Popcorn bucket / Popcorn on yellow background.

This blog was originally published on December 9, 2021. It has been updated in celebration of “Popcorn Lover’s Day.”

For many of us, movies and popcorn go hand-in-hand. To have one without the other is only half the fun! While we sit in a dark theater, we give little thought to the fact that the popcorn was gloriously and naturally non-GMO.

Popcorn is naturally resistant to GMO contamination, which plagues other corn varieties across North America. The prevalence of GMOs (92% of U.S.-grown corn is genetically modified) and corn’s reproductive habits contribute to the problem. Corn is, to be blunt, a promiscuous plant. Each stalk generates up to a billion pollen grains, which can drift 1/2 mile away on a gentle breeze, and insects and human activity increase the pollination radius.

In the end, growing corn is a balancing act between the crop’s natural tendency towards a reproductive free-for-all and the farmer’s desire for order.

For decades, non-GMO and organic farmers used a certain natural trait that protects popcorn to keep their field corn free from contamination. However, the biotech industry recently inserted this trait into GMO corn — a move that could destroy one of the most potent genetic shields against GMO contamination. It’s a bit complicated, so let’s get into it.

The best barrier against GMOs — and why big biotech wants it

Some corn varieties carry a trait known as “cross-incompatibility” or “CI.”  It’s part of their genetic code. Pollen from corn with the CI trait can only fertilize another plant that also carries it. Think of it as an exclusive club, open only to card-carrying members. A tiny genetic bouncer guards each ear of corn, turning away prospective partygoers if they lack this gene. The CI trait is both the lock and the key, guarding against contaminants.

Popcorn naturally contains the CI trait, making it resistant to fertilization by corn that doesn’t carry the trait. Because genetically modified corn hasn’t held the CI trait, popcorn is naturally resistant to GMO contamination (that’s why the Non-GMO Project does not consider popcorn a high-risk crop, unlike field corn or sweet corn). The CI trait is so useful that breeders have used it to their advantage for decades, incorporating it into non-GMO and organic field corn through traditional breeding techniques.

In 2015, agribusiness giant Corteva submitted a patent application for a seed blend containing a new kind of GMO corn. This GMO combined two traits that had not been paired before in a single seed: 

  1. Genetic engineering, causing the plant to express an insecticide, and
  2. The CI trait.

Because of that CI trait, pollen from this corn can only pollinate other varieties with the CI trait. And because the seed also contains genetically modified material, this variety could pave the way for GMO contamination in non-GMO and organic varieties that used to have the highest security around. Popcorn and field corn varieties with the CI trait — previously impenetrable — would now be vulnerable to contamination. (Imagine that tiny genetic bouncer we mentioned earlier letting GMO party crashers into the exclusive club.)

Understandably, Corteva’s new GMO struck fear into the hearts of the non-GMO and organic movement. Non-GMO corn is already a dramatic minority on North American farmland. Genetically modified corn covers more than 90 million acres of U.S. farmland (that’s one of the reasons the Non-GMO Project considers corn — except popcorn — to be high-risk for GMOs). Non-GMO and organic need all the protection they can get. 

In the end, the patent application for this particular product was denied, but the desire to capitalize on nature’s ingenuity is still circulating in the biotech industry. For anyone wanting to hold back the tide of GMO contamination, the prospect of losing the best protection against crop loss and financial ruin is terrifying. 

What’s at stake for non-GMO and organic

GMO contamination has far-reaching effects. Consumers might experience ruined meals if contaminated corn flour doesn’t set or bake through. Farmers face financial losses, and even international markets are at risk. According to the Center for Food Safety, an infamous contamination event in 2000 introduced GMO corn not approved for human consumption into the food supply. Three years later, traces of the contaminant were still detectable in U.S. corn.

Contamination events happen when protection methods fail or when different batches of corn commingle in processing facilities (that’s why the Non-GMO Project supports a rigorously segregated supply chain for high-risk ingredients such as corn). Contamination of non-GMO corn is well-documented, and GMO contamination has been detected in varieties of heirloom native corn from Mexico, the birthplace of corn. These varieties are the product of thousands of years of traditional knowledge and indigenous expertise, containing genetic information vital to food security. The diversity of native Mexican corn will face even greater threats if genetically engineered corn with the CI trait becomes common.

Clearly, non-GMO crops need more protection, not less.

Learn how contamination impacts heirloom varieties in Mexico

How clean food labels protect each other

Grassroots organizations, including Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), work to protect growers, breeders and crops. The OSA knows all too well how contamination affects organic growers, reporting that “the reputational and economic harms fall squarely on the organic producer”:

“Organic growers shoulder the lion’s share of the burden when it comes to protecting against [genetically engineered] contamination.”

After all, organic production is a significant commitment. It requires careful planning and continuous learning. Conventional farmers face a 3-year transition period before they can access organic markets. But, transitioning farms can support themselves during this time with non-GMO crops if their products are in compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard. Because the Standard includes testing, tracing and segregation requirements, non-GMO farmers have just as much to lose as organic farmers through contamination events.

Non-GMO agriculture also supports organic by creating physical buffers that reduce contamination on farmland and in processing facilities. An aspiring organic farmer working next to non-GMO plots knows that promiscuous pollen wafting through the air is unlikely to contain genetically modified material. The non-GMO movement as a whole encourages a segregated supply chain for processing and shipping facilities, improving on another potential contamination point. Every single way that contamination risks to organic farmers can be reduced or eliminated helps farmers move to organic, ensuring more organic acreage, less synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and greater biodiversity.

GMO contamination does not serve the interests of the billions of people worldwide who rely on corn as a staple in their diet. Biodiversity is not preserved through the narrow lens of genetic engineering. Instead, it is whittled away until nature’s bounty can be listed on a spreadsheet or perused in a patent database. To ensure food security for generations to come and to address the environmental impacts of a century of industrial agriculture, we must build and protect the non-GMO seed supply. 

Whether you enjoy a hot buttery snack at a movie theater or look for the Butterfly and the USDA organic seal at the grocery store, you, too, benefit from the non-GMO corn supply.

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