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Genetically Modified Foods

A genetically modified food is a food product containing some quantity of any genetically modified organism (GMO) as an ingredient.

Some nations have very strong disagreement over genetically modified organisms. For example, the European Union and Japan are willing to maintain labelling and traceability standards for GM food products, while the United States claims it violates free trade agreements.


The first commercially grown genetically modified food crop was a tomato created by Calgene called the FlavrSavr. Calgene submitted it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing in 1992; following the FDA's determination that the FlavrSavr was, in fact, a tomato, did not constitute a health hazard, and did not need to be labeled to indicate it was genetically modified, Calgene released it into the market in 1994, where it met with little public comment.

Subsequent genetically modified food crops included virus-resistant squash, a potato variant that included an organic pesticide called Bt (NB: the EPA classified the Bt potato as a pesticide, but required no labeling), strains of canola, soybean, corn and cotton engineered by Monsanto to be immune to their popular herbicide Roundup, and Bt corn.

There was a brief interlude where Monsanto flirted with introducing a technology called terminator into food crops, which produced plants that grew sterile seeds. Monsanto claimed this was necessary to protect their intellectual property rights, since they were licensing the technology to farmers, and would also have provided a measure of protection against volunteer corn carrying unwanted traits, a major concern that arose during the Starlink debacle.

Public outcry about the undue influence that the terminator gene would give to Monsanto, particularly in less developed nations where seed saving is more common, led to its withdrawal.

Awareness grew throughout the nineties and eventually produced a strong backlash against GM foods (discussed below), which were panned as "untested", "unlabeled" and "unsafe"; following this backlash, the International Rice Research Institute, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation developed a strain of rice enriched with vitamin A through genetic modification, dubbed golden rice. Subsequently the biotech industry touted this as a boon to poor people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness. This was condemned by GM food opponents as a ploy and a public relations move. (See golden rice for more.)

Many prominent environmental organizations, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, currently consider the issue of the presence of GMOs in conventional food products to be a major issue - indeed Greenpeace has made it a centerpiece of their activism. In 2002, opponents placed a measure on the Oregon ballot that would have made that state the first to require labelling of GMO food.

Between 1996 and 2002, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs has increased by a factor of thirty. Land producing GMO crops grew from 17,000 km˛ (4.2 million acres) in 1996 to 520,000 km˛ (128 million acres) in 2001. The value for 2002 was 145 million acres (587,000 km˛) and for 2003 was 167 million acres (676,000 km˛). Soybean crop represented 63% of total surface in 2001, maize 19%, cotton 13% and canola 5%.

Four countries represent 99% of total GM surface in 2001: United States (68%), Argentina (22%), Canada (6%) and China (3%). It is estimated that 70% of products on U.S. grocery shelves include GM products. In particular, Bt corn is widely grown, as are soybeans genetically designed to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The US Agriculture Department estimated that 38 percent of the 79 million acres (320,000 km˛) of corn planted in 2003 will be genetically engineered varieties as well as 80% of the 73.2 million acres (296,000 km˛) soybeans.

Complicating the issue, the majority of GM crops grown today are fed to animals, thereby indirectly effecting human food production.

What are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?

Although "biotechnology" and "genetic modification" commonly are used interchangeably, GM is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of such living organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology, a more general term, refers to using living organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products (current or in the pipeline) include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

Locating genes for important traits—such as those conferring insect resistance or desired nutrients—is one of the most limiting steps in the process. However, genome sequencing and discovery programs for hundreds of different organisms are generating detailed maps along with data-analyzing technologies to understand and use them.

Transgenic crops are grown commercially or in field trials in over 40 countries and on 6 continents. In 2000, about 109.2 million acres (442,000 km˛) were planted with transgenic crops, the principal ones being herbicide- and insecticide-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Other crops grown commercially or field-tested are a sweet potato resistant to a virus that could destroy most of the African harvest, rice with increased iron and vitamins that may alleviate chronic malnutrition in Asian countries, and a variety of plants able to survive weather extremes.

On the horizon are bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as hepatitis B; fish that mature more quickly; fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties.

In 2000, countries that grew 99% of the global transgenic crops were the United States (68%), Argentina (23%), Canada (7%), and China (1%). Although growth is expected to plateau in industrialized countries, it is increasing in developing countries. The next decade will see exponential progress in GM product development as researchers gain increasing and unprecedented access to genomic resources that are applicable to organisms beyond the scope of individual projects.

Technologies for genetically modifying (GM) foods offer dramatic promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge for the 21st century. Like all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown. Controversies surrounding GM foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation (see below for a summary of "GM Foods: Benefits and Controversies").

GM Products: Benefits and Controversies


  • Crops
    • Enhanced taste and quality
    • Reduced maturation time
    • Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
    • Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides
    • New products and growing techniques
  • Animals
    • Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency
    • Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk
    • Improved animal health and diagnostic methods
  • Environment
    • "Friendly" bioherbicides and bioinsecticides
    • Conservation of soil, water, and energy
    • Bioprocessing for forestry products
    • Better natural waste management
    • More efficient processing
  • Society
    • Increased food security for growing populations


  • Safety
    • Potential human health impact: allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects
    • Potential environmental impact: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
  • Access and Intellectual Property
    • Domination of world food production by a few companies
    • Increasing dependence on Industrialized nations by developing countries
    • Biopiracy—foreign exploitation of natural resources
  • Ethics
    • Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
    • Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
    • Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
    • Stress for animal
  • Labeling
    • Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
    • Mixing GM crops with non-GM confounds labeling attempts
  • Society
    • New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries

Genetically modified food in Europe

In Europe, a series of unrelated food crises during the 1990s (e.g. the BSE (or 'mad cow' disease) outbreaks and foot and mouth disease) have created consumer apprehension about food safety in general, and eroded the public trust in government oversight of the food industry. This has further fueled widespread public concern about GMOs, in terms of environmental protection (in particular biodiversity), health and safety of consumers and the right to make an informed choice. The apprehension might also be due to the perceived novelty of GM foods, as well as cultural factors relating to food. The mishandling of the BSE crisis has left some consumers unwilling to consider "science" to be a guarantee of quality.

Although some claim genetically modified foods may even be safer than conventional products, many European consumers are nevertheless demanding that their "right to know" the content and origin of the food they consume be respected.

However, as a result of the high quantity of GMO crops, the presence of GM in imported food products (shipments of grain for food, feed and processing for example), is now thought inevitable and largely unavoidable, and usually not mentioned.

In a context of local food surplus where current GM food has little added nutritional value, many European consumers are wondering why any risk should be taken.

For these reasons, the marketing of GM food is regulated in a manner that helps to provide the necessary levels of safety, transparency and reassurance. At the beginning of the 2000's, European officials insisted that new regulations were needed to "restore consumer confidence" in the technology. These new regulations required strict labelling and traceability of all food and animal feed containing more than 0.5 percent GM ingredients. Directives, such as directive 2001/18/EC, were designed to require authorisation for the placing on the market of GMO, in accordance with the precautionary principle. (see also Tax, tariff and trade).

One of the features of the European system is a comprehensive pre-market risk assessment, a system trying to provide means for products to be followed at each stage of their production and distribution, by both transmission of accurate information and labelling. This traceability is a means to implement post-market measures such as monitoring and withdrawals (recalls).
This system is not only limited to GMO products but should encompass any food product ultimately.

In GMO products, traceability is usually limited to products where transformed DNA and/or transformed protein are detectable, not to products that have been produced from GMOs but no longer appears to contain modified DNA and/or proteins. Officials stress that while traceability facilitates the implementation of safety measures, where appropriate, it cannot and should not be considered as a safety measure.

In 1999, a 4 year ban was pronounced on new genetically modified crops. At the end of 2002, European Union environment ministers agreed new controls on GMOs could eventually lead the 25-member bloc to reopen its markets to GM foods. European Union ministers agreed to new labelling controls for genetically modified goods which will have to carry a special harmless DNA sequence (a DNA code bar) identifying the origin of the crops, making it easier for regulators to spot contaminated crops, feed, or food, and enabling products to be withdrawn from the food chain should problems arise. A series of additional sequences of DNA with encrypted information about the company or what was done to the product could also be added to provide more data. (see Mandatory labelling).

See Trade war over genetically modified food for more details on disputes and more recent developments between the United States and the EU arising from EU position on genetically modified organisms.

Japan and GM food

Japan like Europe maintains labelling standards for GM food products. Japanese demand and assistance has led to a small effort to set up separate processing facility for non-GM soybeans in the U.S.

China, Poor nations and GM food

China is currently a producer of GM cotton, research published in Science shows that chinese farmers growing GM cotton use significantly less pesticides, reducing costs and improving farmer health. The Chinese government has also released saftey certificates following field and laboratory testing allowing the cultivation of GM tomato, pimiento and a species of morning glory. Development of new GM crops for food is an active field of research in Chinese institutions.

In March 2002, China introduced biosafety rules that demanded strict labelling, extensive documentation and government approval for food shipments. Under these new rules, all soybean shipments from the United States were briefly interrupted until interim safety certificates could be acquired.

In 2004 the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced its intention to assess the safety of GM rice lines developed by Chinese institutions for insect, disease and herbicide resistance, with government approval the crops may be planted as soon as spring 2006.

Poor nations' agriculture officials are receiving training courses on GMO at the American Agriculture Department, with instruction in the WTO rules on GM products and benefits of biotechnology. U.S. industry groups are also providing "technical assistance" to fund initiatives that promote "science-based and transparent biotechnology regulations" in countries such as China.

See also


  • Huang, J. et al. 2002. Plant Biotechnology in China. Science 295:674-677.
  • Lei, W. 2004. China Could Be First Nation to Approve Sale of GM Rice. Science 306:1458-1459.

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