When people ask my why I’m wearing my “I love GMOs” shirt, I like to talk about a little-known biotech success story: mycotoxins.
Biotech crops have dramatically reduced the prevalence of a toxic substance known as a mycotoxin often found on crops, which can be dangerous for people who eat it. Mycotoxins are produced by fungi that are able to enter a plant after insect damage. Globally, the FAO estimates that up to half of grains are affected by these naturally occurring toxins. They can harm our immune systems, slow growth, and cause cancer.
Their presence also leads to food waste, since contaminated food needs to be thrown away. Not only does this eliminate much-needed food, it also harms farmers’ profits. In short, there’s nothing good about mycotoxins.
Fortunately, though, a biotech variety of corn has been able to eliminate instances of mycotoxins.
It works like this: The corn seed is genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide. (It’s important to note that this is a targeted insecticide that does not affect humans.) This makes the corn resistant to certain pests and reduces the likelihood of a fungus having a chance to produce mycotoxins.
A study out of Milan, Italy, shows just how effective biotech corn is at reducing mycotoxins. Sample biotech corn contained 60 or fewer parts per billion of mycotoxins. In contrast, the conventional corn contained over 6,000 parts per billion, a level that European law deems too high for human consumption. What does that safety difference really mean? Using biotech corn to reduce mycotoxins has annual benefits of $23 million in the U.S. Those are some impressive results.
It’s easy to be excited about the big, behind-the-scenes difference that biotech has made for mycotoxin contamination, but what’s coming next could be bigger. Biotech corn could make a big difference in Africa, where there is a major mycotoxin problem. In 2003, 120 Kenyans died after eating corn containing high levels of mycotoxins. In 2011, starving Kenyan farmers, who had lost their crops to drought, watched as 36,000 pounds of corn were destroyed due to mycotoxin contamination.
Scientists believe introducing this variety of biotech corn in developing countries could prevent tragedies like these. Felicia Wu, a Michigan State University food science professor, wrote in 2006 that “in less developed countries, the mycotoxin reduction that Bt crops can provide could have important economic, as well as health, impacts. Thus, it is an important phenomenon to consider when [assessing] Bt crops.”
Getting biotech corn into countries like Kenya could eliminate food waste, boost economic development, and help feed more hungry people. It may be an unsung benefit, but the impact could be revolutionary.
Elizabeth Held is a director at the White House Writers Group, where she advises food and agriculture clients.