Advances in molecular biology during the 1970s made it possible to insert individual genes into plants, animals and bacteria. This was of keen interest to those who grow food and raise livestock, because it offered the possibility of improving crops and food animals by modifying their genetic content directly. In some ways, this wasn't very different from what farmers and breeders had been doing for centuries: over time, selective breeding had produced seedless grapefruit, nectarines and French poodles.
The new techniques offered the ability to make similar changes in a single generation. What was truly new was the possibility of transferring genes from one type of organism to another, such as from a bacterium to a corn plant or from a fish to a strawberry. This had never been possible before.
Direct gene transfer held much promise: disease-resistant crops, rice and wheat with added vitamin content and strawberries and oranges better able to withstand frost were some of the benefits claimed by those in favor. But it also contained perils...
Organisms whose DNA is changed by these techniques would come to be known under a variety of names and abbreviations including GM (genetically modified), GE (genetically engineered) and GMO (genetically modified organisms). These terms are all synonymous and interchangeable.
If a scientist wanted to compare the yield of a genetically modified crop against the original non-GM crop, they could only do so with the company's permission.
Companies took full advantage of the opportunity to patent their genetically modified creations and to avail themselves of the protections that patents provide. Ever since the first genetically modified crops were planted in the 1990s, the companies that developed them have claimed broad control over how they can be used and studied. Farmers no longer simply buy seeds. Instead, they enter into a technology/stewardship agreement with the seller which specifies how these seeds may be used, where it may be grown or sold and many other conditions of usage. This agreement, also called a bag-tag, specifically restricts any use of the seeds for research.
Scientists used to be able to go into any farm store and buy seeds, test them in the field, and then publish their results. This was rarely possible with the new patented GM seeds. The companies who manufactured the seeds now had the final say on what type of research could be done with them. And they were quite willing to exercise that power. If a scientist wanted to compare the yield of a genetically modified crop against the original non-GM crop, they could only do so with the company's permission. And this was rarely forthcoming. This has had a chilling effect on research into the benefits and drawbacks of genetically modified crops and placed a shroud of secrecy over the entire GMO process.
The emergence and rapid growth of GM food has taken place mostly under the radar. Because of this, many people have never fully considered how they feel about eating genetically modified food or the many other issues that genetic modification has raised.ADVERTISEMENT
In late 2009, an agreement was reached between the American Seed Trade Association, agricultural companies involved in GM and scientists to allow for blanket research agreements, called ARLs, with public institutions such as universities. In theory, these agreements will make it unnecessary for scientists to apply to companies to do their research on a case-by-case basis. But the agreement is broad, vague and voluntary and offers no guarantee that the industry will not limit access to their seeds only to scientists whom they favor. Only time will tell if this agreement will help lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding genetically modified crops or merely allow publication of results favorable to the industry.
Possibly because of all this secrecy, polls have consistently shown that Americans do not trust genetically modified foods and that they especially want them to be labeled as such. A Thomson Reuters survey of over 3,000 respondents taken in 2010 is typical. It found that only 21.4% of respondents thought that genetically modified foods were safe and less than half were willing to eat genetically modified meat (38%) or fish (35%). A whopping 93.1% believed that foods should be labeled to indicate that they have been genetically engineered or contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered. A recent ABC news poll gave similar results.
GM foods are a tough sell. But they're a lot easier to sell when you don't have to mention it on the label.
GM foods are a tough sell. But they're a lot easier to sell when you don't have to mention it on the label.ADVERTISEMENT
As they did with regulating antibiotics in animal feed, the European Union has taken an entirely different approach to labeling of a food's GMO content. As far back as 1997, genetically modified foods required labeling if GM content could be detected in the final product. In 2004, these regulations were strengthened so that all food products that make direct use of GMOs at any point in their production are subjected to labeling requirements, regardless of whether or not GM content is detectable in the end product.
Have GM crops been a boon or a bust? With limits on scientific research, that's not an easy question to answer. Monsanto claims that they've been a huge success. Other evidence says that this is an overstatement. Nearly 16 years of intense cultivation of Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops appear to responsible for a troubling and substantial increase in herbicide resistant weeds that are currently threatening both GM and non-GM crops (link to other piece). And GM canola is escaping into the wild in North Dakota, the dominant canola growing region in the U.S., and supplanting non-GM canola. It's also been found growing in Switzerland, despite the fact that it is not grown commercially there (Switzerland has had a GE moratorium in place since 2005). These are just a sample of the many disagreements over the benefits and harms of genetically modified crops.
Charles Benbrook, chief scientist with The Organic Center who also served from 1984 to 1990 as executive director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture, has this to say about GM crops: "What’s happened is that with no independent voice on either the positive aspects of genetic studies or the negative, the public gets PR from the companies or spin from activist groups."
This means that most of what is written about GM food is merely opinion. What else could it be, with all the secrecy surrounding the entire GM process? And the opinions surrounding GM foods mainly boil down to two main types: outrage and calm acceptance.
To have a major portion of the entire food supply controlled by a few multi-national corporations and a handful of government officials is thoroughly undemocratic.
While some people are outraged because they don't think that GM foods are safe, others are just as outraged about the type of society that GM food is creating--a highly undemocratic one. To have a major portion of the entire food supply controlled by a few multi-national corporations and a handful of government officials is thoroughly undemocratic. To the people unhappy with this, the issues of trust and power and the influence of corporate money take center stage. They see no reason to trust Monsanto, Dow and the USDA to act in their interest and they don't think that this concentration of power serves the public interest, either.
The other response is much simpler: the furor over GM food is much ado about nothing. People have been eating it for nearly two decades without any obvious ill effect. Requiring labeling of GM food would imply that there's something wrong with it when there really isn't. And people have always been more or less at the mercy of those who produce their food; all that's really changed is the players involved in food production.
People new to these contrasting viewpoints might want to read two opinion pieces, a warning against GM food by the writer Christopher D. Cook and a pro-GM piece by the science writer Cameron English to understand the two views of GM food in more detail.
Should GM foods be labeled? Are they safe? Or are all the concerns over GM food's safety simply making a mountain out of a molehill? Should Monsanto, Dow and a few government agencies have control over the entire GM food process? If not, who should be in charge of setting limits? Do people and corporations even have the right to patent living creatures? A change of one vote on the Supreme Court toward not allowing genetic modifications would have meant that they couldn't do so.
These are only a few of the questions surrounding genetic modification. Whether you're in favor of GM, against it, or merely baffled by it, everyone has a stake in deciding what its uses and limits should be. Hstory suggests that if people don't take the time to determine what the right answers are, the decisions will continue to be made for them.