Modern agriculture has undergone sweeping changes since the mid-1990s with the introduction of genetically engineered crops. These transgenic creations are unlike traditional conventional breeding, incorporating DNA from other species in ways that don’t occur in nature. Monsanto Co., the leading developer of so-called genetically modified organisms (GMOs), created a range of crops with a genetic trait that makes them impervious to the herbicide glyphosate. Other types of GMO crops are genetically altered to be toxic to insects that might feast on the plants. GMO soybeans and corn are two of the most popular types of GMO crops grown by farmers.
GMO crops are widely used in the United States, dominating millions of acres of U.S. farmland, and have also become popular in soybean and corn-growing regions of South America, but some other countries have been slower to adopt them.
GMOs are controversial with many consumers in many countries because, while U.S. regulators and many scientists and GMO supporters say the crops are safe, some studies have shown harmful health impacts for humans and animals, and the crops have been associated with some environmental problems, including weed and insect resistance, and degradation of soil health. There are also concerns that the widespread use of glyphosate herbicide on glyphosate-tolerant GMO crops is leaving pesticide residues on food that could impair the health of humans who ingest foods made with those crops. In 2015, the World Health Organization said there was sufficient scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Many countries ban planting of GMO crops or have strict labeling requirements.
Many polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of American consumers favor mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients, but many large food companies lobbied heavily to block mandatory labeling and said it would be expensive, unnecessary and confusing to consumers. The debate came to a head in 2016 in a pitched battle within the U.S. Senate. Congress ultimately passed, and President Barack Obama signed, a law that carries some requirements for GMO labeling, while prohibiting any state GMO labeling laws.
The legislation mandates that most food packages carry either a text label, a symbol or an electronic code readable by smartphone that indicates whether the food contains genetically modified ingredients. The food industry, which had opposed labeling, applauded the bill, while advocates of labeling were harshly critical of the measure because there is no requirement that the presence of GMOs be stated on the label. The labeling advocates argue that many consumers won’t have the time or resources to scan labels with a smart phone.
Key Resources on GMOs
The Food Safety Movement Grows Tall. Ralph Nader, Huffington Post, June 20, 2014.
No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety. Environmental Sciences Europe, January 24, 2015.
Reasons for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods. Michael Hansen, Consumers Union, March 19, 2012.
The Coming Food Disaster. David Schubert, CNN, January 28, 2015.
Why We Need GMO Labels. David Schubert, CNN, February 3, 2014.
Monsanto GM Soy is Scarier Than You Think. Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, April 23, 2014.
Nearly Half of All US Farms Now Have Superweeds. Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, February 6, 2013.
Some GMO Cheerleaders Also Deny Climate Change. Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, October 15, 2012.
U.S. GMO Crop Companies Double Down on Anti-labeling Efforts. Carey Gillam, Reuters, July 29. 2014.
Vote for the Dinner Party. Michael Pollan, New York Times, October 10, 2012.
Superweeds, Superpests: The Legacy of Pesticides. Josie Garthwaite, New York Times, October 5, 2012.
Researchers: GM Crops Are Killing Monarch Butterflies, After All. Mother Jones, March 21, 2012.
Monsanto Corn Plant Losing Bug Resistance. Scott Kilman, Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2011.
G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em. Mark Bittman, New York Times, September 16, 2012.
Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research? Scientific American, August, 2009.
U.S. Midwestern Farmers Fighting Explosion of ‘Superweeds’. Carey Gillam, Reuters, July 23, 2014.
Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides. Michael Wines, New York Times, August 11, 2014.
Superweeds, Superbugs, and Superbusiness. Brian DeVore, Utne Reader, September 25, 2013.
GMO Group Steps up Social Media Push for U.S. Consumer Acceptance. Carey Gillam, Reuters, February 11, 2014.
Organic Food and Farm Groups Ask Obama to Require GMO Food Labels. Carey Gillam, Reuters, January 16, 2014.
GMO Corn Failing to Protect Fields from Pests –Report. Carey Gillam, Reuters, August 28, 2013.
Pesticide Use Ramping up as GMO Crop Technology Backfires: Study. Carey Gillam, Reuters, October 1, 2012.
Super Weeds No Easy Fix for US Agriculture-Experts. Carey Gillam, Reuters, May 10, 2012.
Industry’s Secret Plan to Get the Feds to Kill GMO Labeling in Every State. Michele Simon, Huffington Post, November 8, 2013.
Big Tobacco Shills Trying to Stop GMO Labeling in California. Michele Simon, Huffington Post, August 14. 2012.