Genetic Engineering: An Open Science?

Food is one of those topics that generate impassioned debates. Not only are there many important food-related topics for people to sink their teeth into, but all of us have a very personal stake in food since it is something that we consume daily and have deep cultural connections to.

Genetically modified (GM) food is one of the more polarized food topics. The mixed opinions on it are played out through the media, in popular books, on ballot initiatives, and at kitchen tables, indicating both a public concern for the impacts of food production as well as a fundamental disagreement about the impacts and risk of GM foods.

Many progressive food advocates have adopted a categorical opposition to all forms of genetically modified food, demanding labeling and warning against unintended impacts on human health and the environment. On the other side of the debate—from those supporting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds to those who cautiously accept that genetic engineering might play a role in improving our food system—many argue that these charges are overblown and not grounded in factual evidence of the risk from GM foods.

While this blog focuses on the heavy impacts related to the global production of animal-based foods, the topic of GM food is certainly worth examining. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on this issue, I would at least like to highlight a few points about my own understanding of GM foods.

Humans have been altering the DNA of plants and animals for millennia through selective breeding. This method propagates desirable genetic traits such as larger size, better taste, or greater resilience to drought. This technique enabled us to, for example, go from thimble-sized heads of grain to large ears of corn.

The next jump in plant genetics occurred in the late nineteenth century with developments in plant hybridization. By crossing two different plant varieties through pollination, scientists were able to breed hybrid plants with specific genetic traits. Hybridization of high-yield dwarf varieties of staple grains played a key role in the expanded yields of the Green Revolution in the mid-twentieth century.

Yet human manipulation of plants has taken on a radically different character in the last 40 years with genetic engineering. Scientists have been able to rapidly accelerate the speed with which new traits could be introduced into a species by inserting genetic traits directly into their DNA sequence. It has opened what some have referred to as Pandora’s box since we can now cut and paste genes from radically different organisms, enabling some truly bizarre combinations

The first application of genetic modification in food production was in the use of Fermentation-Produced Chymosin, a GM enzyme able to replace rennet in cheese production. Entering the market in 1990, this GM enzyme is today used in most cheese on the market.

In 1994, the FDA approved the Flavr Savr tomato, which contained a gene that gave it a longer shelf life, opening up the US market to a series of other GM crops. Today, the US is the largest grower of GM in the world, with 93% of it’s corn, 94% of it’s soy, 95% of its sugar beet genetically modified.


OECD guidelines, codified in 1993 as GM foods were just entering the market, have set the international standard that all GM applications should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. This means that even if numerous GM varieties of a certain crop are deemed safe, any new GM varieties must undergo a thorough process of safety testing. This is to ensure that every new GM product to enter the market undergoes a series of tests and control trials.

Seed companies such as Monsanto, Dupont, or Syngenta can engineer, plant, and collect seeds in a controlled environment, but must get approval from the proper regulatory body to run field trials and to ultimately get the product approved for sale on the market. A common international standard for releasing new GM foods is that they must be of “substantial equivalence,” or essentially the same as the non-GM variety from a safety perspective. To meet this standard, producers must submit their GM variety to regulatory agency for approval—for example, the FDA in the case of the US. Regulators will then look at the new DNA structure, analyze its chemical composition (nutrients, anti-nutrients, toxins, allergens), consider the risk of gene transfer in the human stomach, monitor for any problems that might arise, and, when deemed ‘necessary,’ test for animal toxicity.

Before a new GM food is released in the US, a sample must go to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, to the FDA, and to the EPA (depending on the use of the plant). If it is deemed of substantial equivalence, then it is treated the same as its non-GM counterpart from a regulatory perspective.

The following is a basic timeline of GM food regulation:

  • 1972: First instance of genetic engineering when DNA from two viruses is mixed
  • 1976: National Institute of Health set up rDNA advisory committee.
  • 1984: Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology created in US
    • USDA, FDA, EPA later came to regulate GM food
  • 1993: OECD released guideline that all GMs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis
    • Since then, WHO, OECD, and FAO have closely coordinated int’l regs on food safety of GMOs
  • 1994: Flavr Savr is first GM crop approved by FDA and introduced to the market
  • 1995: Approval of GM varieties of canola, Bt corn, Bt potato, Roundup Ready soy, pesticide-resistant squash
  • 2000: Release of Golden Rice, a variety with enhanced levels of beta-carotene
  • 2003: The Codex Alimentarius Commission of the FAO/WHO adopted a set of “Principles and Guidelines on foods derived from biotechnology”


Although anti-GM activists claim that there are many health risks associated with GM foods, these claims have no hard scientific evidence backing them. Major institutions such as the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine, the National Research Council, and the European Union have concluded that GM foods pose no greater health risk than other conventional foods.

This is not to say that there is no need to be diligent in testing for unforeseen impacts of these foods or to consider the related impacts of the farming techniques many GM seeds are part of. For example, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds are modified to be resistant to the chemical defoliant glyphosate (i.e. Roundup). While there are no identified health risks involved with consuming Roundup Ready crops in themselves, the heavy doses of Roundup that are routinely dumped on them are harmful to humans and the environment, and have created pesticide-resistant ‘super weeds.’ So in this case, it is the pesticide rather than the seed that is harmful.

Roundup Ready seeds illustrate the point that the impacts of genetic engineering depend on how the science of genetic engineering is used. Monsanto developed these seeds in response to a market incentive, despite environmental risks. Such applications of genetic engineering have become fodder for the anti-GM movement, who cite these ‘Frankenfood’ products of money-driven agribusiness as examples of why genetic engineering is evil.

But it is possible to think of genetic engineering as an open science whereby humans can alter the genetic makeup of plants in a number of ways that have potentially huge benefits for humans and the environment. One might imagine that rather than producing plant varieties that can withstand absurd quantities of pesticides, scientists might develop crops that improve drought resistance, increase food output, and enhance a food’s vitamin content—all characteristics that could benefit the world’s poorest countries, where people are most vulnerable to food insecurity. If plant varieties could help us adapt to climate change, meet the challenge of feeding a growing global population, and reduce our dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides—all with no negative health impacts—it would seem reasonable to consider the possibility that genetic engineering might have some place in our global food system.

I’m not trying to be overly optimistic about genetic engineering, but given what scientists have been able to achieve with the technology in the past few decades, these beneficial developments are very much in the realm of the possible. In fact, seeds with some of these characteristics are already being developed; for example, there are already varieties of vitamin-enriched crops (ex: Golden Rice) and crops with higher levels of an insect-repelling protein that greatly reduces the need for chemical insecticides (ex; Bt corn).

Bt crops are an example of a GM application that is both profitable for farmers and seed producers while also having positive impacts on the environment. This marriage of profit and social good is a wonderful thing, but is definitely not the norm, as companies tend to be focused on their bottom line. As such, there is relatively little investment in seed varieties that have potential benefits for the environment and the world’s poor because they do not promise a large financial return for the big seed companies. There are national, multilateral, and nonprofit organizations conducting research into seed varieties with a very positive social impact, but the funding they receive is small compared to the sums of money that companies like Monsanto can pour into R&D.

So it is important to bear in mind that the course genetic engineering takes is largely dependent on who is developing the science. If it remains mostly a private-sector endeavor oriented towards profit, it will likely continue to produce Roundup Ready crops or Terminator seeds—Monsanto’s variety of crops, never released on the market, that go sterile after one season. Likewise, the fact that the development of GM foods is mostly a private-sector endeavor driven by the desire to maximize corporate profit, the public will continue to perceive it in a negative light.

But viewed as an open science, GM food is open to a number of hypothetical applications and regulatory regimes. Greater investment in seeds to benefit the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, along with stringent safety testing on a case-by-case basis, would help shape the science for the better.

In this sense, the categorical rejection of GM food might be unwarranted and even unreasonable given the potential for the science to actually benefit humans and the planet. It is always important to exercise caution in uncertain situations, but the level of risk aversion that anti-GM advocates have towards genetic engineering does not seem to fit the real level of risk; in the 20 years that GM food has been available on the market—as well as the decades more that the technique has been in development—the scientific community has been quite clear that GM foods pose no greater risk to human health than conventional, non-GM food varieties.

We definitely shouldn’t think of genetic engineering as a silver bullet for improving our global food situation; not only are selective breeding and sustainable farming techniques capable of meeting many of our food needs, but there are also social, economic, and institutional changes that will greatly improve our food system. But again, perhaps there are some very real benefits that the science could bring us if we focus on the right areas and proceed with caution.


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