The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS: A Brief Overview, The Risks, And The Benefits

Figure 1: The Growth of Adoption of GM Crops in the U.S. Data for each
crop includes crops with stacked traits, crops with both Ht (herbicide
resistant) and Bt (insect resistant) traits.3

  • Genetically Modified Organisms are organisms that have been modified artificially through genetic engineering to enhance and introduce desirable traits.
  • Genetically Modified Foods are GMOs created for human or animal consumption.1

What are the most common GM Foods in the U.S.? (% of all crop seeds planted in U.S.)2

•     Soybean (93%)  •  Cotton (88%)

•     Maize (85%)      •  Sugar Beet (95)%

Figure 2: Global Area of GM Crops in millions of hectares from 1996 to 2011. In 2010, 15.4 million farmers, in 29 countries, planted 148 million hectares of GM Crops – a 10% increase from 2009 yield.7

Regulation of GM Foods in the U.S. and Abroad

  • In the U.S., regulation of GMOs is entrusted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.4
  • Unlike other countries, the U.S. adapted pre-existing legislation and committees to regulate bioengineered products with the result being an elaborate, coordinated, yet imperfect, system.5
  • Monsanto, multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation and provider of 90% of the genetically engineered seeds in the U.S., has been confronted repeatedly on its business ethics and adherence to anti-trust laws.
  • Recent efforts in France to ban Monsanto GE corn has prompted talk of “retaliation” from the U.S. against France and the European Union (EU).6

“U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered (GE) crops widely since their commercial introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts.” 8

The Benefits

  • Pest Resistance : The use of GM Organisms in agriculture can replace policies and practices that are currently harmful to the environment such as excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.9
  • Possible Long-Term Economic Benefit : In economic simulations enacting a “co-mingling” of GM rice and non-GM rice, under reasonable circumstances consumer and producer welfare is greater after the introduction of GM technology.  Long term losses in welfare only occur when GM producers make decisions based on individual consumer preference coupled with high consumer concern about GM technology which leads to prohibitively expensive “identity preservation”.10
  • Cold/Drought/Salinity Tolerance : The explosion of the human population in the past century has taken its toll on global food production with some wondering if it is possible to produce enough food for our growing population.  Any technology that maximizes crop yield and uses potentially non-arable land will be a benefit.11
  • Nutrition : Genetically engineered food could provide greater nutrition and pharmaceutical proteins to developing countries that suffer from malnutrition.  For example, experimental transgenic rice has been developed in U.S. laboratories that features higher yield, higher protein content, high vitamin density, higher tolerance for environmental stresses, and pharmaceutical proteins.12

The Risks

  • Popular Resentment : In many cases, increasing control of food production by corporations, academic institutions, and the government (the “triple-helix” of GM food production) is correlated with a loss of public trust.13
  • Ineffective Safety Testing for GM Products : The U.S. treatment and regulation of biotechnology has been accused of being overly-bureaucratic and ineffective; the high cost of adhering to, sometimes overly strict, government regulations keeps many low-risk GM products from reaching the market while some higher risk products go unregulated because they are not GM products.14
  • As a Source of Trans-Atlantic Trade Conflict : Differences in public reaction to and government regulation of GM crops has led to trans-Atlantic trade disputes between the U.S. and the EU.15  In particular, France’s ban on GM Foods has led to talks of economic “retaliation” against France and the EU by the U.S.
  • Indirect Effects on the Environment and non-Target Organisms : Loss of biodiversity, inadvertent resistance to pesticides, and the development of “super weeds” can have a great negative impact on the environment and organisms not directly affected by GM organisms.16
  • Intellectual Property Rights and the Ethics of Genetic Engineering : In a landmark court case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the U.S. Supreme Court extended existing patent laws to live organisms, a decision, in and of itself, carries many ethical and philosophical contentions.17


GM Crops offer many benefits over naturally occurring crops including higher yield, higher resistance to environmental stresses, higher nutrition content, and decreased reliance on policies known to be environmentally detrimental.  However, genetic engineering is a very powerful tool and must be used prudently.  Advances must be made in the political and social arenas of corporate regulation, intellectual property rights, more rigorous long-term safety monitoring, and international relations if GM crops are to reach their full potential for our growing population.


  1. Whitman, Deborah B.  “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?”  ProQuest.  April 2000 Web.
  2. “Maize, soybean, cotton: 88 percent genetically modified.”  GM Compass.  GM Compass.   30 July 2009.  Web.
  3. “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.”  United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.  USDA.  1 July 2011.  Web.
  4. McHughen, Alan, and Stuart Smyth.  “US regulatory system for genetically modified [genetically modified organism (GMO), rDNA or transgenic] crop cultivars.”  Plant Biotechnology Journal 6.1 (2008): 2-12.  Web.
  5. ibid.
  6. Ludwig, Mike.  “WikiLeaks: US Ambassador Planned “Retaliation” Against France Over Ban on Monsanto Corn.”  WebCite.  2011.  Web.
  7. ChemViews.  “Biotech Crops Over 1 Billion Hectares”.  Chemistry Views.  International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.  1 March 2011.  Web.
  8. “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.”
  9. Snow, A. A., Andow, D. A., Gepts, P., Hallerman, E. M., Power, A., Tiedje, J. M., and L. L. Wolfenbarger.  “Genetically Engineered Organisms and the Environment: Current Status and Recommendations.”  Ecological Applications 15.2 (2005): 377-404.  Web.
  10. Lence, Sergio H., and Dermot J. Hayes.  “Genetically Modified Crops: Their Market and Welfare Impacts.”  American Journal of Agricultural Economics 87.4 (2005): 931-950.  Web.
  11. Whitman
  12. Lu, Bao-Rong, and Allison A. Snow.  “Gene Flow from Genetically Modified Rice and Its Environmental Consequences.”  BioScience 55.8 (2005): 697-698.  Web.
  13. Juma, Calestous.  “Biotech in a Globalizing World: The Coevolution of Technology and Social Institutions.”  BioScience 55.3 (2005): 265-272.  Web.
  14. McHughen
  15. Murphy, Joseph, Levidow, Les, and Susan Carr.  “Regulatory Standards for Environmental Risks: Understanding the US-European Union Conflict over Genetically Modified Crops.”  Social Studies of Science 36.1 (2006): 133-160.  Web.
  16. Snow
  17. Juma


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