The world’s first, commercially available GMO (genetically modified organism) created for human or animal food was first sold in U.S. grocery stores twenty-five years ago today.
I can still remember the excitement my colleagues and I at Calgene, Inc. felt as we ushered into the marketplace that first genetically engineered (GE) whole food (AKA GMO) available to consumers. We told each other it was something we’d tell our grandchildren about.
Granted, I’d gone into the agbiotech industry with hopes of helping solve the world’s problems by contributing to projects like engineering maize (corn) to fix its own nitrogen, and the Flavr SavrTM tomato had not been created with that lofty ideal in mind. Instead, these tomatoes had been genetically engineered so that they softened more slowly, an attempt to allow them to remain on the vine longer, to let them develop their true tomato flavor as they would in one’s own garden, yet remain firm enough to truck them, en masse, to market.
Still, I rationalized back then, this tomato would open the door for the technology that produced it, allowing others to solve more important agricultural problems. And so at Calgene, in May of 1994, we celebrated what we considered to be a huge, important milestone in agricultural history.
Now, 25 years later, I certainly don’t feel the same excitement or satisfaction about that achievement.
In fact, my principal emotion now is one of disappointment. Profound disappointment.
Not only are we still not able to engineer corn or any other non-leguminous crop plant to fix its own nitrogen (which could reduce use of nitrogen fertilizers which would, in turn, benefit smallholder farmers and reduce the fertilizer run-off into rivers that creates “dead zones” in the world’s oceans), but the agbiotech industry hasn’t produced much of anything else that might help solve significant agricultural problems either.
GE Golden Rice still isn’t available, for example, due to both project-specific technical difficulties and agbiotechnology-induced mutations in potential products. And even when it finally becomes available to those it was designed to help, it will remain to be determined how effective it may be at reducing vitamin A deficiency. (An initial study with children in China was retracted due to inappropriate collection of participant consent information, among other issues.)
The introduction into Burkina Faso of cotton varieties genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide turned into another disappointment recently. Instead of overall farmer savings associated with reducing the number of pesticide applications yet protecting the crop and thereby increasing yields, the poor quality of the cotton fiber from those GE varieties has contributed to economic problems for the smallholder farmers there. (A Google search today indicates that perhaps the GE cotton situation in Burkina Faso may be improving; I hope so.)
And the Republic of South Africa apparently refused to approve a GE “drought-tolerant” (DT) maize/corn for production and sales in that country recently. The government’s regulatory authorities indicated that the available data didn’t demonstrate that DT GE corn was significantly different from conventional, non-DT varieties in terms of drought-tolerance…and they weren’t pleased with the DT GE crop’s grain yield either.
Overall, most of the GE crops grown around the world today have been engineered to produce their own pesticide (usually in every part of the plant—including the edible parts), or to be tolerant of herbicides (predominantly glyphosate, which was classified an animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen in March 2015), or both. Perhaps as a consequence, most of the GE crops grown anywhere on our planet today are fed to animals.
Anywhere, that is, except in the United States. Here it has been estimated that 70 to 80% of processed foods in grocery stores contain GE ingredients, and some varieties of sweet corn and crookneck squash are GE as well.
Why this difference between the U.S. and other countries? As opposed to more than 60 other countries throughout the world, the U.S. has not—for the past 25 years since GE food products first entered the marketplace—required GE foods or ingredients to be labelled as such (although producers will have to comply with a recently enacted federal labelling statute in the near future). The likely difference, therefore, is that Americans simply haven’t been given a choice in the matter.
As a scientist, I’m sorely disappointed that this powerful technology hasn’t been used more carefully and judiciously and to better the human condition, instead of for purposes like selling herbicides/poisons and supporting unsustainable industrial agricultural systems.
As a U.S. citizen, I’m sorely disappointed that—after the initial introduction of Calgene’s GE tomato—the biotech industry chose to deny the American people their right to know what is in their food.
And as a citizen of Planet Earth, I am appalled at the tactics, both alleged and exposed (see here and here), that have been used by Monsanto, until recently the largest producer of GE crop products in the world, to promote (what I consider) disappointing products.
Nowadays, I wonder what I’d tell my grandchildren about bringing the first GE whole food to market. I guess I’d tell them that Calgene was commendably transparent during the process, that we told the FDA and USDA about the technology’s positives as well as its negatives. And that we labelled our GE tomatoes—at least initially.
But then I’d have to admit to them that Calgene failed as a company. Monsanto purchased it and, soon thereafter, the world’s first GE whole food was eliminated from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready-prevalent product line.
Perhaps I’ll go on to tell my (currently hypothetical) grandkids that I made an effort, at least virtually with this blog, to fill in some of the gaps in transparency about agricultural genetic engineering and its products —the things not expressed by the agbiotech industry and academic scientists who support it—for consumers shopping for food for themselves and their families.
In any case, whatever I tell them, the story won’t have the worldwide, problem-solving ending I was hoping for 25 years ago—unless things drastically change for the better in the near future.