Mesopotamia to Monsanto: An Introduction to Genetically Modified Organisms

Since their introduction into the market in the mid 1990s, Genetically Modified Organisms, crops or animals whose genetic makeup has been genetically engineered, have quickly become a hot-button issue—spurring widespread debate among the public, policymakers, and researchers about their safety and necessity.

Tomasz Darul/Shutterstock

 Seeing farmers struggling with low yields from pests, insects, and droughts, biotech industries used what they had learned during the advent of genetic engineering to mutate genes of crops and select the most agriculturally desirable traits.  Those desirable traits include increasing the crops shelf life, and warding off insects and other pests—all of which have the potential to increase famers’ yields. Despite being considered a huge innovation in the biotech industry, the manipulation of crop’s genes has caused a lot of controversy and public outcry from both supporters and opponents of Genetically Modified Organisms.   

Unlike other environmental issues where scientific literature is conclusive and serves as a basis for policy, there is conflicting science regarding GMOs. This has hindered policymaking and likely has confused the public on their opinions of genetically modified foods.  No matter what side of the debate one belongs to, the lack of a scientific consensus on the safety, human health effects, and environmental effects has left the food industry in a compromising position. The adverse effects and potential risks that can arise from consuming genetically engineered foods are what have been most difficult to prove.

Climate change is one of the arguments for the continuation of genetically engineered crops in the future.  Rising global temperatures are expected to make agricultural challenges far worse for some regions of the world. Some areas, like the Midwest and Sub Saharan Africa, will experience drastic temperature increases. Others, like the US Southwest and Bangladesh, will have wetter conditions. Some, like Australia and Southern Europe, are predicted to experience high frequencies of severe droughts. The unpredictability of weather patterns will make for difficult growing seasons for farmers. These potential negative effects will adversely affect the ability of farmers to grow maximum yields. Many see this as an opportunity for GMOs to counteract the effects that climate change will have on the agricultural industry.  Crops can be genetically engineered to adapt to these potential climate changes, such as altering a crop so that it can grow in drought conditions or in extreme temperatures.

Climate change isn’t the only future stresser that GMO proponents point to.  The world’s population is expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050, and with 842 million unnourished people in the world today, that number will only increase by 2050 if no changes are made.  When genetically engineered seeds entered the scene, it was expected that their yields would increase and that the biotech industry would be answer to end world hunger.  But despite there being enough food to feed the world, many especially environmentalist, say the issue is distribution.  In that case, genetically modified foods will not be the cure-all.

The first genetically engineered food, the flavr savr made its way to the supermarket after FDA approval in 1994. Since then, environmentalists and groups such as Non-GMO Project, have been at the forefront of the opposition against genetically engineered crops. In discussing GMOs in Congress, well-financed lobbying groups and interest groups cannot be left out.  They have proven to have a lot of influence in policy making thanks to their political power and large financial reserves. In 2012, California residents voted on ballot initiative Proposition 37, which if passed, would have required companies to label products that contained GMOs.  Food manufacturers such as Monsanto, PepsiCo, and the Grocery Manufactures Association raised $46 million dollars in opposition campaign ads. The politics of genetically modified food is not a fair playing field; large food manufactures are well-funded entities with more political power than environmental groups that are in support of such labeling bills.  In comparison, the donations from supporting groups, such as and Kent Whealy, were only able to raise $9.2 million.  The future of Genetically Engineered policy will likely lie in the hands of interest groups that hold the most political influence and funds.   However, despite their upper hand in policymaking, environmental groups and the public have been successful in urging the food industry to change their ways independent of government regulation.  “Non-GMO Project began labeling GMO free products in 2010 that, and now four years later they have labeled 15,000 products and have a market value of $5 billion,” Michael Hansen of Consumers Union. Responding to public opinion and outcry, Smart Balance and General Mills have independently decided to remove GMOs from some of their products.   The future of GMOs in the marketplace is both complicated and controversial. In their 20 years in the market, GMOs have stirred up debate among researchers, food manufactures, the public, and Congressional members—how the issue will develop in the future lies in the hands of them.


Leave a Reply