GMO History: Slow Down Those Tomatoes
It was first discovered that DNA can be transferred from one organism to another in 1946. In 1983, the first genetically modified plant, an antibiotic-resistant strain of tobacco, was produced.
The first genetically modified food crop was a tomato designed to ripen more slowly after picking. Genetically modified corn was first approved in 1995. Since then, nearly 30 genetically modified crops have been approved for human consumption.
What’s the Point of Genetically Modifying Food?
So, why are scientists and biotech companies tampering with nature? Well, there are plenty of reasons. Some, like the tomatoes mentioned above, make vegetables ripen more slowly, making it easier to get them to the grocery store produce section in fine form.
Other modifications are intended to create plants that produce their own pesticides, and are thus pest-resistant. Still others create plants that are resistant to certain herbicides, such as Roundup. This allows the entire field to be sprayed, killing the weeds and leaving the crops unaffected.
A Contentious Issue: GMO and Politics
Proponents of GM crops say they are an extension of natural breeding, and are as safe as their non-GM counterparts. Because crops can be modified to contain more nutrients, increased nutrient content is frequently cited as a GMO advantage. GMO supporters also claim that GM crops will increase the world’s food supply, reduce energy use, increase profits, and cut down on pesticide use.
GMO critics, however, dispute many of these claims, and GM crops have been banned by many countries due to public outcry. Detractors contend that GM crops are unnatural, potentially toxic, inadequately regulated, and harmful to the ecosystem. They disagree with claims of increased yield, and dismiss any notion of GM crops as a potential solution to food shortages.
Case Study: Genetically Modified Corn
Let’s take a look at one of the most widely-grown GM crops: corn. Bt corn is corn that has been modified to produce the bacterial Bt toxin. This toxin is poisonous to insects. In order to produce this effect, genes were taken from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, and inserted into the corn’s genome. Corn that doesn’t require pesticides certainly sounds like a winner, doesn’t it?
However, the main pest that Bt corn was developed for, the European corn borer, has been proven to be capable of developing a resistance to the Bt toxin. Not only that, but the Bt toxin present in the corn can also adversely affect other insects, and the roots of the corn plants themselves seep Bt toxin into the soil. The effects of this are unclear.
Further, because corn is an open-pollinating crop, wind and insects can easily spread genetic material from GM corn to neighboring fields, contaminating non-GM corn in the process. This poses big problems for organic farmers. Since GM corn is a novel life form, it can be patented, and some farmers have even been sued by biotech companies, such as Monsanto, for unintentionally infringing on these patents. Regardless of your opinion on GMOs, that hardly seems fair.
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[Photo Via: Industry Leaders Magazine]