Genetically Modified Food

botanist examining plants in greenhouse
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In the early 1970s, researchers discovered methods of transferring antibiotic-resistant genes from one type of bacteria into another, making the recipient bacterium equally antibiotic-resistant as the donor sample. This gene manipulation technology was later inserted directly into plant and animal DNA.

This alteration gave these species more favorable characteristics, such as pesticide resistance, disease immunity, and faster growth rates. Species that receive such advantages through this methodology are referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The First GM Food

In the early 1990s, Calgene, Inc. developed the world's first genetically modified (GM) food: a strain of tomato they named Flavr Savr, engineered to suppress the polygalacturonase gene to impede the vegetable's softening process after ripening.

The company was able to use these tomatoes to reduce the overall costs of processing tomato products like tomato paste and tomato sauce, letting Calgene introduce lower-cost canned tomato products to supermarkets in the Western U.S. and the United Kingdom.

However in 1998, after U.K. scientist Arpad Pusztai challenged the safety of GM foods on a British TV program, Flavr Savr tomato product sales plummeted, and then went entirely off the market in 1999. By this time, however, Calgene had been acquired by agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto.

The Engineered Papaya

In the 1990s, Hawaii's rainbow papaya production fell 40%, due to the ringspot virus, which destroyed much of the crops. In response, professor Dr. Dennis Gonsalves at the University of Hawaii employed a method similar to a vaccination, to engineer a strain of papaya resistant to the ringspot infection.

Soon after, rainbow papaya seeds were initially distributed to farmers, free of charge. Currently, they're sold at cost by the nonprofit group Hawaii Papaya Industry Association.

Even though the gene-altered rainbow papaya saved Hawaiian papaya agriculture, commercial distribution in the international market was initially hampered by the negative perception of GM foods. Hawaiian papaya sales to Japan were $15 million in 1996 but dropped to $1 million in 2010.

Japan approved sales of the rainbow papaya in 2011, allowing Hawaii to reclaim some of its former fruit market share.

Grains and Seeds: The Real GMO Success

Although whole genetically modified foods are relatively sparse, processed foods that contain GM products such as corn, soy, and cottonseed oil have become major commodities. GMOs consist of three categories—herbicide-tolerant (HT), insect-resistant (Bt) and stacked.

Percent of GMO Crops Planted in the U.S.
Crop Percent HT Percent Bt Stacked
Corn 90% 83% 80%
Soybean 94% None None
Cotton 98% 92% 89%
Data from USDA Economic Research Service

Interestingly, some 90%of the world's GM crops are grown in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada. This makes sense, given that an estimated 70% of processed food sold in the U.S. and 60% of processed food sold in Canada contain GM crops like soybeans and corn. In contrast, only about 5% of processed foods on European store shelves contain GMOs. 

GM Animals

Although genetically modified (aka "transgenic" ) animals, have long been used in laboratory research, GM animals were only recently introduced into the food market when Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies got the green light to sell their AquAdvantage GM Atlantic salmon in 2017.

This company, which uses the gene from the faster-growing Chinook salmon to grow its Atlantic salmon specimens more quickly, claims to have sold five tons of GM salmon fillets to unnamed customers in Canada. However major Canadian grocery chains IGA and Costco have publicly pledged their refusals to carry the product.

No Easy Answers to GMOs

While some deem GM technology to be a dangerous and unnatural aberration of our food sources, others believe it has the ability to augment and improve the food supply. In any case, GM crops have rapidly become a significant and expanding part of the global food market.