We Americans love sweet corn – our uniquely national vegetable. We consume ~9 lbs of sweet corn per person per year (see how that compares to other vegetables in the graph above). The farmers that grow this crop for us do so on a much more local basis than for most fruit or vegetable crops. There are significant sweet corn acres in 24 states and a total of >260,000 acres nation-wide for the fresh market and >300,000 for canned and frozen corn (see graph below). Sweet corn can be difficult to grow for many reasons, and is often sprayed with insecticides. A biotech solution to this problem exists, but it is under-utilized, in part, due to campaigns by anti-GMO activists. In the end, the people most hurt by this are the American sweet corn growers.
“Many administrators, private and public, have decided that the future of plant breeding lies in genomics, relying on claims that molecular genetics has revolutionized the time frame for product development. ‘Seldom has it been pointed out that it is going to take as long to breed a molecular engineering gene into a successful cultivar as it takes for a natural gene’” – Goodman 2002
The graph above shows the relative production of these major US row crops comparing the years 1993-1995 (just prior to the introduction of biotechnology enhanced crops) and 2008-10 (the most recent available data which covers a a span which comes 12-15 years after biotech. Soybean production has expanded 47% in this time-frame while corn is up 58% (far more than the quantity now being diverted for biofuel). Both of those crops are predominantly planted to “GMO” varieties, while the various segments of the wheat crop remain non-GMO. Until 2004 it looked as if North American growers would also get to plant biotech wheat, but a vigorous campaign led by Greenpeace succeeded in blocking the technology. Many major European and Japanese grain buyers were concerned about potential consumer push-back (based on Greenpeace efforts), so they made a coordinated threat to boycott all North American wheat exports if any commercial GMO wheat
It’s 3 am local time and I’m wide awake, fixated on the challenge of brand differentiation in ketchup… I recently spoke with one of the ketchup tomato breeders I know. Among other topics, he lamented the consumer’s irrational fixation on price. He pointed out that most of us won’t hesitate to grab a generic bottle of ketchup over a trusted brand for a difference of only 20 cents – which breaks down to no difference over the months it sits in your fridge: How do you sell a better product to a customer who’s not willing to pay 1 cent more per week?
I recently had the opportunity to visit the fabled heart of the USDA-ARS empire: Beltsville. I heard all about the tornado that knocked down all the campus trees, smashed in the greenhouses and threw doors down hallways a few years ago, visited their food sensory lab (a controlled environment where fruit samples are passed through a wall to waiting taste testers), and saw greenhouses packed full of cacao (where research on one of my favorite fungi, Crinipellis perniciosa, is co-funded by M&M Mars Inc.). But I was there mostly to visit the pepper breeding program.