GMOs and Engineered Food

Genetics and Labels


Glowing plants. Self-destructing mosquitoes. Frankenfish. There’s no denying that genetic engineering is a walk on the weird side. Yet genetically modified organisms are as common as corn, as routine as rice. They make farmers more productive and reduce the need for chemicals to control bugs. About 90 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. is engineered. GMOs are ingredients in 70 to 80 percent of America’s processed foods. Scientists and regulators broadly agree that GMO foods pose no more risk to health and the environment than ingredients developed through older breeding methods. Yet only 27 countries plant genetically engineered crops and a global battle rages over their future. The latest front: labeling.

The Situation

Two decades after engineered crops were first sold to Americans, efforts to require package labeling of genetically modified food have taken root in dozens of U.S. states. Proponents argue for a right to know what’s in their food. Vermont’s governor in April signed a law making the Green Mountain State the first to require labeling, starting in 2016. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws that would take effect after five neighboring states do the same. Labeling initiatives were defeated in 2014 in Colorado and Oregon. At least 60 countries have labeling requirements, including Japan, Brazil, China and the entire European Union. Two American companies and a Swiss one — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta — control about half of the global commercial seed market, led by Monsanto with 27 percent.
Source: Center for Food Safety
Source: Center for Food Safety

The Background

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.

Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications

The Argument

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.

First Published May 21, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Jack Kaskey in Houston at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at