A History of GMOs: From the Lab to the Supermarket

Despite the potential benefits of this new technology to increase in world food supply and lower the cost for the farmer—public and scientific concerns have been raised about the environmental and food safety of genetically modified crops. GMOs only entered supermarkets 20 years ago, but the history of GMOs dates back to the mid 20th century with the advent of the biotech industry.

Scientist at Calgene with the first Genetically Engineered crop, the Flavr Savr Tomato. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

            Huge scientific breakthroughs in genetic engineering were made in the early to mid 20th century. The discovery DNA, the double helix structure, and other discoveries in the genetics field served as the foundation for the future success of genetic engineering. In 1972, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen used the recently discovered recombinant DNA by joining DNA from different species, usually a bacterium, and inserting the hybrid DNA into a host cell. Their discovery of inserting rDNA into a living cell began a new age of technology, and solidified the foundation the biotech industry. An industry that is now multibillion dollar industry and has been responsible for producing new chemicals, enzymes, pharmaceuticals such as insulin, and genetically modified crops. 

Supreme Court case Diamond vs. Chakrabarty of 1980 was instrumental in paving the way for genetically modified organisms in the marketplace. The decision that living organisms could be patented was a landmark decision for the biotech industry. As a result of the court’s decision, the biotech industry has surged in the past 30 years. From 1989 to 2002, biotech patents saw an increase from 2,160 to 7,763. US Patent Nos. 4,940,835 and 5,188,642 from the early 1990’s were key patents for the genetically engineered crops industry. The patents were issued to agricultural giant Monsanto, and patented a technique to for genetically altered plant seeds so that the plants could be resistant to glycophospate-containing herbicide.

In the early 1990s, the Flavr Savr tomato became first genetically engineered crop to be commercialized. Researchers at Calgene, a biotech company in California, were able to find the gene that was involved in the softening process of the tomato, and then developed technology to get rid of that gene. The technology was innovative, and gained buzz in the media and excitement from consumers. The Flavr Savr tomato saw initial success in the market, but by 1997 production ceased. Many attribute Calgene’s failure to their lack of agricultural production knowledge. They were a biotech industry, and not an agricultural company that specialized in the farming and transportation of tomatoes.   

Despite the failure of the GE tomato, the industry has since flourished. Monsanto acquired Calgene, and acquired all of their cutting edge patents with it.  This deal greatly changed the GMO industry. Calgene was praised for its transparency in developing the Flavr Savr tomato by labeling the product and including a brochure. Their tomato was also marketed towards the consumer to benefit them, but “commercially successful Genetically Engineered crops were things that farmers might want to plant,” Dan Charles of NPR.

The unsuccessful attempt of the Flavr Savr tomato is not a testament to the success of the future genetically modified crops.  Today there are no genetically engineered tomatoes on the market, as the industry has shifted their direction. Now, most genetically modified crops are staple crops such as corn and soybeans. As of 2012, 93% of the soybeans produced in the US were genetically modified, and 83% for corn. Despite GE crops short time on the market, the biotech industry has been successful in permeating parts of the agricultural industry, especially Monsanto. Unlike Calgene, Monsanto was successful in applying their biotech industry model to the agricultural industry.  

The biotechnology industry has continued to make further advancements in genetics. As of now, the industry has only received FDA approval on genetically engineered crops, but that might soon change. The first genetically modified animal, the AquAdvantage Salmon, may be the first transgenic animal approved for human consumption. Aqua Bounty Technologies, the developer of the salmon, argues that the salmon will grow faster and will be able to grow on less feed. The FDA has yet to make a final decision, many are weary of the first genetically engineered animal to enter the market, yet it is still expected to gain approval from the FDA. The history of genetically modified foods is one that is long and of particular interest to many. The technology and controversy of them dates back to decades ago when GMOs were not even on the market. Where the biotech industry will go next in the genetically modified field will be something to watch.

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