I have always felt that to tackle a problem, we must first understand its origins. And there is no denying that public perception of GMOs is a problem. Oftentimes when I bring up the topic of GE (genetic engineering) technology, it seems that the conversation quickly veers off course, and the next thing I know we’re discussing corporate greed, sustainable agriculture, food labeling or farmer education. It feels like GMOs are some kind of optical illusion—we think we see them clearly, but as we stare or squint, they change shape. Why is it that a conversation about crop GE technology can’t just be about GE technology? Why must it always morph into something else? Perhaps the reason is this: When we go to the grocery store, there’s no GMO section of the produce aisle. There’s no discernible difference between conventional and GMO produce, at least as far as we can tell. Perhaps it’s little surprise then, that we have a hard time understanding or appreciating GMOs. They’re practically invisible to us.
To understand why today’s GMOs are invisible, and thus understand our difficulty discussing them, we have to investigate the economic forces that made them what they are today. I say economic forces because the reasons for their invisibility are largely economic, not scientific. The vast majority of GE crops that are commercially available today in the U.S. are engineered to provide pest or herbicide resistance, and are mainly comprised of only a few species, particularly corn, soybean, and cotton1,2. If we investigate how this came to be, we can better recognize how this situation has shaped our perception of what a GMO actually is.
The uninspiring GMOs available today stand in stark contrast to the colorful panoply of GE plants that are being developed in research labs around the world. The poster child for this is Golden Rice, a GE rice variety enriched for beta-carotene and designed to combat Vitamin-A deficiency, the world’s leading cause of blindness3. There’s also a high-omega-3 soybean4, a low-gluten wheat5, numerous stress-tolerant crops that can grow on marginal farmland6,7, and a citrus variety engineered to resist the virus that is currently devastating the North and South American citrus industry8. While these are utilitarian changes, others are just plain fun including glow-in-the dark plants9, purple roses10,11, and a petunia that changes color throughout the day12.
These modified plants generally don’t hit American store shelves, and it’s not because the science isn’t advanced enough to put them there. In developing countries, 38% of GE crops in the advanced stages of research and development are species that are not the top cash crop species13. In developed countries, that figure is 6%. The American corporations developing GE seeds are simply tinkering with the same handful of traits and the same few species. As I will show, this is because economic pressures in the second half of the twentieth century drove an unlikely actor to pioneer biotechnology: the pesticide industry. The runaway success of pest- and pesticide-resistant GMOs subsequently allowed pesticide companies to dominate the GE seed market. In particular herbicides, more than any other class of pesticide, played the biggest role in establishing GE technology. In short, the first widely successful GE crops were not made by academics or government scientists to appeal to people like you and me. They were made by pesticide chemists, and they were (and largely remain) designed to appeal to farmers.
Prior to WWII, there was little pesticide industry to speak of. Wartime demand for new materials catalyzed investment in chemicals research and ultimately an outpouring of innovation. Wartime investment in chemistry research led to tremendous progress in herbicide development. This began in the 1940s when a chemical called 2,4-D was found to be herbicidal. 2,4-D killed weeds at concentrations an order of magnitude less than leading herbicides at the time, was not harmful to humans, and was inexpensive to produce14. This discovery sparked a revolution in agricultural science and practice. The first government labs and industrial divisions dedicated to herbicide research began to crop up, and the new herbicides were quickly embraced. From 1952 to 1976, the number of herbicide-treated acres of corn in the U.S. rose from 10% to 90% 15. In the 1970s and early 80s, improvements in chemical screening technologies ushered in what is widely called a ‘golden age’ of herbicide discovery. During this time, scientists discovered the major herbicides used today including ACCase inhibitors (Assure II, Clethodim), ALS inhibitors (Certainty, Monument), glyphosate (RoundUp), and glufosinate (Liberty). Business was booming for pesticide manufacturers.
But that steady growth didn’t last. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several market factors combined to the detriment of the herbicide industry, and sales plateaued16. Prices were low and competition was high as agrochemical companies raced to undercut one another in a saturated market. Meanwhile, innovation was slowing: the last new herbicide mode of action was discovered in 198217. Additionally, memories of wartime rationing faded and the national zeitgeist turned toward environmentalism. Highly visible events such as the amino triazole cranberry scare of Thanksgiving 195918, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, the 1976 Seveso dioxin accident19, and the Alar apple scare of 198920 spurred public concern over pesticide safety and demands for decreased application. Patent duration became a concern during this time as well, as some of the early pesticides approached their expiration, highlighting the fragility of R&D investments. On top of all of this, the mid-1980s Farm Crisis, the worst economic slump faced by the agricultural industry since theGreat Depression, put farmers out of work and decreased demand for pesticides.
For all these reasons, pesticide research started looking like a riskier venture than it had previously16. In general, companies aiming to penetrate a saturated market have four options: they can specialize within a niche of the market, develop their brand, merge with the competition, or innovate. While a case can be made for each of these, I believe innovation is what helped breathe life back into the pesticide industry. Their key innovation was the pivot to GE seeds. No example illustrates the success of this strategy better than glyphosate, the herbicide known as RoundUp.
Richard Mahoney, who became CEO of Monsanto in 1983, began funneling some of the company’s research efforts from chemistry to GE technology—a huge risk at the time. By all accounts though, he was a firm believer in the promise of the genetic engineering21. In 1996, RoundUp Ready soybean was introduced to American markets, followed by a handful of other RoundUp Ready species. The RoundUp system allows farmers to freely spray the herbicide RoundUp, which kills weeds while leaving the herbicide-resistant crops intact. The convenience and reliability of RoundUp Ready crops made them an extremely attractive system for farmers. Today more than 80% of global GE crop acreage harbors RoundUp-resistant crops22. Other agrochemical companies quickly saw the potential of GE technology, and followed suit by developing their own GE crops. The GE seeds were wildly successful, and the rich got richer: in the 1970s, farmers obtained their seeds from thousands of small businesses, but by 2011, only 15 years after the introduction of engineered crops, just three corporations were incontrol of more than half the global seed market23.
Today, the risk and expense of commercializing GE crops is a powerful deterrent for small-shop developers of innovative new engineered varieties. The total cost of creating an engineered crop and bringing it to market is about $136 million, and takes about 13 years24. About a quarter of this expense is regulatory costs. Meanwhile, the pre-commercial stage of GE crop development is dominated by smaller institutions, suggesting that the regulatory stage may be a crucial hurdle for less well-funded groups13. As a result, science’s most consumer-friendly GMOs are sitting on laboratory—rather than grocery store—shelves.
The origin of GE crop technology in the pesticide industry has profound implications for our perceptions of it today. Pesticides get a bad rap (often for good reason), and GMOs have become practically synonymous with pesticides. Anybody who wants to attack the pesticide industry has an easy target in GMOs. As a result, folks who are deeply uncomfortable with pesticide use have a hard time cheering for this invisible and ostensibly insidious technology. But maybe it only feels insidious because it’s invisible. From Galileo’s demonstration of gravity in Pisa, to Newton’s prism experiment, to Rosalind Franklin’s photos of DNA, the best way to appreciate a discovery is to see it in action. That’s why I enjoy working in science—you can lecture to me all day about chemistry or biology, but the concepts don’t come to life until I get into a lab, where I can touch them, manipulate them, and truly get to know them. Similarly, I think that if we could see, hold, and taste fresher, more nutritious, and more sustainably grown GMO foods, we would feel quite differently about them. Change may be on the horizon: approval of engineered crop varieties with second-generation traits is slowly rising2. Okanagan Fruits’ non-browning apple finally hit select grocery stores in 201526. We may yet see a new wave of highly visible, consumer-friendly engineered foods that could help dissociate GE technology from the pesticide industry. This would promote a wider and more rational perspective on the true benefits and risks of the technology itself—a conversation we as a global community should be having. Whatever our political leanings, we all want the same thing: tested, safe food crops with diverse benefits, regulated in an economically fair way. We need to come together to support regulatory reforms or judicial actions that promote unbiased, evidence-based regulation of new crop varieties. In this way, the optical illusion that is GMO may soon come into better focus.
Images: https://wallpaperstock.net/corn-field–dark-clouds-wallpapers_w39792.html; http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2016/07/senate-easily-invokes-cloture-on-gmo-label-bill-final-vote-next/#.WUVzHhPys19; see citation 15; see citation 25.