In choosing to sell the genetically modified sweet corn, Wal-Mart broke with tradition and became the first nationwide company to do so. This is in opposition to competitors, such as Whole Foods and General Mills, who have pledged not to sell or use it in their stores.
Genetically engineered food products have been a source of controversy since their introduction in 1996. The main concern is about the safety of the products. The US Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to do safety studies on the foods that result from these modifications. Nor does it require the modified goods to be labeled as such.
In other parts of the world, including the European Union, Australia, Brazil, Japan and even such countries as Russia and China, labeling is required. The labeling allows the consumer the choice of whether or not to buy the product. Without labels, the consumer does not know if a food has been modified.
Advocates claim there has been no proof that the genetically modified foods pose any danger to the public. They point to the fact that an estimated 70 percent of the processed foods currently on the grocery store shelves contain some genetically modified ingredients. This includes cereal and other packaged and processed foods.
Detractors claim that it is impossible to tell if the products are harmful without research and testing. In the past decade, there have been studies that have suggested that these products may post threats to humans, as well as animals and the environment.
According to the Center for Food Safety, approximately 85 percent of all corn crops grown in the US are genetically modified. Until now, the modified products were processed into various ingredients such as animal feed, oils, sugars and fibers, before being included in foods for human consumption. This will be the first engineered product that will be sold straight from the farm to the consumer’s table.
The genetically modified sweet corn that will be sold in Wal-Mart stores was developed by biotech giant, Monsanto. In an effort to resist pests, Monsanto’s sweet corn has been given a gene that produces a protein that acts as an insecticide. It also contains an added gene that makes it resistant to the herbicide, Roundup.
The use of genetically engineered crops allows farmers to lower their costs by reducing the need for chemical insecticide spraying. The herbicide-tolerant gene used lowers the need for tilling to control weeds. This results in a higher crop yield and less work for the farmer. The lower productions costs offset the higher costs of the altered seeds.
Environmental manager and economics professor, Dr. David Ervin, expressed a warning concerning overuse of Roundup. His fear is that weeds will become resistant to the Roundup, requiring stronger, more dangerous chemicals to be used.
Critics have expressed concerns that these genes could cause problems for people with gastrointestinal problems, immune system disorders or allergies. They also question if “stacking” different genes in the same organism could cause unintended consequences.
It should be noted that these allegations are simply concerns. At this time, there is no evidence that genetically modified foods have caused any harm to humans. Wal-Mart issued the following statement to the Chicago Tribune:
“After closely looking at both sides of the debate and collaborating with a number of respected food safety experts, we see no scientifically validated safety reasons to implement restrictions on this product.”
The Tribune also reported that Wal-Mart stores expect to begin selling the genetically engineered sweet corn as soon as it is available to sell at retail.
Chris Keenan is a green blog writer for GTL DNA, a genetics and paternity testing company.