. Conventional farmers face a 3-year transition period before they can access organic markets. But, transitioning farms can support themselves during this time with non-GMO crops if their products are in compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard. Because the Standard includes testing, tracing and segregation requirements, non-GMO farmers have just as much to lose as organic farmers through contamination events.
Non-GMO agriculture also supports organic by creating physical buffers that reduce contamination on farmland and in processing facilities. An aspiring organic farmer working next to non-GMO plots knows that promiscuous pollen wafting through the air is unlikely to contain genetically modified material. The non-GMO movement as a whole encourages a segregated supply chain for processing and shipping facilities, improving on another potential contamination point. Every single way that contamination risks to organic farmers can be reduced or eliminated helps farmers move to organic, ensuring more organic acreage, less synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and greater biodiversity.
GMO contamination does not serve the interests of the billions of people worldwide who rely on corn as a staple in their diet. Biodiversity is not preserved through the narrow lens of genetic engineering. Instead, it is whittled away until nature's bounty can be listed on a spreadsheet or perused in a patent database. To ensure food security for generations to come and to address the environmental impacts of a century of industrial agriculture, we must build and protect the non-GMO seed supply.
Whether you enjoy a hot buttery snack at a movie theater or look for the Butterfly and the USDA organic seal at the grocery store, you, too, benefit from the non-GMO corn supply.
We live in a fast-paced world, one that prioritizes progress, technology and the economy above all else. But as we move further down the path of corporate control, we have to ask ourselves: Will we prioritize "advancement" at the expense of human health and the environment?
For example, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was recently awarded to the scientists behind CRISPR gene-editing technology. This technology allows scientists to change the genetic code by adding, removing or altering genetic material. While it has been touted as a "precise" technology, studies already point to opposite conclusions. If this doesn't seem like a big issue, think again. This "precise" technology has been found to make genetic errors with unintended consequences.
To simplify things: The genetic code is what makes us what — and who — we are. It is the reason a banana is yellow and an orange is sweet. When we change something in the genetic code, we are changing its make-up. The reality is that humans still know very little about the genome or the impacts of tampering with genetic codes. This limited knowledge could lead to issues further down the line that we cannot yet comprehend. But beyond some hypothetical future issues, gene-editing could present a very real danger — and very soon. The Nobel Prize press release stated that this technology is a "genetic scissor: a tool for rewriting the code of life." And rewriting the code of life is just what corporations intend for our food supply.
Why is this important?
When we talk about food, we often don't make the connection to seeds. But without seeds, we wouldn't have vegetables, fruits, trees, animals or any living organism. They are the one instrument that continues the cycle of life because they support all ecosystems and the beings that live in them.
But this is all changing. In the wake of new technologies, corporations are able to edit the genome of the seeds, patent and claim ownership of those seeds, and sell them to farmers on contract. Neighbouring farms then face an increased risk of contamination. Suppose the pollen from these genetically modified varieties pollinates the non-GMO varieties in a nearby field. In that case, the farmer faces new hardships with their non-GMO crop. The farmer might face legal action for infringing on patent rights or risk financial losses as their crops no longer qualify for non-GMO or organic certification.
Which organisms are being gene-edited?
New gene-editing techniques are being tested on a huge variety of seeds and animals. Gene-edited trees, common fruits and vegetables, cows, pigs, and even human embryos have been under the microscope. In Florida, 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes have been approved for release.
Experimental, gene-edited foods and animals pose problems beyond just patent infringement for farmers. They are also one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.
How do gene-editing and genetic modification impact the environment?
Previous generations of GMOs — including crops such as corn, canola, soy, and sugar from sugar beets — are commonly found in most processed foods on grocery store shelves. Purveyors of early GMOs claimed their use could "feed the world." While this promise has widely been disproven, history is about to repeat itself. The new generation of gene-edited foods is being rebranded and greenwashed as the best way to protect biodiversity. The irony is, one of the key reasons for biodiversity loss is the destructive methods used in industrial agriculture. These methods include mono-cropping, GMOs, and chemical-intensive practices. In other words, corporations are offering a false solution to a very real problem of their own making.
The genetic material in pollen, carried by small animals and wind, cannot be controlled. By releasing patented organisms into nature, we are releasing genetic pollution owned by corporations. Once released, it can't be recalled. Genetically modified crops could potentially contaminate related native species through cross-pollination.
What happens when these species are released into the environment and breed with natural or native varieties? What happens to the animals that depend on mosquitos as a food source, only to have them replaced with genetically altered versions engineered to die off? What happens to beneficial insects and birds when they feed on crops engineered to contain insecticide? What are the long-term consequences of changing the genetic code of an entire ecosystem? These are the questions we have to ask, and sooner rather than later.
According to the ETC Group, new techniques of genetic modification such as gene drives go one step further:
"Gene drives can entirely re-engineer ecosystems, create fast spreading extinctions, and intervene in living systems at a scale far beyond anything ever imagined. When gene drives are engineered into a fast-reproducing species they could alter their populations within short timeframes, from months to a few years, and rapidly cause extinction. This radical new technology, also called a 'mutagenic chain reaction,' it is unlike anything seen before."
Nature is under threat more than ever before — threat of ownership and monopolization at the hands of massive corporations.
When we look at these technologies from the perspective of Big Business the dots begin to come together. By patenting and controlling the seed supply, corporations now have control over global food markets. Monopolization of the food supply — the very source that gives us life —leads to corporate control over food prices, access, and the kinds of food we put in our bodies.
Proponents may call this societal advancement, but the only way this is true is if "advancement" means corporate profits.
Technology offers us many real solutions for a variety of problems. Still, when it comes to our food, the real solution is reconnecting to the earth and natural systems. Employing traditional, organic, and regenerative farming practices can feed the world and sequester excess CO2 to help with the climate crisis.
We don't need false solutions that only expedite the colonial view of owning the seed and nature. We don't need corporate inventions that irreversibly change the very web of our delicate ecosystems and lives.
In the age of technological change, we have to ask: At what cost will we rewrite the code of life?
To find out more about gene-editing, watch our the panel discussion.
This content was originally posted on 11/06/2020.