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All About Genetically Modified Foods

By Ryan Andrews

If you’re like 60% of Americans, you probably don’t think you’ve ever eaten a genetically modified (GM)
food. Think again. GM foods are everywhere in our food supply. Here’s what they are, and why you
should care.

“Over salad, they might praise the tomatoes, genetically engineered to stay fresh, firm, and juicy without
losing their taste. Or the lettuce, fortified with the genes responsible for broccoli’s rich concentration of
nutrients. Or the dressing, made with canola oil that was bioengineered to have the low saturated fat
content of olive oil.

For the entrée, the esteemed biologists might relish pork from pigs dosed with a recombinant growth
hormone that reduces its fat content by a third. The corn has been engineered to express a toxin that
protects it against borers. Even the bread is made with recombinant wheat, a strain enriched with the
genes for gluten proteins once found only in premium varieties.
Dessert is not Death by Chocolate but Bananas Immortalité, which delivers a tasty dose of hepatitis B
Excerpt from Science News, by Steve Sternberg

What are genetically modified foods?

When scientists alter the genetic structure of a plant or animal in order to manufacture advantageous
traits in the organism, they are engaging in what is called genetic modification (GM).
The resulting product is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GM is a form of food biotechnology.
Basic food biotechnology has been performed for thousands of years. We can look back to 4000 BC
when fermentation and malting were mainstays in Mesopotamia. Animal breeders have long selected for
particular desirable traits, such as size or temperament.
However, with the advent of genetic technologies, scientists are now snipping genes from microbes,
plants, and even animals via restriction enzyme technology and splicing them into the plant genome in
order to create new traits like herbicide or insect resistance. Thus, GM is also referred to as recombinant
DNA technology (rDNA), transgenic or bioengineering.

A gene that prevents rotting in beans might be spliced into tomatoes. This produces a tomato that looks
and tastes like an unaltered tomato, but is resistant to rotting. Most GM foods are developed to be pest,
disease or herbicide resistant.
The Monsanto Corporation accounts for nearly 90% of transgenic traits around the world.
The approved GMs in the U.S. include:

Herbicide resistance
Corn, soy, cotton, canola, rice, alfalfa, beet, flax
Insect resistance
Corn, cotton, potato, tomato
Sterile pollen
Corn, chicory
Virus resistance
Papaya, squash, plum
Delayed ripening
Altered oil
Canola, soy
Protein composition
Reduced nicotine tobacco

Why are genetically modified foods so important?

As the chart below shows, numbers of GM crops are growing around the world.

GM foods are developed and marketed because of their perceived advantage over non-GM foods,

● Better taste, nutrition and quality

● Increased profit for growers
● Virus and insect resistance
● Herbicide tolerance
● Increased food yield to alleviate world hunger

Those in the opposition feel that GM foods go against Mother Nature. Indeed, the organic food sector
prohibits its food to contain more than 5% GM content.
Farmers are worried that GMO will destroy sustainable agriculture and create super-weeds. Biologists are
concerned, in particular, about the creation of monocultures— the dominance of a single species.
Monocultures can obliterate biodiversity, and are more susceptible to massive crop failures: if a single
culture becomes vulnerable to a pest or micro-organism, there are no other varieties to fill in the gaps.
There are also concerns that diverse indigenous species, which are uniquely suited to each microclimate
and region, may be lost. For example, it’s estimated that there are ​50,000 different types of corn (!) in
“genebanks” around the world. There are similarly large numbers of unique potato, rice, and wheat
varieties that have evolved within a particular ecosystem, and been carefully cultivated over generations,
across the globe.
Those interested in solving world hunger argue that GM foods aren’t an ethical way to address hunger
since it works against the values and livelihoods of the people most affected. Moreover, some argue that
the current food yield is enough to meet human demands, but due to reliance on animals for food, it isn’t
distributed adequately. Data has indicated that GM crop yields aren’t consistently higher than
conventional crops and more herbicides must be used.
Various animal studies have identified health risks associated with GM food consumption, including:

● Infertility
● Immune system compromise
● Accelerated aging
● Altered genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein
● Alterations in liver, kidney, spleen and gut function
Additional concerns with GM foods include:

Imagine if scientists insert a Brazil nut protein gene into the soy genome to improve the protein content. If
someone has a severe allergy to Brazil nuts, what will happen? Some argue that the outcome might be
Could genes from GM crops contaminate conventional crops? Some say yes. This may compromise food
safety and sustainability.
Recently, farmers in the U.S. launched a class-action suit against Bayer AG after the U.S. Department of
Agriculture announced in August 2006 that trace amounts of a Bayer-created, genetically modified rice
had been found in commercial long- grain rice in the U.S. Similar cases have occurred in Canada and
around the world with crops such as canola and corn.

The development of GM foods

In the beginning of the 1990s, transgenic plants and animals began to appear. In a type of tomato called
Flavr Savr, a gene was blocked that accelerates the ripening process. By blocking that gene, the tomato
quality could be maintained for a longer period of time. This led to ease of harvesting along with a greater
area for distribution.
Genetic modification has also expanded to the animal population. Genetically engineered bovine
somatotropin (rBST) has been used to enhance milk production in cows. For more on rBST, see ​All About
The increasing popularity of rDNA techniques in the late 1970s prompted Congressial discussions about
public safety. In the 1980s, it was decided that “DNA was DNA, no matter what the source.”
In the U.S., four principles were established in 1986:

1. Existing laws are sufficient for regulation.

2. Regulation applies to the products, not the processes by which they were developed.
3. Safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
4. Agencies should coordinate their regulatory efforts. This new framework applies to drugs and
This requires collaboration between the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Good luck with that. I can’t even get my nephews to pick up their dirty socks.

What you should know about genetically modified foods

As you can see in the image below, a U.S. poll showed that 60% of respondents believed they had never
eaten a GM food.

This is unlikely, considering GM foods are estimated to be in nearly 70% of all products found in typical
U.S. grocery stores. 80% of all corn and 92% of all soybeans grown in the U.S. are GM. GM beets will
comprise over 90% of this year’s U.S. sugar beet harvest.
The idea of using animal genes in plant foods has been considered. In 1991, a company developed a
tomato that included a modified gene from a breed of Arctic flounder. This was done to make the tomato
more resistant to frost and cold storage. The tomatoes weren’t successful and no one ever consumed a
tomato with fish genes. However, this raises concerns with fish allergies and poses an ethical dilemma for
those who choose not to consume animals.

A brief history of food biotechnology

Animal domestication in ancient Egypt

● 4000 BC Classical biotechnology: Dairy farming develops in the Middle East; Egyptians use
yeasts to bake leavened bread and to make wine.
● 2000 BC Egyptians, Sumerians and Chinese develop techniques of fermentation, brewing and
● 1500 AD Acidic cooking techniques lead to sauerkraut and yogurt – two examples of using
beneficial bacteria to flavor and preserve food. Aztecs make cakes from Spirulina algae.
● 1861 French chemist Louis Pasteur develops pasteurization – preserving food by heating it to
destroy harmful microbes.
● 1879 William James Beal develops the first experimental hybrid corn.
● 1910 American biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan discovers that genes are located on
● 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick describe the double helix of DNA
● 1982 First genetically engineered product – human insulin produced by Eli Lilly and Company
using E. coli bacteria – is approved for use by diabetics.
● 1986 First release into the environment of a genetically engineered plant (a tobacco).
● 1990 Pfizer Inc., introduces Chymax chymosin, and enzyme used in cheese-making – first
product of recombinant DNA technology in the U.S. food supply. The first successful field trial of
GM herbicide tolerant cotton is conducted in the USA.
● 1993 After nearly 10 years of scientific review and political controversy, the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) approves Monstanto Co.’s version of rBGH/rBST to increase milk
production.1994 Calgene, Inc., market the FLAVRSAVR tomato – first genetically engineered
whole food in the U.S. food supply.
● 1996 Herbicide tolerate GM soy bean available in U.S.
● 2003 Japanese researchers develop a biotech decaffeinated coffee bean.
● 2006 GM rice approved for human consumption in U.S.
● 2007 The USDA approved the planting of 11 new pharmaceutical or industrial GM crops.

Summary and recommendations

GM is a recent phenomenon with many unanswered questions. Insertion of genes into other genomes
may result in unexpected outcomes. Moreover, the long-term effects of GM crops aren’t known and may
be serious and irreversible.
If the genesis of GM was truly “public good” rather than corporate profit, sustainable agriculture might be
able to draw upon GM technologies as assistance rather than the main feature.
To tell if you are eating a GM food, use the PLU code. (It’s printed on that annoying little sticker that you
always have to pick off before you eat fruits and veggies.)
Labels beginning with “9” indicate organic
Labels beginning with “4” or “3” indicate conventional
Labels beginning with “8” indicate GM

Extra credit
“If Americans are willing to eat McDonald’s special sauce, it’s no wonder they don’t care if it’s genetically
modified or not.”
–Dr. Lisa H Weasel, Food Fray
Recombinant alpha amylase is used to make high fructose corn syrup.
Recombinant amino acids are used to make aspartame (artificial sweetener).
Biopharming is when plants undergo GM to produce pharmaceuticals. No pharmaceuticals have yet been
approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One concern with biopharming is the fact that
these medicinal crops will contaminate the food supply of surrounding farms.
The introduction of transgenic wheat (which has not yet been approved) would reduce U.S. wheat exports
by 25–50% and could cause a reduction in prices of up to 33%. This “Roundup-Ready Wheat” has been
modified to be resistant to Roundup (glyphosate herbicide), with no boost in crop output. This means
more Roundup will be used than before, but the amount of wheat harvest will remain the same.
In 2002, six African countries refused food aid from the U.S. due to fears of a GM presence.

The Debate Over Genetically Modified Foods

Kerryn Sakko

This article offers a method of determining the risks of genetically modified crops.
Learn about the environmental consequences of genetically modified rice.
The lack of scientific study on genetically modified crops is partially due to regulation.
How does genetic modification affect diversity?

Food can be engineered to prevent disease.

Rice with built-in Vitamin A that can help prevent blindness in 100 million children suffering from Vitamin A
A tomato that softens more slowly, allowing it to develop longer on the vine and keep longer on the shelf;
Potatoes that absorb less fat when fried, changing the ever-popular french fries from junk food into a
more nutritional food;
Strawberry crops that can survive frost;
An apple with a vaccine against a virus that causes childhood pneumonia.
These are some of the benefits promised by biotechnology. The debate over its benefits and safety,
however, continues. Do we really need to fear mutant weeds, killer tomatoes, and giant corn and will the
benefits be delivered?

Conventional breeding is a slow, unpredictable process.Desired GM organisms can be bred in one

Conventional Breeding versus Genetically Modified (GM) Crops

For thousands of years farmers have used a process of selection and cross breeding to continually
improve the quality of crops. Even in nature, plants and animals selectively breed, thus ensuring the
optimum gene pool for future generations. Traditional breeding methods are slow, requiring intensive
labor: while trying to get a desirable trait in a bred species, undesirable traits will appear and breeders
must continue the process over and over again until all the undesirables are bred out.

In contrast, organisms acquire one specific gene or a few genes together through genetic modification,
without other traits included and within a single generation. However, this technology too is inherently
unpredictable and some scientists believe it can produce potentially dangerous results unless better
testing methods are developed.

“The Fallacy of Equating Gene-Splicing With Traditional Breeding: Traditional breeding is based on
sexual reproduction between like organisms. The transferred genes are similar to genes in the cell they
join. They are conveyed in complete groups and in a fixed sequence that harmonizes with the sequence
of genes in the partner cell. In contrast, bioengineers isolate a gene from one type of organism and splice
it haphazardly into the DNA of a dissimilar species, disrupting its natural sequence. Further, because the
transplanted gene is foreign to its new surroundings, it cannot adequately function without a big artificial

Biotechnicians achieve this unnatural boosting by taking the section of DNA that promotes gene
expression in a pathogenic virus and fusing it to the gene prior to insertion. The viral booster (called a
“promoter”) radically alters the behavior of the transplanted gene and causes it to function in important
respects like an invading virus — deeply different from the way it behaves within its native organism and
from the way the engineered organism’s own genes behave. …
Consequently, not only does the foreign gene produce a substance that has never been in that species, it
produces it in an essentially unregulated manner that is uncoordinated with the needs and natural
functions of the organism.”11

Even genes from bacteria can be used to engineer crops.

One of the main differences between conventional and genetically modified crops is that the former
involves crosses either within species or between very closely related species. GM crops can have genes
either from closely related species or from distant species, even bacteria and viruses. A typical example
of a GM crop in the market in Australia is cotton known as Ingard.6 This cotton has a gene from a
naturally occurring soil bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The Bt gene renders the cotton
resistant to the heliothis caterpillar, a major threat to the cotton industry. In this example, an appropriate
and selected gene (in a construct containing a promoter, transcription terminator, selection marker, etc.
genes) was inserted into the cotton, unlike in conventional breeding where not only the appropriate gene
was inherited in breeding but other genes as well.10

60% of U.S. grocery food contains GM ingredients.

When combining two crops using standard agricultural techniques, genes are allowed to mix at random. A
typical example is Triticale, a synthetic hybrid between wheat and rye grown in Europe, which is the result
of combining 50,000 largely untested genes, 25,000 from each species.10 GM crops, in contrast, have
specific genes inserted to produce the same desired effect.

Biotech plants are now grown on about 130 million acres in 13 countries, including Argentina, Canada,
and Germany. In 2001, 3.6 million acres were used for GM crops in the U.S. More than 60% of all
processed foods in the U.S. contain ingredients from GM soybeans, corn, or canola.1

Benefits: one side of the debate

Growing GM crops is initially costly but cheaper in the long run.

GM supporters tell farmers that they stand to reap enormous profits from growing GM crops. Initially, the
cost is expensive but money is saved on pesticides. To produce the GM crops, modern biotechnology is
used which requires highly skilled people and sophisticated and expensive equipment.7 Large companies
need considerable investments in laboratories, equipment and human resources, hence the reason why
GM crops are more expensive for farmers than traditional crops. GM crops, farmers are told, are a far
better option. It takes a shorter time to produce the desired product, it is precise and there are no
unwanted genes.

Farmers need less herbicides in GM fields.

Herbicide-resistant crops
So what other advantages do GM crops hold for farmers? GM crops can be produced to be herbicide
resistant. This means that farmers could spray these crops with herbicide and kill the weeds, without
affecting the crop. In effect, the amount of herbicide used in one season would be reduced, with a
subsequent reduction in costs for farmers and consumers. For Ingard cotton, pest resistance was built
into the cotton, hence reducing and even removing the use of pesticides, which are not only expensive
but, more importantly, harmful to the environment.

Biotechnology companies are even experimenting with crops that can be genetically modified to be
drought and salt-tolerant, or less reliant on fertilizer, opening up new areas to be farmed and leading to
increased productivity. However, the claims of less herbicide usage with GM crops have till now not been
independently supported by facts.

Better quality foods

Even animals can be genetically modified to be leaner, grow faster, and need less food. They could be
modified to have special characteristics, such as greater milk production in cows. These modifications
again lead to improved productivity for farmers and ultimately lower costs for the consumer. Modified
crops could perhaps prevent outbreaks such as foot and mouth disease, which has devastated many
farmers and local economies.

No safety studies have been done on GM salmon.

No such products have been released to date; however, some are under consideration for release. For
example, GM salmon, capable of growing almost 30 times faster than natural salmon, may soon be
approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the U.S. for release into open waters without a
single study on the impact on human health or the environment.5

The following are some examples of food plants that are undergoing field trials:10

apples that resist insect attack

bananas free of viruses and worm parasites
coffee with a lower caffeine content
cabbage that resists caterpillar attacks
melons that have a longer shelf life
sunflowers that produce oil with lower saturated fat
Risks: the other side of the debate

The major concerns of those who oppose GM foods center on the:

potential danger to the environment

possible health risks to humans
Environmental damage
The problem with GM crops is that there is little known about what effect they will have in, say, 20 years
time. The genetic structure of any living organism is complex and GM crop tests focus on short-term
effects. Not all the effects of introducing a foreign gene into the intricate genetic structure of an organism
are tested. Will the pests that a crop was created to resist eventually become resistant to this crop?

Will herbicide resistance pass on to weeds?

Then there is always the possibility that we may not be able to destroy GM crops once they spread into
the environment. In Europe, for example, a strain of sugar beet that was genetically modified to be
resistant to a particular herbicide has inadvertently acquired the genes to resist another.7 This was
discovered when farmers attempted to destroy the crop in Britain, France and the Netherlands, where it
was being tested, and 0.5% of the crop survived.7 More noxious herbicides had to be used to remove the
remainder of the plantation. What if this herbicide resistance passed on to weeds?

The Skylark and the Monarch butterfly were affected by GM crops.

Risk to food web
A further complication is that the pesticide produced in the crop may unintentionally harm creatures. In
Britain, a native farm bird, the Skylark, was indirectly affected by the introduction of GM sugar beets
designed to resist herbicides. In planting this crop, the weeds were reduced substantially. However, since
the birds rely on the seeds of this weed in autumn and winter, researchers expect that up to 80% of the
Skylark population would have to find other means of finding food.4

GM crops may also pose a health risk to native animals that eat them. The animals may be poisoned by
the built-in pesticides. Tests in the U.S. showed that 44% of caterpillars of the monarch butterfly died
when fed large amounts of pollen from GM corn.8

Will genes from GM plants transfer to other organisms?

Cross-pollination is a concern for both GM crops and conventional breeding, especially with the more
serious weeds that are closely related to the crops. With careful management this may be avoided. For
example, there is a type of maize that will not breed with other strains and scientists are hoping that it
could help to prevent cross-pollination.3 Genetic modification to herbicide resistant crops could insert the
gene that prevents the problem. The number of herbicide-tolerant weeds has increased over the years
from a single report in 1978 to the 188 herbicide-tolerant weed types in 42 countries reported in 1997.6
They are an ever-increasing problem and genetic engineering promises to stop it. But will genes from GM
plants spread to other plants, creating superweeds and superbugs we won’t be able to control?

The taco scandal in the U.S. heightened awareness of GM risks.

GM mix-ups
Humans can inadvertently eat foods that contain GM products meant as animal feed, i.e., crops modified
for increased productivity in animals. This happened in the U.S., where traces of a StarLink GM crop,
restricted for use only in feed, were found in taco shells.2 Apparently no one became ill but other such
occurrences may lead to health problems.

Will GM food increase the problems with resistance to antibiotics?

Another concern is disease. Since some crops are modified using the DNA from viruses and bacteria, will
we see new diseases emerge? What about the GM crops that have antibiotic-resistant marker genes?
Marker genes are used by scientists to determine whether their genetic modification of a plant was
successful. Will these antibiotic-resistant genes be transferred to microorganisms that cause disease? We
already have a problem with ineffective antibiotics. How can we develop new drugs to fight these new


Proponents of GM crops claim that advantages may be many, such as:

Conclusion: Further studies are needed to assess the potential risks of GM foods even though the
technology promises many benefits.
improved storage and nutritional quality
pest and disease resistance
selective herbicide tolerance
tolerance of water, temperature and saline extremes
improved animal welfare
higher yields and quality
However, until further studies can show that GM foods and crops do not pose serious threats to human
health or the world’s ecosystems, the debate over their release will continue. Living organisms are
complex and tampering with their genes may have unintended effects. It is in our common interest to
support concerned scientists and organizations, such as Friends of the Earth who demand “mandatory
labeling of these food products, independent testing for safety and environmental impacts, and liability for
harm to be assumed by biotech companies.”5

Do GM Crops Increase Yield?

Since the advent of biotechnology, there have been a number of claims from anti-biotechnology activists that
genetically-modified (GM) crops don’t increase yields. Some have claimed that GM crops actually have lower
yields than non-GM crops.

Both claims are simply false.

In agriculture, desirable crop characteristics are known as traits. One of the most important traits is yield.
Improving crop yield can be accomplished through both breeding and biotechnology. GM crops generally have
higher yields due to both breeding and biotechnology.

Germplasm is the basic genetic information in a seed that influences the growth and development of the plant.
For example, germplasm for different varieties of tomatoes may vary in pest and disease resistance, drought
tolerance, color, size, yield potential and many other characteristics.

Starting long before modern biotechnology, plant breeders have worked to improve germplasm--for example, to
develop seeds with the best mix of characteristics to deliver the best yield possible for the soil and climatic
conditions where they will be grown.

Today, plant breeders use a mix of both traditional and modern methods to improve plants. Modern methods
include marker assisted breeding, which enables breeders to use a blueprint of the genome to select seeds with
the most desirable properties. Marker assisted breeding in effect helps speed up the time it takes to do
traditional breeding--breeders can better select whether to cross tomato A with tomato B, or C, or D, or E, or F,
or …--you get the idea--to get the desired improvement.

Biotechnology is a more direct approach than breeding since it allows you to incorporate genetic material directly
into the germplasm. This allows you to create plants with traits that would be difficult or impossible to achieve
through breeding. In some GM crops, the genetic material originates from another species. The most common
traits in GM crops are herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance (IR). HT plants contain genetic material
from common soil bacteria. IR crops contain genetic material from a bacterium that attacks certain insects.

Yield can be increased by breeding and through the addition of GM traits.

Germplasm improvements from traditional breeding have contributed to modest but steady increases in yield.
Marker-assisted breeding has nearly doubled the rate of yield gain when compared to traditional breeding alone.

GM traits, such as insect and herbicide tolerance, help to increase yields by protecting the yield that would
otherwise be lost due to insects or weeds. The degree to which a farmer enjoys increased yields because of
insect and herbicide tolerance traits will in large part be determined by how effective the farmer’s weed and
insect control programs were before planting a crop with these traits. If weeds and insects had been controlled
well, then the insect and herbicide tolerance traits will not be the primary factor in increasing yield.

In developing countries, where resources to effectively control weeds and insects are often limited, these traits
have increased yield substantially. The same is also true for developed countries where there are particular
pests that are hard to control--such as the corn rootworm complex or some perennial weeds.
The introduction of GM traits through biotechnology has led to increased yields independent of breeding. Take
for example statistics cited by ​PG Economics​, which annually tallies the benefits of GM crops, taking data from
numerous studies around the world:Mexico - yield increases with herbicide tolerant soybean of 9 percent.

● Romania – yield increases with herbicide tolerant soybeans have averaged 31 percent.
● Philippines – average yield increase of 15 percent with herbicide tolerant corn.
● Philippines – average yield increase of 24 percent with insect resistant corn.
● Hawaii – virus resistant papaya has increased yields by an average of 40 percent.
● India – insect resistant cotton has led to yield increases on average more than 50 percent.

Even where insect and herbicide tolerance are not the primary factors in increasing yield, they provide many
other benefits. Analysis by ​PG Economics​ also show that GM crops are credited with decreasing pesticide and
fuel use, and with facilitating conservation tillage practices that reduce soil erosion, improve carbon retention and
lower greenhouse gas emissions. Decreased inputs aren’t just a savings and convenience for farmers; they offer
significant environmental benefits for everyone:

● The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with GM crops for 2006 is estimated to be equal
to removing more than half a million cars from the road.
● On average, the volume of herbicide used on corn has dropped 20 percent since herbicide tolerant corn
was introduced in 1996.

Approximately 95 percent of the soybeans and 75 percent of the corn in the United States are GM. More than 95
percent of the soybeans in Argentina and half the soybeans grown in Brazil are GM. Where given the choice,
farmers have consistently adopted GM crops quickly and widely because they see the improvement these
products deliver. Whether it is increases in yield, or other benefits, farmers clearly see value in GM crops.

Misinformation and Setting the Record Straight

Irresponsible journalists and activists continue to misrepresent data and claim that GM crops actually reduce
yields. For example, Geoffrey Lean recently published a story in the UK newspaper The Independent entitled
Exposed: the Great GM Crops Myth​. Lean concluded that yields were lower with GM crops based in large part
on a study published by Dr. Barney Gordon of Kansas State University. Lean failed to understand or explain that
the purpose of Gordon’s research was not to examine yields, but to look at how certain GM soybean varieties
respond to manganese levels. Dr. Gordon has since published a ​response​ which characterizes the article as “a
gross misrepresentation of my research and a good example of irresponsible journalism”.

Despite Dr. Gordon’s clarification and statements, some anti-GMO activists continue to reference the Gordon
study and the Lean article as evidence of lower yields with GMOs. Dr. Mae Wan Ho of the Institute for Science in
Society cited the Gordon study as evidence that biotech crops do not increase yields. The Center for Food
Safety also referenced the study as evidence of decreased yields.

Monsanto and other agricultural technology companies continue to improve germplasm, and to develop GM
traits that are designed to directly increase yield, and more. In 2009, Monsanto released a line of soybeans in
the US that has been shown in field trials to increase yields by 7-11 percent. We’ve made a public commitment
to double yields in key crops by 2030. Equally important to increasing yield, we’ve committed to doing so with
one-third fewer resources, such as fertilizer and water, per unit of output.

Last Updated: 11/26/2012


Bt-Corn for Corn Borer Control

ENTFACT-118: Bt-Corn for Corn Borer Control | ​Download PDF

by Ric Bessin, Extension Entomologist

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

Kentucky growers have used traditional resistant hybrids, proper planting dates, weekly scouting and
use of economic thresholds to manage ECB. New European corn borer resistant corn hybrids have
been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide, the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) delta
endotoxin. Bt corn has the potential to simplify management and effectively control corn borers
throughout the season. Since their introduction in 1996, Bt corn has been increasing rapidly as the
numbers of hybrids and acres planted across the Midwest expand.

While controlling corn borers with resistant hybrids is not new, 1995 marked the beginning of the
large scale commercial use of "transgenic" plants. Growers now have transgenic corn, sweet corn,
canola, papaya, cotton, potato, tomato, and soybeans available. Many other crops are being
developed or are in the process of applying for EPA registration. How do these modified crops fit into
our production and marketing systems? Can they be the "silver bullets" that we have been looking


An average of one European corn borer cavity per stalk across an entire field can reduce yield by as
much as 5% by the first generation and 2.5% by the second generation. How often is any particular
field likely to have an average of one or more cavities per stalk at the end of the season? That is
difficult to say. In general, corn borers have been under scouted and under treated in Kentucky.
Other states report annual losses to European corn borer to be approximately 5 to 10 percent
annually. Information on the average number of cavities per stalk at the end of the season is not
available for Kentucky.

European corn borer levels are difficult to predict and can vary greatly from year to year. Summaries
of Kentucky IPM scouting reports have indicated that corn borer populations follow cycles and that
populations peak approximately every five years. However, at planting time it is not possible to
predict whether or not corn borers will serious in mid summer. Keep in mind that even in low corn
borer years, only a small number of corn fields will exceed the economic threshold for corn borers.


The EPA has granted registration for the Bt‑corn events listed in the table above. Each of the
transgenic events listed includes the insertion of a Bt gene, a promoter gene, and a marker gene (to
allow corn breeders to know which plants have the new genetic material). The promoter gene allows
the Bt gene to be turned on and different promoter genes may allow the Bt toxin to be expressed at
different times of the year or different parts of the plant.
Differences in insertion packages and insertion events translate into real differences in corn borer
control in the field. Promoters used today generally express the Bt protein throughout the plant
during the entire life of the plant.


Bt corn is significantly more expensive, so growers need to position these hybrids such that they will
have a return on this investment. Tables 2 and 3 illustrate the potential savings (or losses in some
instances) of using Bt corn under various levels of damage and corn pricing.

Consider this example using Table 2. Suppose you would expect to get a potential yield of 144
bushels per acre if there were no losses to corn borer and you expect to sell the grain for $2.50 per
bushel. If there is enough corn borer activity to cause an average of 1 cavity per stalk in a
susceptible hybrid at the end of the season, then you would save $12.55 per acre using Bt corn
versus no corn borer control at all. However, if there was only enough corn borer pressure to cause
an average of one gallery in every 4 stalks in a susceptible hybrid, the Bt hybrid would lose $1.13 per
acre compared to no corn borer control at all. With minimal corn borer pressure, the reduction in corn
borer damage is less than the additional cost of the Bt hybrid.

Table 2 indicates that when corn borer populations are at the level that would result in an average of
one cavity in every 4 plants in an untreated susceptible hybrid, the use of the hybrids would not be
justified. However, when damage exceeds an average of one cavity in every 2 plants, growers would
benefit economically from the use of these hybrids. As the price of corn increases, the economics of
using these hybrids becomes more favorable. As the yield per acre increases, returns on these
hybrids increase as well.

Using the previous example of a 144 bu yield potential, $2.50 per bushel pricing, and average of 1
cavity per stalk in a susceptible hybrid at the end of the season, then the grower would save $10.65
per acre using a corn borer hybrid versus a scouting and rescue treatment (Table 3). However, if
there was only enough corn borer pressure to cause an average a quarter of a gallery per stalk in a
susceptible hybrid, there would be a savings of $2.23 per acre using a Bt hybrid versus a scouting
and rescue treatment strategy.

Yield Advantage with Bt Corn

Presence of the Bt gene in a hybrid does not increase yield, it only aids in preventing yield loss due
to corn borers. Yield potential is determined by the entire genetics of a hybrid. The impact of this
technology on grain yield can be estimated by comparing corn isolines, hybrids that are identical
except for the presence or absence of the Bt gene. Studies conducted between 1996 and 2000 in
western Kentucky indicated about a 9 to 17 bushel advantage between these pairs when corn borer
pressure was moderately high. Producers interested in using Bt corn should consult the Kentucky
Hybrid Corn Performance Trials for more in depth and longer term yield information. Always look at
the level of pest pressure when comparing Bt hybrids to their non‑Bt counterparts. In the absence of
insect pests, an agronomically competitive Bt‑corn hybrid should yield as least much as your
standard hybrids that you are currently using.

When selecting hybrids, you should select a hybrid that has the complete package of characteristics
you need, including yield potential, disease resistance, relative maturity, and local adaptability for
your cropping situation. Keep insect management in perspective, while it is important, it is only one
aspect of corn production.

Bt Hybrid Advantages

Timing:​ Timing of insecticide applications is critical for effective corn borer control. There is a
relatively short time during which insecticide applications need to be made to be effective against
first generation. This requires that producers monitor their corn regularly to identify fields that are
above threshold and have corn borers in the proper stage for treatment. Frequently producers have
realized a corn borer problem only after it is too late. Moth flight for the second generation occurs
over a longer period of time. More careful scouting is needed and more than 1 application may be

Application Equipment: W ​ hile many corn producers in Kentucky have the necessary equipment to
treat for first generation corn borers in whorl stage corn, late summer infestations commonly require
special application equipment (and frequently 2 or more sprays if the is an extended egg laying
period). Bt corn does not require any specialized equipment so it is available to farms of all sizes.

Applicator Safety:​ Because Bt corn would take the place of foliar insecticide applications for corn
borer control, it reduces the potential insecticide exposure to applicators. The potential pesticide drift
onto other crops or environmentally sensitive areas can be reduced with these genetically modified

Compatibility with Biological Control: ​Many broad‑spectrum insecticides reduce the impact of
biological control agents that help to control insect and mite pests. Studies to date have indicated
that Bt‑corn is compatible with biological control and has little effect on natural enemies of pests.

Non‑Target Effects of Pesticides Reduced:​ Because Bt corn reduces the need for foliar pesticide
applications, there will be reduced impacts on non‑target organisms from broad‑spectrum
insecticides. These non‑target organisms included insect pollinators, insect parasitoids and
predators that attack corn pests, and other insect species that may be in or near corn fields (such as
the monarch butterfly). However, it must be pointed out that in most years few insecticide
applications were used for corn borer control in Kentucky. Producers have historically under treated
for this pest.

Control of Some Other Corn Pests:​ While Bt corn was designed specifically to control European
corn borer and corn rootworms, several types of Bt corn also show excellent control of corn
earworm, fall armyworm, black cutworm, and southwestern corn borer.

Reduced Pest Monitoring Needs:​ The scouting needs for first and second generation European
corn borer are greatly reduced. However, producers using these transgenic hybrids still need to
monitor their fields regularly for pests such as aphids, and western and northern corn rootworms
which are not controlled by these new hybrids.


Seed Cost and Variable Pest Populations:​ Seed for Bt corn is more expensive than comparable
non‑Bt seed. Additionally, Bt corn is only an advantage when specific insect pests are present.
There is no advantage to planting seed with the Bt gene in the absence of these pests. The added
cost of the seed is not recovered. Corn borer populations can vary in size from year to year and are
not predictable. At planting, there is method to predict whether or not the pest pressure will justify the
use of Bt corn. But the decision to use Bt corn must be made long in advance of corn borer moth

Development of Bt Resistance by Pests:​ The potential for pest populations developing tolerance
or becoming resistant to the Bt endotoxin increases as more corn acreage is planted with Bt hybrids.
In such a situation, Bt‑resistant pests would be able to complete development would be more likely
to increase in numbers than non‑resistant forms. In areas planted exclusively to Bt‑hybrids, a
greater proportion of borers over time may become resistant to these transgenic hybrids. Producers
need to prevent the development of resistance rather than try and fight it once it becomes a problem.
For information on specific approved resistance management plans that are required when
producers grow Bt corn, see Entfact 140, Resistance Management and Bt Corn.

Impact on Monarchs? B ​ t corn was once thought to be high specific insect management tool in that
only the pest that feeds on the corn would be exposed to the Bt protein. We have learned that this is
not entirely correct. Because there is some Bt protein produced in the pollen (different Bt events
have different concentrations in the pollen), susceptible insects that feed on the Bt pollen may be
harmed. This is the case with the monarch butterfly caterpillars. Lab studies have shown that they
may be killed if they consume large amounts of Bt‑pollen. However, fields studies have shown that
the impact is likely to be minimal based on the levels of Bt‑pollen which collects on the monarchs
food (common, swamp, and honeyvine milkweed) under field conditions. The EPA has concluded
that there is not likely to be a significant impact on monarch populations, in fact, with pesticide
reductions the impact on monarch populations should be positive.

Marketing of Bt Grain: W ​ ith concern about Ag Biotech products in the European Union, marketing
of Bt grain may be more complicated in some areas, particularly with newly approved technologies.
Before deciding to plant Bt corn, producers should always check with their grain markets to
determine which specific Bt corn types will be accepted. Most elevators accept Bt corn, but some
may require that producers identify Bt corn so that it can be channeled for the proper use.


When a producer has decided that Bt corn is needed, how should this it be positioned on the farm?
Corn borers can attack corn planted at any time, but usually first generation damage is most severe
in early planted corn and late planted corn is more severely damaged by second generation
European corn borer and southwestern corn borer. Late planting are at the greatest risk to yield loss
from these pests. So growers may want to select Bt corn for late plantings if they have had problems
with corn borers in the past. Later plantings are also more likely to have tip damage from corn
earworm and economic infestations of fall armyworm. With late plantings, growers may want to
select hybrids that also control secondary pests problematic in the southern corn belt.


Transgenic Bt‑corn hybrids have reduced losses to corn pests in Kentucky since their introduction in
the late 1990s. Economically, the benefits of using Bt corn is be greatest in years when insect
pressure is high or with later planting dates.

Issued: 5/96

Revised: 11/10


Genetically Modified Crops


For thousands of years, human beings have modified nature's organisms for usage in agriculture. New
technology has furthered this trend: recombinant DNA technology allows biotechnology firms to insert
DNAs into plant genomes, thereby creating plants that express the desired traits. Use of such genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) has prompted controversy, especially for its role in ensuring food security. As
such, the use of transgenics merits a serious discussion regarding its relevance to food security.

This piece discusses the purported benefits and costs of utilizing GMOs, as well as the benefits they have
brought – saving land, reducing pesticide use, and promising to alleviate third world hunger. Then we
provide an in-depth analysis of the health, ecological, and socio-economic impact of transgenic
organisms. Our ultimate stance on this issue is to wait for greater availability of biotech organisms
unassociated with large agricultural corporations, and for additional scientific data. Any reference to
genetically modified (GM) organisms in this piece are exclusively pointed at transgenic organisms. We will
also be examining in depth the two most widespread types of transgenic organisms: herbicide-tolerant
crops and insecticide-producing plants.

Arguments for GMOs:

GMOs increase crop yields and promote efficient land use.

Food production uses a significant quantity of arable land and natural resources, and GMOs hold promise
to alleviate this burden on the Earth. The efficiency of land use is a significant issue: by 2050, the global
population is expected to rise above 9 billion, and the existing amount of arable land is expected to
decrease significantly due to anthropogenic climate change and urbanization (FAO). If everyone in the
world used as much land per person as the average United States citizen, we “would need four Earths” to
sustain ourselves (Cribb). The projected population expansion and rise of food consumption per person in
China and India makes efficient land use essential to food security in the next 100 years (Cribb).
Consequently, conserving land to produce more food is a necessity for any long term plan. Biotechnology
firms claim that transgenic crops promise more food with less land. GMO crops have been found to
increase yields, with a 10 percent change to a genetically modified herbicide tolerant crop yielding a
roughly 1.7 percent increase in productivity (USDA). Biotechnology companies state that such varieties of
crops will improve the livelihood of farmers around the world​ (​ Cummins).

GMOs reduce the use of synthetic chemical pesticides that are harmful to the environment.

Use of transgenic plants increases yields and decreases the need for pesticide use, thereby preventing
significant ecological damage. GM pesticide-producing crops are engineered to produce Bt toxins, a
crystal protein naturally synthesized by the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis. The United States
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that these toxins do not activate in the human gut, and
pose no risk to human health (EPA). The endotoxins are insecticidal and exhibit low environmental
persistence (meaning they degrade quickly), making them ideal for expression in crops (Sharma, 2010).
Although Bt is lethal to many insects, multiple scientific studies have found them to be harmless to wild
mammals, birds, pets, and humans; Bt endotoxins may as well be considered “biopesticides” (Sharma,
2010). Herbicide-resistant crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide with relatively
low toxicity levels, which allows for the spraying of glyphosate on crops to kill weeds. An example of such
a plant is the Roundup Ready soybean produced by Monsanto, and the EPA has labeled glyphosate with
a “low toxicity” rating (EPA).

The European corn borer, a widespread crop pest, claims 7 percent of the world's corn supply each year.
Use of Bt corn has saved US farmers in Iowa and Nebraska alone up to 1.7 billion dollars in fighting this
pest over the past 14 years, when compared to non-Bt variants (Hutchinson). Spanish farmers who have
implemented Bt maize have found a 10 percent increase in yields, with up to 20 percent increases in
borer-infested areas (Europa). Along with increasing yields, Bt crops also decrease pesticide usage.
Some estimates indicate that if “50% of maize, oil seed rape, sugar beet, and cotton grown in the EU
were GM varieties, pesticide in the EU/year would decrease by 14.5 million kg of formulated product”, and
“there would be a reduction of 7.5 million hectares sprayed, which would save 20.5 million liters of diesel
and result in a reduction of approximately 73,000 tons of carbon dioxide being released into the
atmosphere” (Phipps). A reduction of 13 million kg of pesticide in the United States has been recorded in
soybean and corn fields in between 1997 and 2009, after the introduction of genetically modified crops
(Phipps). Pesticide usage is reduced by a projected 2.5 million pounds a year in the US alone due to
introduction of Bt crops (USDA). It is projected that the introduction of Bt resistant sugar beet in Europe
would decrease pesticide usage in kilograms per year by 2,208 kg and increase yield by 5,050 kg per
year (Gianessi). Europe, a place where transgenic plants are marginally utilized, uses roughly 3 kg of
pesticide per hectare, compared to the United States' 2.5 (Goodplanet).

Overall, we believe that biotechnology has great potential to bring about many benefits to provide for food
security, especially in the third world. These benefits include, but are not limited to, the reduction of crop
loss to environmental stress, the prevention of vitamin deficiency through more nutritious crops, the
prevention of food spoilage before it is brought to market, the alleviation of soil degradation in the Third
World, the potential use in agroforestry systems to create more efficient and non-competitive nitrogen
fixers, the potential to synthesize more potent biopesticides for organic farming, the potential to create
plants built to bioremediate contaminated soils, and the potential to create plants that thrive in rooftop or
vertical farms. However, although promising, agricultural technology has not yet delivered on the
aforementioned fronts.

​ rguments against GMOs:


GM technology remains underdeveloped and unsuited for the regions that need them most.

One problem with biotechnology is that it is not currently built for poorer regions, as most plants are only
engineered for herbicide and pesticide tolerance, with the needs of developed countries in mind (GMF).
Biotechnology today is largely driven by agricultural corporations such as Monsanto, whose seeds are
expensive to poorer farmers (Ho). But GMOs may increase land productivity in Africa, where 49 percent
of soil is heavily degraded (Terrafrica). They could be engineered to endure harsher conditions and be
less susceptible to climate changes such as drought, a leading cause of food insecurity in Africa. Certain
types of native crops may be engineered to increase yields. This all might be done in the future, but it has
not been done yet. Additionally, GMOs still represent too many unknowns to be a solid basis for a plan to
benefit third world farmers.

Consumption of GMOs may have yet-unknown effects on human health.​

Unknown health consequences are a common objection to GMO organisms. The most condemning
research done on such organisms is the work of renowned scientist Arpad Pusztai, who found evidence
of intestinal damage caused by genetically modified potatoes (Randerson). His funding was suspended
for his publication of preliminary results, and therefore the study was never completed (Randerson).
However, numerous later studies found that GM crops that have passed existing safety reviews are not
harmful to human health (Academic review, AFNZA).

Many critics are still opposed to GMOs, citing that GM foods are unnatural. On the other hand, “nature
does produce GMOs. Swedish researchers discovered an enzyme-producing gene in a meadow grass
that naturally crossed into sheep’s fescue about 700,000 years ago.” (Bengtsson, quote from NYT). While
conflicting opinions exist within the scientific community, the limited evidence available seems to suggest
that existing GMO varieties are not harmful to human health, although further studies are needed to
support this claim (Randerson).
The long-term ecological impacts of GMO crops are yet uncertain.

Cross-pollination with the wild type of GM species may lead to genetic contamination of the wild type,
which could alter local ecosystems. Genes are difficult to control, and wild types of certain plants have
been found to contain transgenic genes. Unapproved genetically engineered grass has been found in
Oregon (Pollack). 83 percent of rapeseed varieties in the United States and Canada were found to
contain transgenic genes (Pollack). However, cross-pollination can be minimized through measures such
as buffer zones between GMO and non-GMO fields, as well as careful field planning (GMO-compass); the
problem with cross-pollination may be minimized with proper planning and oversight.

Bt expressed in transgenic organisms is also toxic to a variety of helpful insects, including natural
pollinators and pest predators. Monarch butterflies, a chief pollinator in North America, are highly
susceptible to Bt poisoning, and will occasionally feed on corn plants (Pimentel).

The introduction of Bt crops has also led to the rise of secondary non-target pests as major scourges.
Mealy bugs in India and Pakistan emerged as major pests directly following the introduction of Bt crops in
the region. These insects destroyed 50,000 out of 8 million acres of cotton area across Pakistan, and the
damage is still increasing. Organic crops have escaped the plague, due to their farmers' use of natural
pesticides instead of Bt crops (Ho). Likewise, in China, Mirid bugs, which once did not present a threat to
agriculture, have progressively grown in number since the introduction of Bt crops, especially in regions
growing Bt cotton (Lu). The decrease in synthetic pesticide use in these regions has contributed to the
rise in pests that have never responded to Bt. However, it is possible that integrated management of
secondary pests, including techniques that integrate natural predators or parasites, can alleviate the new
pestilences (Lu).

Bt crops may still be better than their alternatives in that they represent an overall decrease in ecological
damage caused by pesticides. Still, the rise of such insects demonstrates the unknowns involved in
shifting over to transgenic crops. Unknown long-term ecological effects make transgenics less palatable,
especially in regions with great biodiversity.

The development of herbicide resistant plants has also led to an unexpected increase in the resilience of
weeds, which threatens to create a cycle of dependence. The introduction of such herbicide tolerant
plants at first decreased herbicide use, but afterwards increased its usage and scope. Weeds have
become more and more resistant to herbicides, prompting farmers to use a wider variety and larger
quantity of them (Lim). While pesticide use dropped from 22,454 lbs to 15,618 lbs from 2003 to 2008, at a
rate of 7000 lbs per acre per year, herbicide use increased from 278,514,000 lbs to 330,422,709 lbs
(Cherry). Thus, the sum of herbicide and pesticide usage per hectare in the United States increased 10
percent since 2003 (Cherry). Insects exhibiting Bt resistance have also been documented in the United
States, but the scope of such resistance in insects can be minimized by the planting of non-Bt crops near
Bt ones (“Pesticide Resistance”, Physorg).

GMOs currently lack sufficient oversight.

Six unapproved GMO types have been found in livestock feed (Melvin). Censoring of scientists such as
Pustzai has also generated controversy on the validity of GMO studies (Randerson). All GM crops should
undergo safety screening in order to minimize health consequences, environmental pollution, and
ecological imbalance (FAO).

The influence of agricultural corporate giants on the availability of GM seeds may lead to farmer

Transgenics are expensive, and controlled by corporate agricultural giants. Since alleviating poverty
primarily concerns helping poor farmers, pushing them into a cycle of debt to foreign agricultural giants is
perilous to food security. In Monsanto vs Schmeiser, Monsanto was guaranteed intellectual property
rights over the Roundup Ready soybean seed; the precedent may allow private companies like Monsanto
to to exploit farmers. Herein lies our greatest objection to using GM crops: until “fit-for-the-purpose”
transgenic seeds are available for distribution to farmers without threatening them with a cycle of debt,
transgenic seeds represent a step away from greater food security in the Third World.

However, if a rigorously tested and reliable source of transgenic seeds is found that does not require
dependence on large agricultural firms, will permit the farmers' traditional practice of saving their seeds,
and is approved by the local government, we are open to providing farmers with the seeds under the
condition that existing non-transgenic seeds be saved in a food bank and still be available to local


Other technologies available have fewer scientific unknowns, less possibility of forming cycles of farmer
debt, and have led to equally significant reductions in hunger. Integrated pest management, organic
farming, and other improved farming practices may increase yields just as effectively as would introducing
transgenic organisms. As such, we will not promote their widespread use until more research has been
done on long term health effects, GMO seeds are available outside of corporate agriculture control, the
biological effects of gene insertion are better understood, and research confirms that the presence of
GMOs will not harm the native species in an ecosystem.