While Sagoyehsahta was tending his cornfields this year he noticed something grotesque. His white corn crops were coming in deformed.
The gnarly cobs have been described as ‘horrifying’ and ‘zombie corn’ by folks who have seen them. “Out of my corn field, especially going down the hill, I must have had at least two dozen that had multiple cobs on it,” Sagoyehsahta said.
“Some of the ears had two and three cobs coming off it. Rather than pulling them out I let them mature to see what would happen. When they matured and we opened them up you could see the obvious, that they were deformed.”
These abnormalities were not only in the ears. Sagoyehsahta said, “The corn was developing little cobs on the tassel. At the very bottom of the corn where it comes out of the ground, a little tassel started to form and a little cob started to form there.”
For over 30 years Sagoyehsahta has grown a traditional open pollinated Tuscarora long cob in the same fields. This is the characteristic Haudenosaune white corn used to make corn soup and mush. It is typically 12 inches in length with a red cob. The kernels are white, smooth, and do not shrink when dried. He patiently sorts out only the best kernels for his seed bank.
One year, Etinoha Oneha, also called mother corn showed up in his crop. This is a naturally occurring short cob variation of Tuscarora white corn set aside for use in ceremonies. Sagoyehsahta said, “We used to do ceremonies for that. It was for children that lost their parents at an early age. When I realized we don’t have the corn for the ceremony, I started planting this.”
The short cobs have a distinct rounded end with one kernel at the centre, and five kernels which surround the centre.
Sagoyehsahta said, “They say if you plant a field of the long cobs you will get one Etinoha Oneha. So when I got one, I kept it and started growing Etinoha Oneha from that, and kept growing it and now that is all that I plant.” He has exclusively planted this mother corn for about 12 years. The Etinoha Oneha are the ones that got deformed this year.
Around the same time he noticed the deformed corn, Sagoyehsahta watched the documentary “The World According to Monsanto” on television.
This film disclosed the issues Mexican corn farmers were facing, as GMO corn crops were cross-pollinating and contaminating traditional cornfields. Their described problems of corn deformity were exactly what Sagoyehsahta was seeing in his own crop this year.
“Based on what the Mexican [farmers] have said, its exactly the same. I’ve never had that before,” he said.
A Mexican court ruling just last week suspended the planting of genetically modified corn in the country citing “the risk of imminent harm to the environment”. This comes the same week the Hawaiian community in Kaua’i County passed a bill which requires farmers to disclose if they are using pesticides or growing genetically modified crops.
The county also now requires a pesticide free buffer zone of 500 feet near places such as medical facilities, schools and homes.
This is when Sagoyehsahta’s attention shifted to other fields in the neighborhood who could be cross pollinating his crop. He said, “What I thought might be happening is that the wind was carrying pollen from GM corn into my white corn. Or I thought maybe birds were bringing it in on their wings.”
Another red flag came up after the family pet, a black cat, mysteriously showed up sick this summer, not eating and losing its fur. The family spent weeks nursing the balding cat back to health.
Sagoyehsahta’s neighbor leased land last season to a commercial farmer who planted soybeans adjacent to his cornfields. He said, “When I walked back late summer/early fall when the soybeans were still green there wasn’t one weed within that field.”
His family now has concerns that possible pesticide use along with genetically modified crops in local fields is a logical explanation to both the corn deformities and the cat’s trauma.
Not everyone in the community feels GE crops are a concern. Barry Hill of the Six Nations Farmers Association says that “GMO crops bring a lot of value. If we’re going to feed all these people on less and less land, we have to find a way to get our crops up.” Hill says to rush out and blame genetically modified foods is not the answer.
Hill says local farmers take precautions to ensure that there is enough division between fields to prevent cross-pollinating. Hill wonders if the cactus-like deformities that have presented themselves may be a natural process of an old original stock coming through the genetic line. He says, “Sporadically, in a plant, it will express itself into the root stock from where it came.”
Currently there are no bylaws at Six Nations regarding pesticide use or regulations on what types of crops are grown. Hill says, “As far as the Six Nations Farmer’s Association goes, all of our farmers take courses and certificates for use and handling of pesticides and follow provincial guidelines.”
According to the Centre for Food Safety, over 60 countries worldwide ban or label GE foods and crops, excluding Canada and the USA.