A Brief History Of Genetically Modified Organisms: From Prehistoric Breeding To Modern Biotechnology
The Grapevine

A Brief History Of Genetically Modified Organisms: From Prehistoric Breeding To Modern Biotechnology

The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can get brutal and often quite confusing, as unbiased research is few and far between. A lot of misleading information and impassioned arguments from both sides often clouds the conversation around GMOs, too.

A GMO is any type of organism, plant, or animal, whose genetic material has been manipulated through genetic engineering. While bacteria, plants, and animals can all be genetically engineered, you're probably mostly familiar with the GMO crops used in agriculture, like corn, soy, alfalfa, and cotton. The debate has largely centered around GMO crops because anything we put into our bodies that might impact our health can be a sensitive topic.

GMOs have a very long history. In fact, they've been around for thousands of years. So perhaps the conflict over their safety and efficacy shouldn't be about whether they're safe for humans to consume, but rather how they will impact long-term, sustainable agricultural efforts.

As Isobel Yeung reports for Vice: “Essentially, farmers have been modifying crops for thousands and thousands of years — we’ve been cross-breeding our best possible, most productive hybrids to create the best crops,” she said on Vice Debrief: Savior Seeds. “Theoretically [GMOs are] just the next level of agricultural advancement. What’s different is a new gene is being inserted into a crop which otherwise wouldn’t be there.”

That said, here’s how GMOs have been used throughout history.

Ancient Egypt Even in ancient times, humans were genetically modifying their food without realizing it, molding crops into more desirable versions over time. Wikimedia

Prehistoric Times. Contrary to popular belief, humans have been messing with food and its genes for a long time, even if they originally gave most of the control to nature. Since the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago, farmers have strived to improve their crops’ durability, resistance to diseases and pests, and satisfaction to humans as much as possible.

Over the years, as humans chose certain qualities over others in plants, they molded crops into what they wanted them to be — bigger, tastier, and juicier. According to Bruce Chasey, executive associate director of the Biotechnology Center at the University of Illinois, we altered these plants so much that they developed into crops that would never survive in the wild without human care. Writing in a 2007 paper, Chasey noted, “Plants such as strawberries, wheat, cabbage, corn, and almost all the rest of our crops” descended from ancestors that were nothing like strawberries or wheat or corn from back in the day.

sweet potatoes Sweet potatoes are actually 8,000 year old GMOs. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Take the sweet potato, for example. A recent study found that sweet potatoes were bred some 8,000 years ago out of the swollen parts of regular potato roots. In other words, they didn’t exist until humans tinkered with them.

1800s. Gregor Mendel was a scientist and Augustinian friar who lived in what is now the Czech Republic; he's considered the father of modern genetics due to his plant hybridization experiments. Hybridization involves breeding between plants (or animals) of different species — plants are more likely to hybridize because pollen often disperses onto the flowers of other species. He toyed primarily with pea plants between 1856 and 1863, and his work was later drawn upon in genetic engineering.

Gregor Mendel Working primarily with pea plants, Gregor Mendel became the father of genetics. CC BY 4.0

1954. Watson and Crick described DNA’s shape as a double helix, paving the way for genetic engineering to make a real debut.

1970. Monsanto, a major agriculture company that had its roots in the early 1900s and now controls most of the seed industry, employed chemist John Franz to redevelop glyphosate as an herbicide. The Monsanto glyphosate later came to be known simply as Roundup, which became one of the most commonly used herbicides among farmers, helping to keep pesky weeds at bay. Monsanto then went on to become the biggest supploer of glyphosate-resistant crops, known as “Roundup Ready” seeds.

pesticide Pesticide and herbicide is sprayed in bulk across rows of soybean crops. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

1972. Between 1972 and 1973, U.S. biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen did the unthinkable: They developed a technique that allowed them to cut pieces of DNA in certain places, and then attach the pieces to the DNA of other organisms, ushering in modern biotechnology. This was also around the time that the first debate over GMO health risks began to emerge. In 1976, biotechnology became commercialized, allowing companies to experiment with inserting genes from one species into another — whether for medicinal, food, or chemical reasons.

1982. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that GMOs could be patented, which allowed the Exxon Oil Company to begin using an oil-eating microorganism. In 1983, Monsanto scientists were some of the first to genetically modify plants, and five years later, they tested their first genetically engineered crops.

1988. Scientists inserted genes into soybeans, ultimately creating what would become the most common GMO: glyphosate-tolerant soybeans. Making a crop that was resistant to herbicide made it much easier, and cheaper, for farmers to control weeds while producing high yields. Soon, other GMO seeds were developed — including potato, cotton, rice, sugar beets, sugarcane, and tomatoes — with the intention of making these crops resistant to insects, antibiotics, diseases, herbicides, and pesticides.

Present Day. There hasn’t been enough research to determine whether GMOs are entirely healthy for humans — although the FDA has listed them as safe. Some concerns include the fear that altering the natural state of an organism has unknown consequences for humans, and that genes meant to keep plants resistant to herbicides or antibiotics could potentially harm humans later on. For now, these concerns haven’t been substantiated.

While the debate over whether GMOs are safe for humans and the environment rages on, perhaps it’s important to remember that GMOs aren’t necessarily the whole side of the story. And while Monsanto and similar companies that sell herbicide-resistant GMO seeds along with their namesake brand of herbicide aren’t exactly leading modern agriculture into a more sustainable era, forcing GMO labels onto food products (or banning GMOs entirely) isn’t going to stop them.

In a six-month reporting series for Grist, Nathaniel Johnson concluded that embracing or banning GMOs won’t make much of a difference. Likewise, Beth Skwarecki of Lifehacker agrees, noting that banning or accepting GMOs “is just rearranging deck chairs.”

“If we’re fighting over-industrialization of agriculture,” she wrote, “GMOs are the wrong battleground.”