Lentis/Genetically Modified Food Controversy in the United States


Genetically modified (GM) foods are derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs)[1]. GM foods are also known as genetically engineered (GE) crops, and are sometimes even called "frankenfoods"[1]. GE crops are developed through agricultural biotechnology which reduces breeding time, allows for less uncertainty of traits, and allows distantly related plants and species to combine traits[1]. In contrast, conventional plant breeding is slow and random which constrains opportunities to produce desirable traits[1]. Since GM foods became commercially available in 1994, major controversies have begun in the United States surrounding labeling, regulation, health and the environment[1]. Major participants in the GM food controversy are consumers, biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, and farmers.

Plant physiologist Athanasios Theologis with some of the first genetically modified tomatoes


Humans evolved from an early hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to the domestication of plants and animals about 10,000 years ago, to modern agriculture involving breeding for desirable traits[2]. Genetic engineering, using the recombinant DNA technique, allows traits from one organism to be transferred to another[3]. In 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered to increase shelf life, which became the first GM food sold commercially.[4]. The Flavr Savr tomato, as well as GE seeds with built-in immunity to herbicides, viruses, and diseases, were the first of many GM foods that began the GM food controversy in the United States[3].

Factors Influencing the GM Food MovementEdit


Environmental concerns associated with GM foods stem from population growth and global warming as well as the effects on other organisms.

Population Growth ConcernsEdit

As the U.S. population grows, some are calling for measures to be put in place to ensure that wilderness destruction is minimized while an adequate supply of food is available. The U.S. population is expected to grow 25% by 2050[5]. With this rise in population comes higher food prices and decreased food supply. To combat this, more efficient farming methods need to be implemented to increase the overall production of crops and decrease the cost of crops [6]. The USDA explains, "In the absence of pests, commercially available GE seeds do not increase maximum crop yields. However, by protecting a plant from certain pests, GE crops can prevent yield losses to pests, allowing the plant to approach its yield potential"[7].

Effects on Other OrganismsEdit

Several concerns have been raised about the effects GM organisms have on other organisms with which they naturally interact. For example, there is an insect-resistant corn whose pollen negatively affects Monarch butterfly larvae [8]. However, this insect-resistant quality of GMOs reduces insecticide use. For example, insecticide used to deter bollworm reduced by 96% from 2001 to 2011. Another concern is outcrossing of GM plants, which is the event where a domestic crop breeds with a related plant. If outcrossing occurs, more resistant weeds could be created and evolve to develop insect resistance [9].

Yearly Reduction in U.S. Corn Herbicide Use[10]


Some people believe that GM foods are less healthy than conventionally grown crops, and for this reason they are reluctant to purchase and eat GM foods despite existing research showing that GM foods have no greater health risk than conventional foods. Additionally, GM plants are genetically more resistant to environmental threats and less pesticide spraying is needed, which leads to less pesticide residue on GM foods. A study showed that biotech crops reduced the pesticide spraying footprint by 18.7% from 1996 to 2012 [10].


Anti-Corporatism refers to the social push-back from citizens on large corporations. An example of Anti-Corporatism is the Occupt Wall Street movement of 2011 where thousands of citizens gathered in New York City to protest social and economic inequality, greed, and corruption within large corporations[11].

Anti-Corporatism influences people's viewpoints in the GM foods movement as well. Activists are more likely to oppose the GM food movement because they have negative connotations of large GM food-producing corporations like Monsanto.

Technology & SocietyEdit

Developing new bioscience technologies will improve the quality of GM foods by increasing the benefits while mitigating the risks. However, technological innovation alone will not lead to wide acceptance of GM foods. Stakeholders need to be convinced through education or other means that the benefits of GM foods outweigh the risks[12].

GM Movement ParticipantsEdit


U.S. Biotech companies, “Big Agra”[13]Edit

U.S. biotech companies produce approximately half of the world’s GMO crop seeds, generating billions of dollars in annual revenue [14]. The biotech industry places great emphasis on scientific confirmation of GMO benefits. Monsanto is one of the largest biotech companies, and has sued more than 410 farmers in 27 states in order to defend its GMO practices [14]. Monsanto and other biotech companies have spent $22 million to defeat the Washington state labeling initiative. The seven largest biotechnology seed companies – Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, Group Limagrain, Land O’Lakes/Winfield Solutions, KWS AG, and Bayer – control 71% of the world seed market and account for $50 billion per year in sales of seeds [13]


Consumers appreciate the new traits of GM foods such as longer shelf lives, better nutritional properties, more flavor, and smaller price tags [13].

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Edit

The FDA has deemed GM food as beneficial to the consumer and safe for both human consumption and the environment [13]. The FDA is convinced that labeling GM foods would be misleading and would promote the cluttering of food labels [13].

Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)Edit

GMA is a leading opponent of mandatory labeling, and in early 2014, proposed federal legislation that would establish standards for voluntary labeling and would effectively preempt states from imposing stricter requirements. GMA is prepared to challenge existing and prospective laws by contending that certain existing federal laws preempt states from requiring labels on GM foods. GMA plans to assert that any state law would violate the commerce clause. GMA claims that mandatory labeling would violate producers’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to communicate information to consumers that they would rather not disclose [15].


The first generation of GM crops increased insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, thereby allowing farmers to decrease the amount of pesticides and herbicides used, thus reducing the spread of toxins into the environment [16]. The next scientific enhancement improved the nutritional content of GM plants and strengthened their ability to grow in different environments, and to grow faster, which makes farming more cost effective. Additionally, GM crops are more adaptable to harsh environments, so can be grown in more diverse locations [13]. Because of these factors, farmers are generally advocates of GM foods.


In general, critics have much fewer and less powerful legal mechanisms at their disposal, limiting the power of their message [14].


Some consumers claim that GM foods are scientifically uncertain, cause environmental burdens, and they have a general mistrust of the biotech industry. These critics cite tobacco and DDT as evidence that a product that can seem harmless at one time can prove unsafe once it is more thoroughly analyzed and understood [14].

Small FarmersEdit

Small farmers are struggling to pay for the costly GM seeds and increased needs for water and fertilization [17]. GM foods increase the potential for inequality. Since bringing a GM food to market is a costly process, small farmers won’t be able to afford GM seeds [13]. A potential environmental issue for farmers is the lack of soil diversity because of the decrease in the number of weeds grown in soil surrounding GM crops. This could lead to dry soil lacking nutrients, which would hurt future harvests [18].

GM Food Labeling AdvocatesEdit

Many organizations have urged the FDA to require GM food labeling. As early as 1998, Alliance for Bio-Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization whose goal is to advance human and environmental health through sustainable and safe technologies, filed a lawsuit in DC against the FDA’s policy on GM foods, arguing that widespread consumer interest in favor of GM food labeling should be taken into consideration by the FDA [13]. The Center for Food Safety filed a citizen petition with the FDA declaring that, “the absence of mandatory labeling disclosures for genetically engineered foods is misleading to consumers [13].”

Large food retailers are beginning to push back on the lack of labeling rules. In March 2013, Whole Foods became the first major retailer to require GMO labels [19]. This will go into effect by 2018 [13]. Some are more extreme such as Ben & Jerry’s, which is planning to stop use of GM ingredients in its ice cream by 2015 [19].

Many campaigns have started to raise attention to GM labeling. Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio introduced legislation called the “Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act,” which failed [13]. The “Label It Yourself” campaign was started to encourage producers to label their products [13]. The online nonprofit, Organic Consumer Association has started a “Millions Against Monsanto” project encouraging GM labeling in the U.S. [13].

Consumer Decision MakingEdit

U.S. public support for GM food labeling, 1992 to 2012 [13]

The U.S. does not require manufacturers to label foods containing GMOs [19]. Some consumers call for FDA regulation and labeling of GMOs, an average of 91% of public opinion polls asking whether GM foods should be labeled were in favor of it [13]. This percentage has changed over the years, as shown in the figure on the right. The U.S. federal government and over 25 states have considered GMO labeling requirements [15]. Advocates of GMO labeling want consumers to be able to make their informed decisions when purchasing food. Opponents of labeling believe that the costs of labeling are too high. According to a report sponsored by Consumers Union and conducted by ECONorthwest in the Pacific Northwest, the median cost of labeling GM ingredients would be an additional $2.30 per consumer each year[20]. The additional costs would result from repackaging foods and editing shelf labels in retail stores[20]. Many farmers reject GMO labeling because of the cost for consumers. Some farmers also worry that labels may lead consumers to believe that certain foods with GMOs are unsafe or unhealthy[20].

Map of current state of GM food labeling legislation in U.S. states [13]


The GM food controversy is still active in the United States. In recent years, both California and Washington rejected propositions to invoke GMO labeling laws[21]. Vermont passed a labeling law that will take effect in July 2016. While GMO labeling is not required in the United States, 64 countries do require it, including the countries of the European Union, Australia, China, and India. Critics will continue to fight labeling laws, but today virtually every food we consume is produced from seeds that have been genetically modified in some form[22]. There is a broad consensus among agricultural, food, and science experts such as the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization, that GM foods are as safe as organic or conventional foods[22]. In the past two decades since genetically engineered crops were introduced, there has not been a single adverse health or environmental effect documented, yet many critics remain skeptical[22].


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