Remember When Genetically Engineered Foods Were New?


To genetically modify an organism requires direct manipulation of its genome through biotechnology. This approach to changing traits in the organism differs significantly from historical methods of breeding plants and animals through selection. My guest in this interview is Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, now called the ETC Group. He describes genetic engineering (GE) as “crossing species in a way that nature could not, by itself, have done. We’re talking about taking a gene from a fish, for example and putting it into a soybean plant or a tomato.”

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adoption of GE cropsHumans started genetically engineering bacteria and animals in the 1970s, and plants in the 1980s. By the time the first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) entered food stores in the mid-1990s, nearly four thousand field trials had been conducted, over half in the U.S., mostly on corn, tomato, soy and potato plants. Increased tolerance of herbicides was the most commonly desired trait for plants, but industry continually promoted the controversial technology as a way to “solve the world’s food problems, improve the environmental quality of our agriculture by manipulating genes rather than using crop chemicals.”

The use of pesticides, particularly glyphosate, has skyrocketed since the introduction of GE crops. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone paying attention to what the agricultural biotechnology companies were doing, as opposed to what they were saying. Remember, herbicide tolerance was what they were often adding to plant genomes.

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Much of my interview with Pat (March 1999) focuses on the ‘second-generation’ of GE, in which acres sprayed with glyphosateindustry developed ‘suicide seeds’ that were sterile at harvest. This so called ‘terminator technology’ would eliminate the age-old practice of saving seed each harvest to replant next season and force farmers to repurchase new seed every year, something Pat called “ideal for the company.” But forcing the company to grow new viable seed every year is a large cost, so they’ve figured out an alternative. Create ‘terminator’ seeds which can be made viable post-harvest by bringing them to the company, which will then apply another proprietary chemical to turn on the germination genes. “So what they’ve done by that, is actually switched the cost of the seed control from a company cost to being a profit item because they can simply sell more chemicals to the farmer, to force the farmer [sic] to do it themselves.”

The GE agriculture industry has not delivered any of the highly publicized benefits from their products. Even more controversies surround GMOs today than when they were introduced: genetic pollution, tightening corporate control of agriculture, food safety and human health effects, chemical use, creating ‘super weeds‘, farmers sued for intellectual property infringement and facing increasing costs and reduced yields and prices.

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Over 60 countries require labels identifying GMO foods, but the U.S. isn’t among them. Only three U.S. states recently required such labeling a fourth may be added depending on the result of the 2014 Oregon ballot measure 92.

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