Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Corn Cuandary

A fellow gardener read my Golden Rule Garden post on corn pollination and asked my advice on her problem. I spent enough time on my response that I felt it should do double-duty as an email and a blog post. Her question is in italics, followed by my thoughts.

Hi! I am renting a house that is on the same property as my landlord's house. He has about 100 acres of land, which includes a river going through it, as well as a wetlands. Every year he has been using Roundup ready GMO corn, planting it to attract ducks and geese. Then his friends and their friends pay him a lot of money to come out and hunt on his land. My question is, what can I tell him about the impacts that GMO corn has on the bodies of the ducks and geese, and in turn, what impacts would this have on his body, as well as the bodies of his friends and their families? He wants an easy solution, with 'No weeds'... I also have a huge garden and made the mistake of planting heirloom green dent corn last year. I'm sure that the GMO pollen has traveled to my corn. So, should I eat it? (I dried it and ground some into flour.) Any direction you can point me to is greatly appreciated!

Besides the renting and the waterfowl our situation is very much like yours. In fact, your situation may be more hopeful. We are on family land, but all the fields around are planted with conventional practices, which are almost universally GMO. People who are staking their livelihoods on the outcome often rely on technology if they can afford to. You might be able to convince your landlord otherwise, but it sure is nice to think that you can plant what you want then douse the land in weedkiller. Round-up resistance is an easy and, in my opinion, a shortsighted choice.
There is so much evidence that supports either the safety or the danger of the use of GMOs that, no matter what you told your landlord, he could easily be convinced otherwise by contradictory research. You can probably tell from my tone how I feel about GMOs. They make me very uncomfortable. Kind of like nuclear weapons - I am told that they keep me safe, but I am skeptical.
Much more potent may be the question of what the effects of runoff from such a strong herbicide as Round-up might be having on the river, the wetlands, and the bodies of the ducks and geese. That is probably much better documented. If he is content with the current life in the wetlands he may not care, but, depending on how much distance there is between the fields and the water, I bet his agricultural practices have an impact.
It may be that he has found this model works very well for him, but if corn is just a means to the end of attracting more geese and ducks, I think he'd be better served by expanding the habitat. Look at all this advice he's getting without even needing to ask :)
As to your side of the issue, I'd say it's likely that your corn was cross-pollinated, but it depends on when yours and his were tasseling and receptive. Accounts vary on the distance corn pollen travels (somewhere between 1000 feet and 2 miles or more), but if the silks on yours weren't receptive when the tassels of his were shedding pollen then you would be safe from crossing. At least from his field.
And as far as eating it is concerned, I think I can truthfully say no research has been done on human consumption of GM corn, or GM/Heirloom hybrids. I think that it is important to note, too, that even if some crossing happened it isn't like every single kernel is a cross. Not that you could probably tell the difference... Anyway, there are plenty of reports that GM crops have found their way into the general food supply, so we are all probably in an inadvertent experiment.
But let's talk about happy things! Besides having a conversation with your landlord you could 1) try to find flour corn that will be shorter or longer-season than the neighboring conventionals or 2) start honing your hand-pollination skills. Doubtless there are many possible solutions.
Remember that even if your landlord wants to grow organic, heirloom varieties of corn, you'll still have crossing, though that is only a problem if you want to save seed.
I hope all this is helpful!

I'd welcome comments on this subject by anyone who has pertinent knowledge (or opinions), and would lastly like to share this link to an article by Reuters on a recent ruling against Monsanto's GM sugar beets.

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