Humans have been manipulating crop genetics for thousands of years, crossing and selecting plants that exhibit desirable traits. In the last century, breeders exposed crops to radiation and chemicals that induced random mutations. These and other lab methods gave fruits and vegetables new colors, made crops disease resistant and made grains easier to harvest. Most wheat, rice and barley are descendants of mutant varieties, as are many vegetables and fruits. Hello, Star Ruby grapefruit! In the early 1980s, scientists discovered how to insert genes from other species into plants. The process led to the 1994 commercialization of the first GMO, the FlavrSavr tomato. It was weak tasting and was pulled from the market. No GMO meat is currently for sale, though not for lack of trying. AquaBounty Technologies has been trying for 19 years to win approval for salmon engineered to grow twice as fast as conventional salmon, with less feed. The 1995 application remains pending before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has determined the fish is safe to consume. Advocates want it labeled.
GMO supporters point to a scientific consensus reflected in reports and statements from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and even the European Commission, that GMOs pose no more risk than other crops. Nor is there doubt that they’ve cut insecticide use, reduced soil erosion, made farmers more efficient, and even saved Hawaiian papayas. Consumers remain leery nonetheless, not only of GMOs themselves but of their central place in industrial agriculture. Anti-corporate ideology plays a role, with Monsanto emerging as a bogeyman in popular culture. Weeds and pests targeted by engineered crops are genetically adapting themselves, with dismaying implications: Monsanto’s bug-killing corn is so widely used that the corn rootworm is developing resistance, requiring the use of more pesticides after years of decline. The food industry is divided. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and supporters spent $68 million on campaign advertising to defeat labeling referendums in California and Washington. The organic food industry, which has tripled its annual sales since 2001 to $63 billion globally, is a prime financial supporter of labeling efforts, anticipating more growth from frightened shoppers.
The Reference Shelf
- The Department of Agriculture in February 2014 published a report on the status of GMOs in the U.S.
- The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications maintains a database of GMOs approved around the world.
- The National Academy of Sciences found in 2004 that consuming genetically engineered food was no more likely to cause unintended health effects than conventionally bred crops.