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Yes, We're All Still Eating GMO Corn

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Photo:leyink/Flickr/Creative Commons License


In this, the day and age of 30-second sound bites, YouTube videos not daring to be longer than a minute, and complete coherent thoughts needing to exist in 140 characters or less or risk being completely ignored, it's easy to get seduced by a good headline. Scan over it briefly, get the gist, and off you go with a brand new interpretation of what's happening in the world.

This is all well and good if you're reading a story about Miley Cyrus's latest shenanigans. But it becomes a big problem when it comes to deciphering reports about new studies.

Results that seem to lead to one conclusion, often don't really. But the only way for someone to realize that is to apply a bit of extra critical thinking to the news consumption process. For example, "ªthis new study looking at the amount of GMO sweet corn inside of grocery stores reveals that there's not a lot out there. The Monsanto product, in the words of the press release about the study, "appears to be a flop." The standard response to such news would be to jump up with joy, shouting "Hooray! Humans are not eating GMO corn!"

Except, well, that's not really the case at all.

The study, put together by the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth, sought to figure out just how much of Monsanto's GMO sweet corn was out there. See, because GMOs have yet to make their way onto the valuable turf of food labels, the only way to answer that question was to take some corn into the laboratory and test it out. The result of taking 71 random samples of "fresh, frozen and canned sweet corn" from grocery stores throughout the nation and testing for GMOs? Only two corn samples tested positive.

Only two.

This kind of news was met with a great big burst of positivism from environmental groups and the vocal anti-GMO contingent. Since stores aren't putting GMO sweet corn on their shelves, it can be extrapolated that customers are making it a point to not buy those products. (If they were being purchased, no doubt companies would carry them; money is money.) And if customers are forcing grocery chains to refuse to stock GMO corn, then perhaps the culture is shifting. Maybe GMOs are going the way of trans fat.

As the piece goes on to excitedly highlight:

General Mills, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's have said they will not sell or use genetically engineered sweet corn. Last week, McDonald's and Gerber said they don't plan to use a new GMO apple, currently pending approval, that is genetically engineered to resist browning. A new GMO salmon engineered with the genes of an ocean pout to grow faster has been rejected by numerous major supermarket chains in the U.S., including Target, Trader Joe's and Aldi, representing nearly 5,000 stores nationwide.

But that's simply looking on the bright side. Reports like this must be kept in check with a dose of realism, in this case brought to you by the fact that despite only a couple sweet corn products tested positive for GMOs, we're all still indeed consuming a whole bunch of GMO corn in our diets. As this piece from Scientific American points out:

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today's corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens).

Bolding mine. See, most of the corn being manufactured using GMOs isn't being directly eaten by humans, but it is being eaten by animals that humans then eat. While we're on top of the food chain, the bottom of it still includes a whole bunch of GMO corn.

While we're on the subject, PBS has a quick reminder of why grass-fed meat is better than corn-fed:

Meat from a grass-fed steer has about one-half to one-third as much fat as a comparable cut from a grain-fed animal. Lower in calories, grass-fed beef is also higher in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to help reduce the risk of cancer, lower the likelihood of high blood pressure, and make people less susceptible to depression. Further, meat from grass-fed cattle is rich in another beneficial fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which supposedly lowers the risk of cancer. The benefits of CLA are so widely acknowledged that some ranchers who don't grass-finish their cattle add CLA supplements to their animals' feed once they're taken to the feedlots.

Hopefully, this interpretation of the study doesn't make me come off as a downer, just more of a realist. It's great that GMO corn isn't doing well in grocery stores. Hooray, indeed. It's just, well, the news doesn't really mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.

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