Genetically Modified Organisms

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Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have had their DNA altered by a process known as genetic engineering. As of 2012, most GMOs fall within two major categories: Bt Crops, which produce their own insecticide, and Herbicide Tolerant Crops, which can survive spraying of a specific herbicide, such as glyphosate. GMOs are highly controversial and their production is banned in some countries. For more information on where GMOs are legal, see the article on GMO Policies by Country.

Genetically Engineered Crops

Types of Genetically Engineered Crops

The USDA has deregulated (legalized) over 100 genetically engineered plants since 1992. Most of these crops fall into one of several categories:

GMOs that do not fall into the above categories are listed below. Each item includes the manufacturer, crop, genetically engineered trait, date of deregulation, and the unique event or line that identifies the specific variety.[1]

Fruit Ripening Altered Tomato:

  • Calgene: Flavr Savr Tomato
  • DNA Plant Tech: Fruit ripening altered tomato, Event 1345-4, January 24, 1995
  • Monsanto: Fruit ripening altered tomato
  • Agritope: Fruit ripening altered tomato, 35 1 N

Crops With Other Traits:


The Myth of GMO and Indian Farmer Suicides

"Most of the cotton grown in India comes from GM seeds, referred to as Bt cotton having had the addition of genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium, which provides resistance to cotton bollworm. Even so, India has banned the use of GM food crops, notably aubergine, partly from the belief that the rate of suicide among farmers has increased in cotton-growing states since Bt cotton was introduced in 2002.

"This belief was espoused by Prince Charles in 2008 and more recently by the controversial environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva...

"Fortunately, suicide is rare, and no less rare among Indian farmers than among farmers in other parts of the world. In 2011, the annual suicide rate for Indian farmers in the main cotton-growing states was around 30 per 100,000 farmers. This is higher than in England and Wales where the rate is about 12 per 100,000, but similar to the best estimates of the rates in Scotland and France.

"The evidence indicates that GM farming does not lead to higher suicide rates. In six out of the nine cotton-growing states, the suicide rate for males who did not work on farms was higher than for farmers. Also in 2001 (before Bt cotton was introduced) the suicide rate was 31.7 per 100,000 and in 2011 the corresponding estimate was 29.3 – only a minor difference..." [1]

Safety and Lack of Adequate Safety Testing

Michael Hansen, a biologist at Consumers Union testified in 2013:

"Unlike other developed countries, the US does not require genetically engineered foods to be proven safe before they can go on the market, despite significant safety concerns. A review of the scientific literature shows there are still open questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods, with independent studies finding some evidence of adverse effect, while other studies, often funded by industry or performed by industry-affiliated scientists, tend to find no safety problem. But even if all reasonable safety testing were required, certain individuals could still have unusual allergic responses that would not be detected beforehand. Finally there can be unexpected effects -- just as there are sometimes to pharmaceutical products, despite extensive premarket testing."[2]

His testimony continues, outlining the inadequacy of regulations to ensure safety in the United States:

"The United States, however, unlike all other developed countries, does not require safety testing for GE plants (although it does require an assessment for GE animals). The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) original policy on GE (or GM, for genetically modified) plants, developed in 1992, states that GE is not different than conventional breeding so no safety assessments are required, but companies may go through a “voluntary safety consultation.” The FDA makes no conclusions about the safety of thee GE food, but says it is up to the companies to determine safety of any GE food. To date, there have been some 97 “voluntary safety consultations.”
"The inadequacy of FDA’s policy can be seen in the letter FDA sends to the company after completion of a “safety consultation.” For example, the letter sent to Monsanto on September 25, 1996 about one of their first Bt-corn varieties, MON810, states, “Based on the safety and nutritional assessment you have conducted, it is our understanding that Monsanto has concluded that corn grain and forage derived from the new variety are not materially different in composition, safety, or other relevant parameters from corn grain and forage currently on the market, and that they do not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA” (bold added).
"The letters for all 97 “safety consultations” contain basically the same language. This clearly shows that the FDA has not made a conclusion about the safety for genetically engineered (GE) plants or the safety of the technology as a whole.
"Since the 1992 Statement of Policy on genetically engineered food, FDA has admitted that its original policy was based on a false notion. In 2001, the FDA proposed requiring companies to notify the government at least 120 days before commercializing a transgenic plant variety. As part of that proposed rule, the FDA admits that insertional mutagenesis is a problem and suggests requiring data on each separate transformation event: "[B]ecause some rDNA-induced unintended changes are specific to a transformational event (e.g. those resulting from insertional mutagenesis), FDA believes that it needs to be provided with information about foods from all separate transformational events, even when the agency has been provided with information about foods from rDNA-modified plants with the same intended trait and has had no questions about such foods. In contrast, the agency does not believe that it needs to receive information about foods from plants derived through narrow crosses [e.g. traditional breeding]" italics added (FR 66(12), pg. 4711). In other words, FDA has admitted that there is a difference between GE and traditional breeding and that companies should be required to submit data on safety of genetically engineered crops prior to market approval. In spite of this, FDA is still following the 1992 policy rather than the 2001 policy."[2]

Additionally, Hansen notes that biotech companies use their intellectual property rights to prevent nearly all independent safety testing on their GE crops. This issue has also been raised by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.[3]

Bias Among Scientists Studying GMOs

A 2011 study found a strong correlation between professional conflict of interest and scientific study outcomes biased in favor of GMOs.[4] That is, bias in favor of GMOs was found in studies on the health or nutritional impacts of GMOs whenever one or more of the study's authors had an industry affiliation. In their own words, they found that:

"The main finding of our study is that, based on the dataset available, articles where a COI [conflict of interest] was identified show a tendency to produce outcomes favorable to the associated commercial interests. These results support the overall view that all affiliations should be clearly acknowledged in scientific publications on the risk analysis of GM food or feed products, as the existence of such conflicts of interest is somehow interfering with study outcomes."

A second study examined the views on GM crops (positive or negative) of a number of scientists from different disciplines (molecular biology, ecology, and conventional plant breeding).[5]

Scientists from universities, public research institutes and firms of each discipline were interviewed and categorized either as Perspective 1 ("a moderately negative attitude to GM crops and emphasised the uncertainty and ignorance involved") or Perspective 2 ("a positive attitude to GM crops and emphasised that GM crops are useful and do not represent any unique risks").

They found that none of the ecologists, scientists employed by a foundation, or scientists employed by a conventional plant breeding company fell among the pro-GM group (perspective 2). On the other hand, all of the scientists employed in the biotech industry were in the pro-GM group. Also, most of the scientists that belong to other disciplines (agrobiology, plant physiology, evolutionary genetics and bio-ethics) fell among the group that had a moderately negative attitude to GM crops. Funding also played a role in where molecular biologists stood, with those funded by industry more in favor of GM crops than those with public funding. The only group of molecular biologists who all held Perspective 1 (i.e. moderately negative to GM crops) were those who "at the same time are employed in the foundation, are doing risk research and are publicly funded."

The study concluded that these results "might indicate that perspective on GM crops is an important aspect in the recruitment process in these organisations, and/or that the socialisation that takes place in these organisations shapes the perspective on GM crops." Furthermore, they found that funding was correlated with a scientist's perspective. Therefore, they recommend that governments should change policies in order to promote more independent (non-industry funded) research of GM crops.

GMOs Impact on Pesticide Use

One argument used in favor of GMOs is that they reduce pesticide use. However, this claim is controversial because pesticides include both insecticides (which may be reduced) and herbicides (which may be increased). A 2009 study by Charles Benbrook found that:

"GE crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops (1996-2008). This dramatic increase in the volume of herbicides applied swamps the decrease in insecticide use attributable to GE corn and cotton, making the overall chemical footprint of today’s GE crops decidedly negative."[6]
"GE crops have increased overall pesticide use by 318.4 million pounds over the first 13 years of commercial use, compared to the amount of pesticide likely to have been applied in the absence of HT [herbicide tolerant] and Bt seeds. GE crops reduced overall pesticide use in the first three years of commercial introduction (1996-1998) by 1.2%, 2.3%, and 2.3% per year, but increased pesticide use by 20% in 2007 and by 27% in 2008. Two major factors are driving the trend toward larger margins of difference in the pounds of herbicides used to control weeds on an acre planted to HT seeds, in comparison to conventional seeds:
  • "The emergence and rapid spread of weeds resistant to glyphosate, and
  • "Incremental reductions in the average application rate of herbicides applied on non-GE crop acres."[6]

Rise in Glyphosate Resistant Weeds

With the nearly ubiquitous use of glyphosate herbicide on such a large percent of corn, soybean, and cotton grown in the U.S. and in several other countries around the world, many weeds have evolved resistance to glyphosate. For more information, see the article on Glyphosate Resistant Weeds.

Genetically Engineered Animals

To date, no genetically engineered animals have been produced commercially. GE animals that have been created include:

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles

Bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism


  1. Determinations of Non-Regulated Status, USDA, Accessed August 9, 2012.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Testimony by Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Consumers Union, on Illinois SB 1666, Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act, before the Senate Subcommittee on Food Labeling, September 17, 2013.
  3. Doug Gurian Sherman, "[No seeds, no independent research ]," Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011, Accessed December 10, 2013.
  4. Johan Diels, Mario Cunha, Célia Manaia, Bernardo Sabugosa-Madeira, Margarida Silva, "Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products," Food Policy, 2011.
  5. Kvakkestad, Valborg; Gillund, Froydis; Kjolberg, Kamilla Anette; Vatn, Arild, "Scientists' Perspectives on the Deliberate Release of GM Crops," Environmental Values, Volume 16, Number 1, February 2007 , pp. 79-104(26).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Charles Benbrook, "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years" and Supplemental Tables, The Organic Center, 2009.

External resources

Anti-GMO Sites:

Anti-GMO Books:

  • Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte, eds, The Future Control of Food: An Essential Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security, Routledge, 2008.
  • Jeffrey M. Smith, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating, Yes Books, September 2003.
  • Andrew Rowell, Don't Worry (It's Safe to Eat): The True Story of GM Food, BSE and Foot and Mouth, Routledge, June 1, 2003.
  • Kathleen Hart, Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Food, Pantheon, May 7, 2002.
  • Andrew Kimbrell, Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Foundation for Deep Ecology, May 1, 2002.
  • Kimberly A. Wilson and Martin Teitel (foreword by Ralph Nader), Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, Park Street Press, 2nd edition, April 1, 2001.
  • Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, Tarcher; ARC edition, March 23, 1998.

External articles