PBS Premiere: July 9, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

Genetically Modified Foods

Farmers have been experimenting with corn since ancient times. The early Mayaadapted an early form of corn, teozinte for better cultivation and higher productivity.

In the 1930s, Milford Beeghly created new hybrids of corn that were more resistant to insects and easier to grow than the original strain. Beeghly pioneered and promoted his methods despite the concerns of farmers and others who argued that crop hybridization was "against nature" and immoral. Despite these claims, corn hybrids proved to be commercially successful for the farmers that used them in their fields.

Fast forward 50 years and hybrid corn is commonplace at American barbeques. However, another corn controversy that echoes the one that plagued Beeghly in the days when he was experimenting in his barn has garnered a lot of attention in Europe and strict controls from the European Union (EU.)

Genetically modified or GM foods are a hotly debated issue. In the US, the acreage used to grow GM crops has skyrocketed to more than 70 million since 1996. More than half of America's processed grocery products contain gene-altered ingredients, but the US, unlike Europe, does not require labeling.

American farmers have been growing millions of acres of genetically modified corn (and other products) for many years, with relatively little complaint from the U.S. public. Europeans are increasingly opposed to genetically modified crops, and this fact has U.S. exporters claiming discrimination in the European markets. The Bush administration is urging Brussels to drop a new labeling law for genetically modified (GM) foods. Business leaders and scientists promise solutions to world hunger through genetically modified food crops. However, European consumers perceive threats to the environment and people. The EU has now introduced the strictest set of regulations on biotech food in the world, establishing lengthy approval procedures and demanding that all GMO-foods be clearly labeled.

What is GM food and what is the difference between genetically modified food and hybridization?

Genetic engineering is the process of breaking the natural boundaries that exist between species to produce new life forms that will produce a variety of desired traits. For example, genes from salmon can be spliced into tomatoes to make them more resistant to cold weather, thereby yielding a larger crop when the weather is less than favorable. Hybridization is the fertilization of the flower of one species by the pollen of another species-or artificial cross pollination (right?).

Many argue the two are essentially the same thing. "Here's the secret of hybrid corn. Hybridization is just crude genetic engineering," says the technology commentator Robert X. Cringley.

However many scientists, like the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.ucsusa.org/index.html) argue that there needs to be more research done on the effects of these new crops on the environment and on the people eating them in the long term.

Environmental activist organizations, such as Greenpeace, argue that companies are putting profits over safety and are provoking unforeseen health, environmental, and socioeconomic consequences by tampering with corn genes. On the other side of the argument, the biotechnology industry, lead by companies such as Monsanto argue that GM foods are feeding a world population that is starving. They say that environmentalists and even the Environmental Protection Agency are overreacting.

Genetically modified food proponents argue that the process of splicing genes from one organism onto the genes of another is nothing different than what native Americans did hundreds of years ago. Critics of GM food argue that the accelerated push for more modification in all sorts of foods and the degree of that modification is unchecked and requires more study.

This is an ongoing debate. To learn more visit the excellent PBS frontline/Nova site, Harvest of Fear.