Today is Corn on the Cob Day, a day to celebrate delicious, hearty, nutritious corn, served on the cob, as it should be.
Actually, when you think about it, corn is pretty cool… Not only is it a basic source of nutrition for millions of people the world over, it is also a key ingredient in a dizzying range of products, from antibiotics, adhesives and hand soap through to fireworks, dyes and cosmetics.
Given the widespread use of corn, it is not surprising that it has been one of the crops that have received most attention as far as the research and application of genetic modification is concerned.
I am no expert, and will not even attempt to express an opinion on the desirability or not of GM foods – it is a subject of widespread debate and many convincing arguments have been published for and against genetic modification.
In a sense, GM is an extension of selective breeding, a practice that is as old as farming. In her article “Genetically Modified Corn – Environmental Benefits and Risks“, Virginia Gewin states:
“Plant breeding was once restricted to sexually compatible plants, and generations of offspring were selectively bred to create unique varieties. In fact, corn, along with rice and wheat—today’s global crop staples—would not exist without such techniques. With the goal of ever-widening the pool of genetic diversity, conventional plant breeding has gotten more technologically savvy in recent years. For example, realizing that natural mutants often introduce valuable traits, scientists turned to chemicals and irradiation to speed the creation of mutants. From test-tube plants derived from sexually incompatible crosses to the use of molecular genetic markers to identify interesting hereditary traits, the divide between engineering and genetics was narrowing long before kingdom boundaries were crossed.
But when geneticists began to explore microorganisms for traits of interest—such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes that produce a protein lethal to some crop pests—they triggered an uproar over ethical, scientific, and environmental concerns that continues today.”
For or against, GM remains a fascinating subject, and considering the possibilities is quite mind-blowing. Genetic modification have been used to make crops more resistant to insects and other pests, more tolerant to pesticides, and higher in vitamin content.
Interestingly, increased beta carotene, vitamin C and folate in a white corn variety (M37W) from South Africa has resulted in corn with unusually bright orange kernels. Similarly, increasing the levels of beta carotene in rice have created golden rice. New colours and fragrances have also been introduced into flowers through genetic modification.
Imagine the possibilities in the creation of foods with increased visual appeal to the consumer – through changes in colour, taste, fragrance or size. Its scary, but I predict we may still see some very weird things in the supermarket aisles of the future!
Suffice to say, life as we know it would be very different without corn, in its natural or modified form.