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The Debate

Genetically-modified food is fast becoming as controversial as cloning. Critics call it "Franken food" — as in Frankenstein. The debate rages much hotter in Europe than in the United States, but that very fact ensures that the issue makes it into the equations of biotechnology and agriculture companies and government export policy. What is it all about?

What is a genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically modified food (GMF)?

The main feature of a GMO is that there has been man-made manipulation of the DNA, the genetic structure, of an organism. This does not apply to processes of mutation and natural selection — as in cross-pollination or grafting — but rather the use of biotechnology to alter DNA.

To learn more about the intricate processes of genetic modification please visit:

  • Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide
  • The National Health Museum Graphics Gallery

    The Benefits and Risks
    There are many complex arguments on both sides of the genetically modified food debate. A short summary of the benefits includes:

    • Increased yields
    • Herbicide tolerant crops encourage less tilling and less soil erosion
    • Insecticidal crops encourage less use of harmful pesticides
    • Virus resistent crops
    • Development of crops that are drought or salt tolerant
    • Development of vaccine or chemical producing plants

    Among the risks suggested by GMO opponents are a variety of possible health and environmental problems

    • Possible allergic or other health responses in humans and livestock
    • Creating new or more vigorous pests and pathogens
    • Harm to "non target" beneficial species — soil organisms, helpful insects, birds or other animals
    • Unwanted gene flow
    • Evolution of super-resistent weeds
    • Irreparable changes in species diversity and genetic diversity within a species
    For more information on the arguments of all interested parties visit our Resources section.

    Worldwide Discussion

    In addition to being a hot issue at the recent Johannesburg Sustainable Development Summit (see our Earth Debate coverage), GMO is a topic of discussion worldwide. The EU is reviewing GMO import restrictions — whether they end up tighter or looser remains to be seen. Recent headlines tell the story:

    "Spanish farmers seen reaping rewards from GM maize." (Reuters)

    "Food industry campaigning against Oregon GMO proposal." (WALL STREET JOURNAL)

    "China may extend GMO rules." (UPI)

    But few debates have received the attention given to hunger-stricken Zambia's refusal of U.S. food aid because it contains genetically modified products. The President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, went so far as to call it "poison."

    Observers of the Zambia crisis note that poor countries face a double issue when offered GMO food aid. Because of the reluctance of European and Japanese markets to accept GMO crops and foodstuffs, accepting seed corn may end up costing Zambia future foreign markets.

    North Dakota farmers find themselves in a similar dilemma. In 2001 North Dakota Bill HB1338, "A Bill to Impose a Moratorium on Genetically Modified Wheat Seed" came up in front of the state legislature. The bill asked for a two year ban on planting any GM wheat in the state in order to provide time to study possible effects on markets and to prevent gene flow. It was sponsored by farmers, and it was opposed by farmers. The ban failed, but both groups agreed more study was needed. Just last month another moratorium bill entered the state legislative process.

    Now some U.S. companies process their GM and non-GM products separately in order to preserve both markets. Increasingly, the world focuses on laws and labeling — as the GMO issue appears here to stay.

    GMF in the World

    Percentage of U.S. genetically modified commercial crops, 1996:  0%
    Percentage of U.S. genetically modified commercial corn, 2002:  34%
    Percentage of U.S. genetically modified commercial cotton, 2002:  71%
    Percentage of U.S. genetically modified commercial soya, 2002:  75%
    Bushels of corn sales lost to Europe due to GM restrictions since mid 1990s:  300 million
    Bushels of corn sales lost to Japan due to GM restrictions since mid 1990s:  100 million
    Estimated loss in sales in Japanese and European markets mid 1990s:  Half a billion dollars
    Cost decline of raising GM cotton vs. non-GM cotton:  25%
    Amount of pesticide needed by GM cotton vs. non-GM cotton:  1/6
    Sources: SCIENCE, THE ECONOMIST, Dan McGuire, ACGA Farmer Choice - Customer First Program (September 14, 2002)

    More on this story by reporter Mark Schapiro will be published in THE NATION magazine next week.

    Sources: AG Biotech Infonet; Ecological Society of America; SCOPE GM Food, University of California, Berkeley; The National Health Museum; U.S. Department of Agriculture; The BBC; THE ECONOMIST; THE NEW YORK TIMES; THE GUARDIAN: ABC NEWS; CIMMYT Worldwide; International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources; U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration; Kansas State Wheat Genetic Resource Center

    Genetically Modified Food Resources:

    AG Biotech Infonet
    The AG Biotech Infonet Web site "covers all aspects of the application of biotechnology and genetic engineering in agricultural production and food processing and marketing." Concentrating on scientific publications and periodicals, this Web site contains a wealth of information for those interested in the finer details of the GM food debate.

    "The Online service for agricultural biotechnology," AgBioTechnet is loaded with features. The Web site publishes current information about biotechnology and biosafety, research developments in genetic engineering and updates on economic and social issues. Other Web features include a news section, company news, intellectual property rights, technology transfer, and issues in biosafety.

    Born in January 2000, the AgbioWorld Foundation has collected 3,200 signatures from scientists testifying to the safety of genetically modified foods. The Web site provides the signatures along with a plethora of scientific articles, essays, and studies documenting the safety of genetically modified foods. Other features of the AgbioWorld Web site include "31 Critical Questions in Agricultural Biotechnology" and "Response to GM Food Myths."

    BIO: Biotechnology Industry Organization
    From the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade organization, the Bio Web site provides information concerning the most controversial arguments within the biotechnology debate. Whether it is the implications of biotechnology on food and agriculture, biotech regulatory policy or intellectual property rights, Bio provides analysis and background advocating the economic, agricultural, and social benefits of biotechnology for the world's population.

    Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Biotechnology Food and Drug Administration's site on proposed, pending and final rules and policies regarding food biotechnology.

    The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food
    The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food is a grassroots consumer campaign lobbying Washington to pass legislation requiring all GM food to be labeled within the U.S. The Campaign Web site provides a comprehensive listing of all legislative news concerning the banning of GM food locally, nationally, and internationally. Other features include "Genetically Modified Food in the Headlines," information detailing which foods are GM, and a list of recommendations that give concerned citizens a voice in the GM debate.

    EPA Office Pesticide Programs:
    The Environmental Protection Agency's Web page devoted to biopesticide issues provides a variety of resources. Along with scientific studies, the biopesticide Web site contains fact sheets, EPA decision documents, product lists, labels, company lists, study reviews and bibliographies.

    GreenPeace True Food Network
    Greenpeace's "True Food Network" site includes biotech food news, updates, and activist information. In addition, this site offers an easy to understand listing of foods with and without GM ingredients, plus, links to food manufacturers' sites.

    Guardian Special Report: The GM Debate
    The GUARDIAN's compendium of opinions, essays, and articles is a broad primer for those unfamiliar with the GM debate.

    International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
    International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center conducts "research on maize and wheat to help people overcome hunger and poverty and to grow crops without harming the environment." The CIMMYT Web site provides information regarding CIMMYT programs worldwide, GM food news, and current CIMMYT research programs. Other features include information on up-coming events and CIMMYT publications.

    Key Topics: Biotechnology
    The Web site for the Economic Research service for the US Department of Agriculture provides lots of statistical / survey data and research papers on a variety of issues concerning biotechnology. The featured document, "Adoption of Bioengineered Crops," analyzes U.S. farmer surveys to conclude how many, and under what conditions, farmers decide to plant bioengineered crops. Special attention is paid to bioengineered crops effect on input use and farm-level net returns. Other features include "Agricultural Outlook" documents that are frequently updated.

    Organic Consumers Association
    A non-profit public interest organization, The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) Web site demonstrates how the forces of globalization influence issues such as food safety, genetic engineering, corporate accountability and environmental sustainability. Features of the OCA Web site include news headlines, information on OCA campaigns, and in-depth discussions of OCA issues areas. The OCA issue areas are diverse and range from food irradiation to fair trade.

    Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
    The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology Web site contains an array of credible and objective information on biotechnology for "the public, media, and policymakers." Among the information provided are factsheets, a glossary of agricultural biotech terms, issue briefs, editorials and op-eds.

    Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide
    The Web site from the Center for Life Sciences and Department of Soil and Crop Sciences explains what transgenic plants are, and how they're created. Other Web site features include a macromedia video demonstrating the process of creating transgenic plants.

    Union of Concerned Scientists
    The union of concerned scientists, "was founded in 1969 by faculty members and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were concerned about the misuse of science and technology in society." The Biotechnology page contains updates, frequently asked questions, briefings, and case studies in an effort to responsibly educate citizens on the pros and cons of biotechnology.

    U.S. Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology Responsive Agencies - Overview
    US Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology - Responsible Agencies Overview The US Department of Agriculture Web site presents clearly what government agency regulates what, with regards to biotechnology as well as providing laws, regulations and contacts. The USDA Web site also contains field trial approvals, product approvals, biotech contacts, and links to FDA and EPA sites.

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