I recently wrote an article about my complicated relationship with corn for Edible Toronto Magazine (something which I've blogged about before). I'll warn you this is a longer-than-usual post - although it's actually a pared-down version of the full Edible Toronto article - but bear with me. If you love corn, you should read this. And if you don't have time, do watch this short video I made to accompany the article. My recipe for summery sweet corn chowder is below.
I’ve never been a picky eater. In fact, aside from a short-lived vegetarian stint as a teenager, I have always considered myself a proud omnivore. I will eat anything and everything, and with gusto! I am what we call in French a gourmande. I simply love to eat. And I used to sink my teeth into an ear of corn without hesitation, anticipating only the pure pleasure that a juicy, golden cob can provide on a sunny summer day. But in the late 1990s I read something that completely changed my eating habits: the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes sold in Canada contained genetically engineered corn whereas the same cereal in Europe did not. I was annoyed to learn that we Canadians had so passively allowed these new mystery ingredients into our foods so I dove headfirst into a research and film project about genetically engineered (GE) foods, or GMOs, as they are more commonly known.
I was so dismayed with what I found out about GMOs that I decided to do everything in my power to avoid eating them. But this is easier said than done: the three main GE foods – canola, soy and corn – are in a whopping 80 percent of the processed foods found in our grocery stores (click here for a long list of hidden GMO ingredients). And since none of these are labeled, a convoluted guessing game begins. Since most farm animals are fed GE soy and corn, suddenly meat and dairy were out for me as well, unless they were certified organic. (Organic certification prohibits the use of GMOs.) So what happened is I went from being an omnivore to being a very, very picky eater!
It isn't easy to explain it to people. It just doesn’t come out very smoothly, no matter which way you cut it. At least vegetarians, diabetics, heck, even vegans get a little understanding and respect. But try explaining that you’ll take a pass on those nachos because they are likely made with genetically engineered corn, cooked in genetically engineered canola oil, and smothered in cheese from cows that were fed genetically engineered soy and corn. If you ever want to create an instant awkward silence followed by a raging debate at a dinner party, I recommend this technique. You end up sounding like the annoying and paranoid food snob who asks way too many questions. And that goes agains every carefree food-adoring bone in my body. So over the years I've learned to be increasingly discreet about my non-GMO inclinations when eating in public. But then again, isn’t that what landed us here in the first place? We Canadians are just so polite and docile about everything, we are terrified we might disturb or offend someone. Maybe if we put up a good food fight, we would actually stand a chance at proper labelling and knowing what we're eating. Our American neighbours are now well ahead of us on that front, with some states beginning to enact GMO labelling legislature.
I used to be somewhat comforted by the knowledge that most of the GE corn on the market was field corn intended for animal feed or processed foods. There were virtually no genetically engineered sweet corn varieties being grown in Canada. I could still indulge in my beloved slathered-in-butter corn on the cob as much as I wanted. But all of this changed last summer when a variety of not-so-sweet GE sweet corn called Attribute, from the company Syngenta, started being grown and sold in Canada and the US. With a heavy heart, I scratched yet another one of my favourite foods from my list.
I wanted to find out if I should be on the lookout for any other new GE sweet corn varieties this summer, so I consulted Health Canada’s list of approved “plants with novel traits,” as they mysteriously prefer to call them. I could see that various varieties of GE corn had been approved over the years, but that they were all field corn varieties. So I contacted Health Canada to inquire about sweet corn specifically. They informed me that they do not provide “information on which varieties of sweet corn are currently being grown in Canada.” So I contacted Lucy Sharratt at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). She confirmed that it is next to impossible to obtain this kind of information from our government. “You practically have to be a detective to find out what GE crops are being grown and sold in Canada”, she explained. Lucy informed me that, in addition to Attribute, there are three varieties of Monsanto sweet corn on the market this year, modestly dubbed Temptation II, Obsession II and Passion II. When I hear these names, I can’t help but simultaneously think of bad perfumes. . . and the witch and her shiny, poisonous apple in Snow White, but I digress.
By now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. Why not just eat the darn corn and stop worrying so much. Usually, when people ask me why I go through all the trouble, I recommend that they watch The World According to Monsanto, a film by award-winning journalist Marie-Monique Robin. It answers a lot of questions and is a real eye-opener. But I suppose that, fundamentally, it’s the idea of genetic engineering that disturbs me most since it involves artificially forcing genetic material from one organism into the DNA of an entirely different species, something that doesn’t happen in nature, and with consequences that are difficult to predict. Then there are the increasing number of peer-reviewed animal-feeding studies showing evidence of organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, and reproductive failure. And earlier this year, scientists at the University of Caen in France showed that the Bt protein found in genetically engineered corn can be toxic to human cells, an alarming discovery given that last year doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt toxin from GE corn in the blood of 93 percent of the pregnant women they studied.
When people hear of my aversion to GE corn, I am often asked if I would rather have pesticides on my food. The answer, of course, is no. But the reality is that if GE corn isn’t sprayed with pesticides (which it usually is), that’s because it has been engineered to create its own pesticide. The pesticide is now inside the plant rather than outside of it. In fact, the cultivation of genetically engineered crops has led not to a decrease (as we are often told), but to an increase of 404 million pounds of pesticide use in the US since they were introduced. This increase is due in part to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds (or “superweeds”) caused by herbicide- resistant GMOs, such as Round-Up-resistant crops. And since these herbicide-resistant superweeds are becoming harder and harder to control using conventional herbicides like Round-Up, companies are now turning to stronger and more toxic chemicals, as Andrew Kimbrell explains in my video above.
Given all of this, you’d think that our government would conduct thorough scientific studies before approving new genetically engineered foods but, instead, it relies on industry studies done by the very companies seeking approval (and profits) for these new foods. In 2001, the federal government was blasted by an Expert Panel of the Royal Society of Canada for its flawed and inadequate regulatory system when it comes to GMOs. The panel, a senior body of preeminent scientists and scholars, made 58 detailed recommendations for improving the regulatory system and approvals process to ensure it does what it is meant to do, which is to protect Canadians. Alarmingly, only 2 of the 58 recommendations were implemented.
|My farming colleagues planting Bodacious corn!|
|My sweetheart holding some very special (field) corn seeds|
This is a light, summery chowder best made with fresh sweet corn and new potatoes. The addition of cream and cornmeal gives it a velvety texture that is creamy but not too thick. The chipotle is optional as it can be quite spicy and overpowering for some. For a GMO-free chowder, you’ll want to watch out for the following ingredients to be either *organically grown or *non-GMO-certified: sweet corn, butter, bacon, chicken stock, cornmeal and cream. Makes 4 to 6 servings.