A Brief History of the Debate on GMOs

Supporters of anti-GMO laws and fierce adversaries of Monsanto, the largest producer of genetically engineered (GE) seeds in the world, allege GMOs pose serious health risks that range from infertility to immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes to major organs and the gastrointestinal system, according to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine.

Adversaries like AAEM claim the diet of food-producing animals around the world is composed largely (70% to 90%) of genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans. And it’s these genetically engineered crops that are partly to blame for rising rates of chronic conditions and declining health among people worldwide.

The Rise of GMOs

GMOs, also known as genetically engineered foods, are foods produced from organisms that have undergone changes introduced into their DNA using methods of genetic engineering. These changes allow for the introduction of new traits or the detraction of undesirable traits.

While selective breeding, which supporters say is one form of genetic engineering, has taken place for centuries, most laboratory efforts began emerging in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the first genetically engineered plant – a tobacco plant – was developed in an effort to make it resistant to a common viral infection known as Agrobacteriam.

The first genetically modified food approved for human consumption and commercial sale, however, was not introduced until 1994. Developed by Calgene, the Flavr Savr tomato was engineered to stay ripe longer.

Since then, numerous crops and even genetically altered salmon have been introduced throughout the United States, in six countries of the European Union and China. For the most part, these advances were introduced to help crops resist certain pests, diseases or environmental conditions, prolong ripeness, manifest immunity to chemical treatments (such as herbicide), or improve nutrient profiles.

Emergence of the GMO Debate

In the early 2000s, as genetically engineered foods rose in popularity among grocery stores nationwide, controversy erupted. Members of the general public began to collectively question the safety of such foods, why manufacturers were not required to label GMO foods in the United States, and transparency regarding government regulators and researchers who had allowed and, in some cases, endorsed the practice of genetic engineering.

The largest opposition arose because consumers were not made aware of the presence of GMOs in food products, and that even when farmers attempted to produce GMO-free crops, “gene flow” from nearby engineered crops often “contaminated” their efforts, according to GeneticLiteracyProject.org.

In the early 2000s, researchers responded by putting GMOs to the test. Teams nationwide began pulling examining their effects on humans, livestock and the environment.

A Consensus is Reached – Sort of

From 2002 to about 2012, 1,783 studies were conducted on GMOs and genetically engineered foods, 68% of which evaluated the environmental phenomena of “gene flow.”

Although there are still plenty of researchers who dispute the safety of GMOs on both humans and livestock, largely, a consensus was reached after the decade of research – the chance that GMOs pose a danger to human health is extraordinarily small.

In possibly the most comprehensive, long-term study conducted on the subject of GMOs, researchers from the University of California at Davis examined health data of more than 100 billion animals and found no ill effects attributable to a switch from non-GMO feed to GMO, according to the peer-reviewed Journal of Animal Science.

 Despite these findings, however, opposition to GMOs continues.

The most aggressive stance against genetically engineered crops has taken place in Hawaii. In 2014, voters supported separate initiatives in Kauai, Hawaii County and Maui County to ban cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

The ban in Maui was the most recent to be overturned by federal courts. Similar to other rulings, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway said in her ruling that the ordinance exceeded the county’s authority.

The other two rulings, which were similar to the Maui County decision, are currently under appeal.

The Right to Know

Despite the overwhelming evidence that GMOs do not pose a risk, those on both sides of the debate have lobbied for the right to know whether food products have been genetically engineered.

Despite that consensus, however, several bills that would make labeling a federal issue have failed to pass in the U.S. Congress. The most recent effort, introduced in February 2015 by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), is seen by environmental and nutritional activists as an effort to keep American consumers in the dark on GMOs.

Opponents also say that proposed legislation would undercut state GMO labeling, which has already been mandated (but not yet implemented) in Connecticut and Maine. Vermont’s labeling law is slated to go into effect this year.

Groups including Food Policy Action, founded by celebrity chef and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, Just Label It and GMO-Free USA say the United States is long overdue when it comes to GMO labeling, which has been adopted by 64 other nations globally, including 28 in the European Union.