by Callie

Is Your Sweet Corn Nuked?

Not microwaved, but exposed to atomic fallout. Word is that supersweet corn hybrids came from radiation seed mutations. Seed corn purposefully placed just far enough away from an atomic bomb blast to ensure the boat stayed afloat. I know, this sounds like some kind of fringe theory, but according to well-known scientific health and wellness author Jo Robinson – it happened. Apparently, there are military documents and scientific journal papers to prove it. She discovered this while researching the scientific research surrounding food plant developments.

The mutant ninja corn story, however, goes like this…

The science of plant genetics was in its infancy in the 1930s. No one was trying to come up with new varieties of corn. It was all about learning the basics of the plant’s genetics. While researchers studied thousands of wild and domesticated corn plants, it was the mutants in their collections that really captured their fancy.

Natural or spontaneous mutations, however, only held their interest briefly. Soon they were making their own mutations by any possible means. Having exhausted the easy to access exposures like UV light, toxic chemicals, and cobalt and X-ray radiation just to see what happened to the genes – the king of corn mutation possibilities presented itself. The atomic bomb. Namely testing done in the Marshall Islands at Bikini Atoll.

In 1946, sacks of seed corn and some unlucky livestock, became participants in some truly bizarre experiments. The geneticists wanted to study the effects of intense radiation exposure on plants and animals. That in itself isn’t so Frankenstein-ish, it was after all, the dawn of the age of atomic warfare that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s what happened a few years later that brought atomically mutated corn to home gardens, farm markets, and produce aisles everywhere.

First, the military grew the nuked sweet corn seeds at a secure facility near Washington, D.C. As you can imagine, the plants were all freaks, nothing like the normal corn the seed came from. But samples of the seeds were kept for future study, and stored at the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center seed bank. Breeders were given access these and other mutant seeds, because weirdo plants are ripe with unusual traits.

But the advent of supersweet corn took until 1959, when geneticist John Laughnan popped a few kernels into his mouth.

He was working with an ear of corn from a sample lot known as “shrunken-2,” aptly named for it’s shriveled and shrunken kernels. Laughnan’s accidental discovery of its incredible sweetness changed his career path. He became a corn breeder after lab testing revealed sh2 had 10 times higher sugar content than any other sweet corn.

The problem was that sh2 mutant seed wasn’t ready for prime time. Intervention was needed to overcome poor germination and seedlings that needed coddling. Both highly undesirable traits, even if the survivors were a sugar factory.

So, he started crossing sh2 with popular sweet corns of the day. It didn’t take long to come up with a good hybrid. The very first modern supersweet corn variety hit the seed market in 1961: Illini Xtra-Sweet. Naturally, American consumers were instantly besotted with corn that still tasted really good up to 10 days after harvest. You know the food system was digging it too. Now corn could be shipped cross-country without losing too much “fresh” flavor.

(Naturally, sweeter corn means it takes far less material to make corn sweeteners too. The profit factor for syrup making skyrockets with a 10-fold increase in sugar content per kernel. And the invention of high fructose corn syrup and supersweet corn took place in the late 1950s. HFCS, however, wasn’t mass produced until the 1960s. That would be difficult if of high fructose corn seed was in short supply. It takes a number of years to grow large enough quantities of seed, which is one reason why newly released plants and seeds are expensive.)

But this was only the beginning of mutated sweet corn’s evolution. Sh2 sweet corn varieties may be extraordinarily sweet, but they’re chewy. A few years later, Ashby M. Rhodes of the University of Illinois discovered an entirely different kind of supersweet corn mutant in that maize seed bank. And along came ‘sugar enhanced’ (se) corn hybrids that add super-tender kernels to that sugary taste. The first se variety entered the seed market in the 1980s. There are also ‘augmented’ types where two super traits are combined.

What came next? Well, GMOs. Now geneticists can dice and splice whatever traits they want to. They double and triple stack those genes, make ’em Roundup Ready, and top it off with self-contained pesticide production. To date, over a dozen genetically modified supersweet corn varieties are available to commercial growers. I don’t believe you’ll find them in home garden seed catalogs.

The sweeter it is, the faster it sells. The less work you have to put into processing it, the better… be it by the teeth or machine. But what is the “ultimate corn on the cob,” as Robinson calls it, doing to the health and nutritional aspect of what food is to humans?

How genes mutated by nuclear explosion is beneficial to our diet is mystifying. And you’re supposed to eat dessert AFTER dinner, not with it. That might be difficult to avoid with popular summertime supper menus like corn on the cob and burgers cooked on the grill is a mega serving of corn sweetener. It’s in the condiments, and probably your drink too.

Are the revelations in her book Eating on the Wild Side book are totally factual? Considered an expert on scientific health and wellness, she spent 10 years researching the information it contains, and many of journal papers referenced in the section about corn aren’t accessible online. This might be due to their age. Not all such documents and books are readily available on the internet. She stated during a video interview published on Huffington Post that this is the first time a lot of the information her book contains is publicly available.

However, in late May 2013, the New York Times featured an ‘opinion’ piece Robinson wrote when her book launched. The original wording about supersweet corn is no longer in place. The editorial retraction at the bottom of the page states… “The corn was a result of natural, spontaneous mutations, and was not created through radiation.”  The book says the exact opposite.

To avoid eating supersweet corn, it’s time to start growing your own. To make sure you’re not planting corn with those excess sugar genes, look for heirloom seed already on the market before 1960. Normal corn won’t be listed as su, se, sh2, sy, ss, or ssw, though some seed catalogs show the  same variety names as F1 hybrids. They won’t have cheeky modern names like Kandy Korn or Sugar Buns. Heirloom types will taste like corn should – supersweet genes replace natural ‘corn’ flavor.

More Info:

Bikini Beach atomic testing image from 1946 courtesy of Coconut Revival. The sacks of corn were on one of the ships still floating in that photo.

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Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.