History of Genetically Modified Foods

    Biotechnology, genetic modification, transgenic crops, bacillus thuringiensis are words and phrases being tossed around in the debate on genetically manipulating food, but what does this all mean? The language of genetic manipulation can be one of the greatest barriers to many people’s understanding of the technology. For the purposes of this paper, understand genetic modification simply as, “The manipulation of an organism’s genetic make-up in order to create or enhance desirable characteristics from the same or another species” (Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001).

            While genetic manipulation of foods can be traced throughout history, the modern marvels of GMOs and transgenic plants have come to light in just the last few decades. The 1980’s marked the scientific discovery that specific pieces of DNA could be transferred from one organism to another (Cramer, 2001). This became the basis of the genetic modification process. In 1983, the first transgenic plant, a tobacco plant resistant to anti-biotics was created (Cramer, 2001). Then, genetically engineered cotton was successfully field tested in 1990. Five years later, Monsanto the leading biotech company, introduced herbicide-immune soybeans otherwise known as “Round-Up-Ready” (Cramer, 2001). The promise of genetic modification was enhanced even further in 2000, when scientist discovered that the modification process could be used to introduce nutrients and vitamins to enrich foods (Cramer, 2001).

            Today, biotechnology and the process of genetic modification is emerging and advancing throughout the planet. As of 2004, genetically modified crops were being grown by 8.25 million farmers in 17 countries (James, 2004). Commercially, four genetically modified crops dominate global biotech agriculture with soybeans accounting for 60% of GM crop area, maize accounting for 23% of GM crop area, cotton accounting for 11% of GM crop area, and canola accounting for 6% of GM crop area (James, 2004). The United States is among the leading proponents for the advancement of biotechnology. In terms of global land area planted in varieties of engineered crops, the United States far surpasses global competition accounting for 59% of all GM crop. In terms of actual land area, the United States utilizes 47.6 million hectares for biotech agriculture as of 2004 (James, 2004). Perhaps the best illustration of the extent to which the United States dominates this technology can be found through comparisons with other countries. Again in terms of percentage of land area planted in biotech varieties as of 2004, the nation of Argentina comes in a distant second to the United States accounting for 20% or 16.2 million hectares of GM crop agriculture (James, 2004). Considering our role as a leading pioneer of this technology, the United States has a lot at stake when it comes to the successful integration of genetic crops into the world food supply.

            The introduction of GMOs into food supplies has had varying degrees of success country by country. While genetically modified foods have quietly made their way into the U.S. food supply, European nations have experienced tremendous backlash as awareness of their use expanded. Mixed feelings in regard to genetically modified foods is largely due to the rampant debate surrounding this technology. In terms of benefits the process of genetic modification has the potential for greatness in terms of addressing problems like food security, malnutrition, safety, and agricultural efficiency. Genetic modification is being used to enrich crops through the introduction of nutrients and vitamins. This type of enrichment is especially important in helping to address problems like famine and malnutrition in troubled parts of the world (Potrykus, 2003).  Furthermore, introducing natural pesticides and insecticides through genetic manipulation decreases reliance on conventional chemicals that pose risks to food handlers and consumers (Hossain et al., 2004). Additionally, making crops immune to herbicides or “Round-Up-Ready” streamlines the efficiency of conventional agriculture (Charles, 2001). Genetic modification produces higher yielding, heartier plants that are more adaptable to soils and climates and require less water to grow (Hsin, 2002). In short, the prospect of higher yields, more adaptability, less reliance on chemicals, and greater nutritional value as offered through genetically modified crops addresses the various problems of food security in the context of an ever-growing global population.

            While the potential of GM crops is great, the laundry list of unknowns is troubling to many who want the process sidelined until the safety of GMOs can be concluded through research and studies. In terms of controversies, one of the greatest concerns is the long-term health affects that genetically modified foods will have on human health. With this technology being so new, long term studies have not been conducted to confirm that this process is in fact safe (Myhr et al., 2003). In terms of short-term health concerns, many people are questioning if transferring genes from one organism to another will result in allergic reactions for individuals with food sensitivities (Hsin, 2002). Another cause for concern, is if the unintentional transfer of specific genes will create problems that science is not equipped to address. Consider the “Round-Up-Ready” gene which is great for crops, but what if this gene were transferred to weeds? The prospect of “superweeds” immune to our current arsenal of herbicides is a cause for concern among opponents (Ferber, 1999). Another troubling area is the ethical concerns voiced by some who feel that society does not have the authority to tamper with nature (Pascalev, 2003). A final concern is in regard to the commercial aspect of biotechnology. In terms of control and licensees of property rights on this technology, the power truly lies in the hands of a few large corporations (Hsin, 2002). The potential for abusing this power and fostering a system that will continue to disproportionately disadvantage developing poorer nations is a major concern for many. Ultimately, weighing the benefits and risks associate with this emerging technology will be necessary to understand the degree to which society embraces or rejects genetically modified foods in the future.