GM Corn: An efficient improvement or hidden danger to us all?  

Corn is one of the most widely grown crops in the world is corn, and all of the farmers who grow it share one huge problem: the corn borer caterpillar. This pest burrows into the stock and kills it, reducing yield and productivity for farmers across the world. Their only option is to spray the crop frequently with pesticides, which are costly, dangerous, and wipe out many beneficial insects along with the corn borer caterpillar.


            Biotechnologists realized that a bacterium in the soil, bacillus thuringiensis, could be the solution farmers’ headaches. While this seems new, thousands of years ago the Japanese discovered that this bacterium was lethal to silkworms. It creates crystals protein, a toxin which kills the corn borer caterpillar. Scientists were successful in identifying the gene which codes for the secretion of this toxin and splicing it into corn.


            Scientists called this transgenic corn BT corn. Overnight, farmers no longer had to worry about the corn borer caterpillar ruining their crop. Best of all, the toxin produced by BT corn was extremely selective, as it killed only the corn borer caterpillar and was harmless to other insects and humans. In fact, BT is so safe that even organic farmers spray their crops with it once a year. BT corn was also beneficial to the environment, as farmers no longer had to spray corn with dangerous chemicals that could run off into the water system and the ocean. But like many other GM crops, BT corn planted a seed of controversy.

   The opponents of this transgenic corn claimed that its overall impact on the environment would the harmful. They pointed out that unlike traditional methods of spraying pesticides, BT corn would constantly puts out toxins. When a farmers sprays a field with pesticides, a small percentage of corn borer caterpillars survive, as they are naturally resistant. When the other pests repopulate the field, these resistant caterpillars once again constitute the minority of the pests in the field. But with BT corn, the nonresistant pests would never repopulate the field due to the constant secretion of BT by the corn. Resistant corn borer caterpillars would reproduce and eventually populate the entire field, creating a major pest problem which could never be solved. Click here for more information on the GM foods environmental debate.


            Biotechnology companies say that they have isolated different bacterial genes to genetically engineer corn with should this occur. Those against BT corn claim that this would create a cycle of dependence in which farmers would be forced to return to biotechnology companies to buy increasingly expensive technologies. The EPA’s solution to this problem: the creation of ‘refuges’ in corn fields. For every acre of BT corn planted, farmers must allot a smaller portion of land surrounding the transgenic crop in which they will grow regular corn. This way, there will be a constant migration of resistant and nonresistant pest in and out of the BT corn field, keeping the resistant population in check. Many activists claim that farmers will be hesitant to set aside land to be devoured by the corn borer caterpillar, and that this mandate is impossible to enforce.

Various Scenarios for planting corn 'refuges' from Bt corn


In Mexico, high acidity in the soil due to minerals like aluminum makes it impossible for maize to thrive. It grows to only a fraction of its normal height and the stocks produced are small and unhealthy. One scientist, Luis Herrera set out to change this. 


            Herrera genetically engineered maize to produce a natural chemical called citrate, which binds to aluminum. The citrate released by the plant would bind to the aluminum in the soil, keeping it there and preventing it from entering the plant. As this GM maize thrived in Mexico, Greenpeace grew concerned and stepped in. They claimed that GMO’s were unsafe and that Herrera was tampering with the environment. Under tremendous pressure form the environmental group, the Mexican government ordered Herrera to stop his research.


Dr. Luis Herrera, Centro de Investigacion y Estudios Avanzados (CIEA), Mexico

            While the possibilities for GM corn seem to be endless, environmental activists are quick to point out its potential dangers. Nothing illustrates the potential harm of transgenic corn as well as the story of STARLINK corn. STARLINK, which was engineered by Aventis, is identical to regular corn except for the fact that is produces the toxin Cry9C. To whether this toxin could be an allergen, scientist recreated the conditions of the human gut in a test tube and timed how long it took for Cry9C to be broken down. Although it was determined to be a potential allergen, Aventis was convinced of its safety and sold STARLINK to farmers to be used as animal feed.


            One group against GMO’s, Friends of the Earth, was worried that it could make its way into the food supply, since most farmers do not separate their GM grain from their regular grain. They ran tests on various corn-based products to check for the presence of Cry9C. The toxin was found in Taco Bell shells, which were immediately recalled by the FDA. STARLINK corn was banned, but not before it had been found in Japan, Korea the UK, Denmark, and the US.


BT corn is currently grown across the US despite the protests of environmental organizations like Greenpeace. (click for more information on Greenpeace)  

Citation 12, Citation 5


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