The creation of new plant species through cross pollination is nothing new -- Mother Nature has been doing it for countless eras. But over the last century, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have taken center stage as a way to develop new and different species of plants to achieve a desired result. Over the last several years, a fiery debate has evolved over whether or not GMOs are safe. Knowing the history of GMOs can help you understand the viewpoints of both sides.
A Long History
A GMO is defined as an organism or microorganism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering. Well before the term "genetic engineering" was well known, farmers were creating new, hardier "hybrid" plants by naturally cross pollinating related or different species of plants over several seed generations. This process was much different than the process used to create GMOs today which uses gene splicing techniques to create DNA that wouldn't be naturally found normally in nature.
It wasn't until the early 1900s that GMO research really got underway, leading to the modern day technology. Following is a breakdown of the GMO history timeline:
Mid 1800s-Early 1900s
In the mid 1800s a European monk named Gregory Mendel published his findings on the basic principles of heredity. It wasn't until the early 1900s that scientists began using his theory to change plant characteristics.
This year brought the critical discovery of DNA's actual structure by two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick. This finding would be integral in helping scientists learn how to isolate and take specific genes from one plant in order to combine them with others in a laboratory.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1972 found Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer meeting over a plate of deli sandwiches to discuss their individual genetic research. They decided to pool their knowledge and in 1973 created a method of cloning predetermined DNA patterns. Their breakthrough not only earned them a Nobel Prize but paved the way to modern genetic engineering.
Paul Berg organized 140 biologists, lawyers and physicians at the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA to discuss concerns about and create voluntary guidelines for the safety of recombinant DNA technology.
1982 was an important year in the history of GMOs because this is the year that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States approved the first GMO, a diabetes medicine called Humulin. This was a huge step for GMOs because the approval gave the green light to pharmaceutical companies that may have been apprehensive about getting involved with GMOs for consumer products.
Before GMO food crops were widely introduced to consumers, they had to undergo rigorous testing to find out if the resulting crops were actually safe for consumption. The 1980's were full of these types of tests in both the United States and in Europe.
Despite the concerns of anti-GMO groups, the FDA determined in its Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties that they have no basis to conclude that bioengineered foods are any different from other foods or that, "foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding." This policy will play an integral role in the FDA's future opinion about GMO labeling.
According to the University of California, the first GMO food -- the Flavr Savr tomato which was genetically altered to have a longer shelf life -- was approved in 1994. Although demand for the fruit was high, so were production costs so the tomato never achieved significant profits.
Also in 1994, Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology company, introduces a genetically modified bovine growth hormone (BGH) that could be injected into cows to increase milk production.
Monsanto introduces, "Roundup Ready Soybeans," which were genetically altered to be resistant to Roundup pesticide and other glysophate containing products. It wasn't long before other major crops followed including corn, cotton and canola.
From this point on, the GMO foods market grows quickly. The first GMO resistant weeds also begin appearing this year.
Mandatory GMO labeling begins in the European Union.
The following countries pass laws requiring GMO food labeling:
- Czech Republic
- Hong Kong
The following countries begin requiring special labeling for GMO foods:
- South Korea
Many other countries have completely banned the use of GMOs or have suspended any GMO crops until the full environmental and health effects of these crops can be better researched.
The first GMO resistant pests appear. According to Science Daily, bollworms (Helicoverpa zea) resistant to the heavily used GMO pesticide Bacillus Thuringiensis (bt), were found in more than a dozen crop fields in Mississippi and Arkansas from 2003 - 2006. Since then, hard-to-kill bugs and "superweeds" are appearing in GMO crops and forcing farmers to ramp up pesticide use, states a Reuters news report.
After Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser found "Roundup Ready" plants on his land that he had not planted, he harvested and replanted the seeds. As a result, Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement in 1998.
Similar additional cases occurred with most farmers settling with the seed giant but not Schmeiser. He claimed the plants were his to use freely since they were on his land and fought Monsanto in court. Schmeiser ultimately lost that case but later sued Monsanto for cleanup costs when he again found "Roundup Ready" plants in his field. Although Monsanto would have paid for cleanup costs, they would only do so if Schmeiser signed an agreement that included a gag order. Again, Schmeiser refused and sued Monsanto. Right before trial, Monsanto agreed to pay the cleanup costs and signed an agreement that no gag order would be enforced and that they could be later sued for recontamination.
This case was critical to farmers everywhere. It was not only the first time a farmer had stood up to Monsanto and won but it offered a precedence that may help future cases of field contamination.
Despite continued calls for GMO labeling, the FDA reiterates its policy on GMO labeling. However, it also states that it is reviewing two citizen petitions that request a change in their position.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, GMO crops (primarily corn, soybeans and cotton) were planted on 169 million acres in the United States in 2013.
Monsanto's first generation Roundup Ready soybean patent will expire.
Many people feel GMOs add great value to their lives by increasing the food supply and making food cheaper to buy. Others are adamant that GMOs are bad and threaten the environment and human health.
No matter what side you fall on, one thing's for certain; for now, GMOs are here to stay. By understanding their history you can be an advocate for whichever side of the debate you support.