Who loves sweet corn as much as we do?
Just about everyone knows the frustration of driving to the grocery store or your local market, locating the bins of freshly-picked sweet corn, and shucking a few husks to check for quality. Then you see it, usually near the top of the cob: A tiny worm, munching on the kernels of sweet corn that you had hoped to eat for dinner.
It’s enough to make you lose your appetite.
Thankfully, this annoyance soon may become a thing of the past–as long as we don’t let the enemies of agricultural technology have their way with our food.
For years, farmers like me have raised genetically modified corn. More than 90 percent of all the corn grown in the United States is a GM product, much of it now bred to enjoy a natural resistance to pests and weeds. We depend on it to produce the food we eat every day.
The market for sweet corn, the kind of corn that we buy at grocery stores and eat at home — not the corn that feeds animals, makes sugar, or blends into biofuels–is a small sliver of the corn market. Although biotech sweet corn became widely available a number of years ago, only now has it started to gain momentum as a popular consumer item.
One early result was improved taste. When the husks come off corn, the sugar in the kernels starts to break down–so shucked corn should be eaten as soon as possible, to keep its flavor. If we can keep the husks on longer, we’ll savor our corn even more.
Over 20 years ago, when I began growing “sweet” corn, retail customers were looking for good flavor and the corn tasted good. “Sweet” is a matter of perspective however. It was not long until I was introduced to sugar enhanced corn. The sugar content in the sweet corn went from 8 percent to 17 percent and the corn tasted ‘better’. Today, super sweet corn, with 30 percent sugar content, wows customers everywhere. These genetic enhancements defined the “sweet” in sweet corn and for close to 20 years, this is what moms have been preparing for the dinner table.
Other benefits of GM sweet corn aren’t as obvious. One of the chief advantages of biotech crops today is that they allow farmers like me to use fewer chemicals to control insects, pests and weeds. This is a benefit that consumers will experience firsthand, even if they don’t quite realize it right away. Initially, they may not even notice the complete absence of worms from corn. Over time, it may dawn on them that they haven’t spotted any of these nasty critters in a long while. We may even reach a point where consumers don’t feel a need to shuck their corn before buying it, because they’ll come to expect full and healthy kernels on the inside. Talk about a win-win.
And there is more. Farmers burn less fuel because we have to run fewer tractors through our fields. In other words, biotechnology allows us to conserve gas–a savings we can pass on to consumers–and also reduces our carbon footprint. So GM corn is also a more sustainable food source that will help us minimize the impact of farming on the environment. Everybody should hail this advance in agricultural technology.
As with any innovative ‘solution’, there are often detractors. They may be driven by fear of the unknown or in support of a personal ideology. In a war of popular perceptions, confusion can carry the day, allowing fear, ignorance and outspoken activists to distort the truth and run roughshod over the interests of consumers. In this case, people like you and me who want to eat and serve affordable, tasty, nutritious corn to our family and friends.
Forty-plus years in retailing fresh produce has taught me that great taste, good quality and reliable supply will win over even the most ardent of naysayers, one ear at a time.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org)