The advent of genetically modified crops has promised heartier food and higher yields that could potentially reduce poverty and malnutrition rates the world over. Two decades later, they're also broadly maligned and mistrusted. But is it finally time to put down the pitchforks?
A Brief History of GMOs
Humanity's dominance over the natural world is inextricably bound to our ability to modify our surroundings to suit our needs and to exploit available resources to support our populations. And exploit we have! From the discovery of fire and the domestication of livestock to modern medicine and renewable energy generation, many of our biggest technological achievements throughout history have served to increase our dominion over nature. And very high on that list, in terms of enabling our survival, has been our domestication of crops.
Humans have been manipulating and modifying the genetic structures of plants since the domestication of cereal grains some 10,000 years ago. By selectively breeding individual plants that displayed desired qualities—larger edible bits, shorter growing cycles, you name it—humans slowly redesigned these organisms over the course of thousands of years.
Of course, just because people knew how to domesticate crops doesn't mean they understood why it actually occurred. It wasn't until Gregor Mendel's 19th century investigation into trait inheritance by crossbreeding pea plants that modern genetic science emerged. While mutation breeding—the practice of exposing plants to chemicals and radiation in order to instigate a genetic change—has resulted in more than 2,000 commercially available plants over the past 100 years, it wasn't until the 1970s that we were able to directly affect the expression of a plant's genome thanks to the pioneering work of Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. This direct intervention—known as genetic engineering—involves mutating, deleting, or adding genetic material to achieve the desired effect. And that's what brings us to GMOs.
Generally speaking, genetically modified organisms fall into one of two broad categories depending on the method of their modification. Cisgenic modification is similar to what occurs in nature; swapping genes among closely-related, sexually-compatible organisms, albeit with far greater precision than what Mendel first described. Transgenic modification, on the other hand, mixes and matches genes from radically divergent species, such as implanting jellyfish genes to produce glow-in-the-dark piglets and luminescent kittens, or introducing Bacillus thuringiensis genes into tobacco to make it more insect-resistant.