Team:Harvard/human practices/debate


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Along with environmental activism, food awareness has recently come to prominence. Books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and movies such as Food, Inc. call upon the public to take greater ownership over what we consume. One of the major issues in food awareness that sometimes slips under the radar is that of genetically modified foods. The main argument for creating and growing genetically modified (GM) crops is the great potential they have as solutions for problems such as world hunger, nutrient deficiency, resource management, and pesticide avoidance. While this potential is exciting, it is important to be mindful of the course of progress and to stress safety in the creation of any new entity. Among the opponents of GM crops, many of the arguments revolve around wariness of the risks.

In this section, we've presented the issues in the context of public opinion, outlined some of the major arguments made against the safety of GM crops, and summarized rebuttals made by the genetic engineering community. Use the menu above to browse the sub-topics.


9000B.C.Humans start engineering plants
1973Creation of the world's first recombinant DNA organism
1974Creation of the world's first transgenic mammal
1978Production of genetically engineered human insulin
1980Diamond v. Chakrabarty
1982FDA approves the use of genetically engineered insulin
1983First transgenic plant produced
1994First genetically engineered food approved by the FDA
1996First genetically engineered food approved by the EU

Genetic modification is a common topic for popular media and journalists alike. A public dialogue about the promises and drawbacks of genetic modification is both neccessary and good for our society, and so the misrepresentation of genetic modification science is a troubling pattern in the world today. Media, both entertainment and journalistic, frequently implicitly encourages the perception of genetic modification as likely to go wrong or produce an abomination. The Dr.Frankenstein archetype runs deep in media coverage of genetic modification, with fictional genetic engineers often portrayed as remorseful creators of ungodly monsters, much like the protagonist of Mary Shelley's famous novel.

Portrayal of genetic engineering often implicitly endorses the view that modification of genes is unnatural, and that any product of such work will inevitably lead to disaster. However, much of this propaganda is built off of the public's fear of the unfamiliar. For instance the documentary "The Future of Food" presents the use of viral vectors as potentially deadly in and of itself, playing off the public's notion of a "virus" as an infections agent, neglecting to explain that the majority of viruses in existence are harmless to humans. In addition, they fail to mention that viral vectors are widely used and extensive safety measures ensure the inability of the virus to replicate or survive following delivery of the target genes. Furthermore, a common misconception that genetically modified organisms will be a sort of 'blend' of the organisms from which the modified DNA was derived, rather than the highly specific and predictable set of traits that are in reality added or removed in genetic engineering.

The role of large corporations is another point of attack for opponents of genetic engineering. "The Future of Food" and varios activist groups target companies like Monsanto for exploitation of farmers through strict regulation of the use of their genetically modified seed. While there may be some validity to these claims, the result is not so much a public dislike of the companies responsible, but rather a dislike and distrust of the product in question. However genetic engineering of food does not exist solely in the corporate sector; funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiatives is one of many groups working to improve nutrition in the developing world by developing crops such as "golden rice", a new kind of rice engineered to produce higher quantities of beta-carotene, vitamin e, protein, and iron. Unfortunately efforts such as these are overlooked or mistrusted because the concept of genetic engineering itself is associated only with the large corporation. The igarden attempts to change the face of genetic engineering to something more personal, giving the individual the opportunity to engage with the experience of genetic engineering first hand and grow these plants in his or her own garden.

We also hope to combat the idea that genetic modification is unnatural, and that any work in this field will inevitably lead to disaster. Most people in our society don't have any (knowing) interaction with genetic modification except through media, and the attitudes presented there will, without alternatives, strongly impact people's view of this science. By growing their own genetically modified plants, in a safe and personalized setting, we hope to demonstrate the basic safety and great positive power of genetic modification, and thereby encourage a re-examining of the beliefs presented in popular media at a person-to-person and ground-up level.

global views

Choose a region:
USA [top]

The USA is the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered food. 93% of soybeans, 86% of corn, and 93% of cotton produced in the USA is genetically modified. (GMO Compass) The world's first commercial genetically engineered crop was the FlavrSavr tomato, grown in the USA from 1994. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently does not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled.

EU [top]

Unlike in North America, genetically engineered crops comprise only a tiny fraction of all crops grown in Europe. Currently only two genetically engineered products have been approved for cultivation by the European Union, and only one of these, a type of maize, has been approved for human consumption.

One reason for Europe's slow adoption of genetically engineered products is the divide in opinion between member states. A European Union poll showed that over 50% of the Greek and Austrian populations would refuse to eat foods containing genetically engineered ingredients even if they were proven to be healthier than the conventional alternatives. At the other extreme, only 5% of the Maltese population would refuse to consume genetically engineered products under the same circumstances. (Survey results: Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005: Patterns and Trends)

The current European regulations require an application to grow a GMO to be made to a national government. The national government is required to carry out a risk assessment of the GMO but final authorisation of the crop is the responsibility of the European Food Safety Autority and other Europe-wide bodies. Differing opinions between member states have often led to stalemate and it has proven very difficult for applications to gain approval. Member states including Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, and Luxembourg have banned the use or trade of GMOs within their territories. Other countries such as Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Britain are more willing to approve GMOs.

After negotiations in the European Union that concluded in July 2010 it seems likely that GMO decision-making powers will be transferred from Brussels to member states. This presents an opportunity for pro-GM member states to approve the use of GM products for cultivation and human consumption.

Source: European Union: From the Farm to the Fork

Zambia [top]

In 2002 Zambia was plunged into famine after the harvest failed. The Zambian government requested international aid to help its starving citizens and the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) responded by sending thousands of tonnes of food aid. In many of the donor countries such as the USA, GM foods were common so GM grains were included in the aid shipments. While some of its citizens starved, the Zambian government refused to distribute any GM grain due to fears over its safety and environmental impact. The government also refused a further shipment of 40,000 tonnes of grain for the same reasons.

The Zambian government sent a group to study the effects of GM crops in other countries and on their return to Zambia they concluded that "GMOs are a health hazard." Many Zambian doctors and scientist believe that GMOs cause resistance to antibiotics which can lead to the emergence of new toxins. President Mwanawasa stated: "I will not allow Zambians to be turned into guinea pigs no matter the levels of hunger in the country." His decision left 30% of Zambians without enough food before replacement non-GM food could arrive.

Source: UN, Africa Renewal, Vol.16 #4 (February 2003), page 5

India [top]

India has been slowly adopting genetically engineered crops. GM cotton was introduced in 2002 and now approximately 90% of India’s total cotton production is genetically engineered.

In February of 2010, the Indian government refused permission for the first genetically modified food crop to be grown in the country. The crop in question was a pest resistant variety of aubergine (eggplant). The government stated that inadequate scientific consensus regarding testing led them to take a cautious approach to GMO policy. The decision was unpopular with many Indians because it came at a time when food prices were rising steeply due to the poor 2009 monsoon.

(Source: India says no to first GM food crop, AFP)

China [top]

China faces the challenge of feeding one fifth of the world’s population, using one tenth of the world’s farmland. A further concern is a shortage of workers in the countryside, partly fueled by conventional crops’ need for regular treatment with fertilizers and other chemicals. The Chinese government has recognized that genetically modified foods may play an important role in feeding their people, but has proceeded cautiously in adopting the new technology.

Currently, much of China’s cotton production is genetically modified, and genetically modified maize and soybeans are slowly being adopted. Trials of GM rice and corn crops have already been completed, and will likely enter commercial production shortly.

Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences and many others have made the business of agricultural biotech famous the world over. Often controversial, the prominent role of large corporations in this field has led many anti-GMO activists to equate genetic engineering with corporate profits. While crop biotech is a multi-billion dollar industry, it is important to keep in mind that the science behind it is no more intrinsically corporate than unmodified seed and plant companies. Our iGarden project strives to demonstrate by example how open-source, non-corporate plant modification can be fun, useful, and safe for everyday people and farmers alike. Whether the criticism of plant biotechnology corporations is founded or unfair, the science which underlies their business holds the power to save or improve lives from the developing world to suburbia, and should not be blithely thrown out along with criticized corporate practices. By allowing individuals to grow their own modified garden, our project aims to break the connection between coorporations and genetic crop technology to ensure new developments are judged on their merits and not merely by association.


Monsanto is the world's leading producer in genetically engineered seed. The company was founded in 1901 in St. Louis, Missouri, and became the first to genetically alter a plant cell in 1982. The majority of the genetic engineering done to its seeds today involves adding resistance to its pesticide Roundup. Monsanto continues to face strong opposition due to its production of GM seed.


Pioneer, DuPont's plant genetics branch, is Monsanto's chief rival for producing genetically engineered seed. Its most circulated GM seeds are maize and soybean. Like Monsanto, Dupont continues to deal with public and political opposition.

Dow AgroSciences

A branch of The Dow Chemical Company, Dow AgroSciences is the third significant player in producing GM seeds in the US. Dow AgroSciences has teamed with Monsanto in developing products such as insect and weed repellent corn. The company continues to research genetically modified maize, soybean, canola, and cotton.

Governmental regulation of genetic crop technology is a hot topic, and, typically for a field of such controversy, shapely divided in opinion. Frequently debates of how (if at all) the government should intervene in this field boil down to anti-GMO activists calling for a total ban of genetic modification in any circumstances, and a second group calling for no government intervention at all, with relatively little middle ground.

Finding the right balance for state and federal policy is exceptionally difficult due to the scope of genetic modification technology (encompassing everything from agriculture to industrial manufacturing to medicine). While our project focuses specifically on food and small-scale gardening, the iGarden would undoubtedly fall under the roof of any policy on synthetic biology or genetic technology. As such we take an interest not only in policy regarding genetically modified crop plants, but also in the US government's early stirrings towards examining synthetic biology as a whole.

The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA - 1975

In February 1975, an association of scientists met in Asilomar, California to discuss the implications and regulation of recombinant DNA technology. Out of this meeting came a series of self-regulatory rules which are an important pillar in biology lab safety to this day, perhaps most famously the designation of biology labs according to the riskiness of the experiments conducted there (BL1-BL4). This conference was significant not only in the actual rules it set for biology researchers, but also for the precedent of self-regulation by researchers. This early step taken by scientists preemptied governmental intervention more than 30 years ago, and because the rules were set by individuals highly knowledgable in the field, they may have been more effective and appropriate than those set by individual's in the government without such knowledge. On the other hand, critics of scientific self-regulation would argue that scientists have incentive to not regulate themselves enough. Good or bad, this form of internal regulation has heavily influenced the field since the 1970s.

Presidential Council on Bioethics - 2010

This summer the Presidential Council on Bioethics started a series of ongoing hearings on synthetic biology. This is an early sign of governmental actions which could possibly have massive effects on the field of synthetic biology in the United States. We highly recommend to those interested in the direction of plant biotechnology and synthetic biology as a whole.