GMO: Advanced Crops
Jonathan Wang '10

Probably one of the most visible and controversial aspects of food and agricultural science if the effect of genetic modification on crops. Commonly referred to as "GMOs", genetically modified organisms have become outstandingly popular amongst farmers looking to increase their yield by buying seeds and plants that have had their genetic data rewired so as to beneficially customize the characteristics of the crops. It should be noted, however, that genetic modification of plants is not actually a recent development. People have used breeding techniques in the past, in order to generate favorable seeds and fruits. The difference is that today, scientists can use laboratories to combine DNA in a frightening level of detail. There have been so many modifications made to plants to make tomatoes more resistant to cold, corn sturdier and able to be crowded into a smaller space (necessary for heavy-duty monocultures), to give plants an enzymatic defense against pests and fungus. There are countless new species of bread wheats with a disease resistance to leaf or stem rust, mildew, flies, or any other number of pests and afflictions. Not only are plants modified so as to improve productivity and convenience of sowing and harvesting, but there have also been modifications made to make certain crops resistant to the very poisons that farmers use to destroy pests and weeds on a large scale. Food technology works in a very symbiotic way, with many aspects of biology combining with other commercial ideas to create a very specific plant simultaneously influenced and reliant on all sides of the technological spectrum. Genetic modification, however, is not a new process or concept at all. People have, for centuries, purposely crossbred plants in certain ways to promote or restrict certain traits, and recombination of DNA is the basic, natural process of reproduction in any organism. The intentional and detailed recombination of plant DNA by humans have wrought a sort of super breed of plants, in the same way that eugenics and technological modifications produce higher humans in works of science fiction. They are larger, sturdier, tastier, and more immune to disease than ever before. While many crops have been modified to withstand aggressive agricultural techniques, such as corn sturdy enough to withstand the stuffing of countless plants into a single acre, or potatoes that increase in size and herbicide resistance, it seems that the tradeoff is a loss in quality. Many people have issue with the concept of genetically modified vegetables, despite the increased size and availability that comes as a result, since the fine details of modification are unknown and it is perceived by many as unnatural and hubristic. This practice implies that humans can pick up where nature left off, to improve upon the failures of millenia of evolution through the man-made miracles of modern machinery. Yield is increased, but studies have been conducted that imply that nutritional value is compromised; there is no gain without loss, and many are critical of the possibility that genetic modification provides the masses with a great amount of nutritionally faulty nourishment. The organic food movement came into popularity as a result of GMOs: in their belief that playing God with food is funadamentally wrong, many people force themselves to eat only more natural foods.

In a way, the rise of modern food science really reflects a rise in information technology. Many aspects of the latest food science advances rely heavily on the manipulation of information; genetic enhancements are a matter of exploiting the DNA of common plants, and corporations rely on control over culture and information in order to continue selling their products. As long as the masses remain in the dark about the detrimental effects of certain products or are enlightened about supposed nutritional and/or social benefits of other foods, companies can keep on producing, processing, and peddling the best of their talents. This is especially true of the meatpacking industry; if more people were fully aware of the way CAFOs and slaughter-houses worked, more people would be cautious, if not plain scared, of beef. Genetic manipulation is really based on information, as well; scientists simply tell a new strain of corn to resist certain pests or deal with overcrowding with a couple of finely placed nucleotides, and both farmers and distributors take the enhanced food to an all new level.

The FlavrSavr tomato, engineered by biotechnology company CalGene, was the first genetically modified organism to be permitted by the Food and Drug Administration for public sale and consumption. The tomato was supposed to resist rotting; by allowing it a longer time on the shelf as well as on the vine (as opposed to picking them while unripe, and artificially ripening them with a spray-on hormone, ethylene gas, in order to extend shelf-life), farmers and CalGene could claim a more favorable, natural taste. They were approved in May 1994. The circumstances of the approval reflects the relationship between genetic modification and dangers to health: many scientists object to its approval after experiments on rats produced many stomach lesions. In a turn characteristic of large corporations and new technology, CalGene was quickly purchased by Monsanto, to make sure that the largest agricultural company could maintain control over the latest agricultural technology.