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History of Genetically Modified Food

History of Genetically Modified Food

The history of genetically modified food can be traced back to 1983, the year the first genetically modified plant was developed. While the concept has come a long way, the journey has been a bit bumpy with quite a few controversies sprouting now and then.
Abhijit Naik
Since 1997, the total surface area of land used for cultivation of genetically modified food has increased by a staggering 80 times, and that highlights the popularity of these products very well. On the flip-side though, there have been some controversies which have marred the overall experience. Whilst going through its history, you will notice that the practice of producing genetically engineered foods has been more in news for numerous controversies surrounding it.
Genetically Modified Foods (GM Foods) History
The history of producing GM foods can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk and botanist, carried out an experiment wherein he crossbred tall pea species with short pea species to show that certain traits in one species are inherited by other in this process. Even though Mendel is widely considered the founder of science of genetics today, his efforts were not acknowledged until the 20th century. Mendel's observations paved way for the development of first genetically engineered plant―an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant, in 1983.

GM Foods
Going by a proper definition, these are food products which are obtained from genetically modified organisms (GMOs)―both, plants and animals. The said organisms are modified by making specific changes to their DNA by means of genetic engineering. This involves either insertion or deletion of genes. Genetic engineering has been one of the major achievements in the field of biology, and the use of same for production of food is not surprising at all.

After the 1983 breakthrough, it took the scientists another ten years to grow the first genetically modified food product for commercial use. This transgenic crop was a tomato created by a California based company, Calegne. The new species, which was named FlavrSavr by the company, was made available commercially in 1994. It was modified in such a manner that its shelf life increased. Despite consumers showing keen interest in the same, the company stopped its production in 1997, as its characteristic longer shelf life made it less profitable.
Some sources cite that the company actually ceased the production of this crop because of the competition from its conventional counterpart and some production problems that the company had to face. In the meanwhile, another European company manufactured a tomato paste from a genetically modified tomato and made it available in the market in 1996.
Controversies surrounding this practice began surfacing when some scientists claimed that these products were harmful for animals and humans. One such scientist was Arpad Pusztai, a Hungarian-born biochemist and nutritionist, who, in 1998, revealed that he had observed harmful effects of such products on the stomach lining and immune system of rats whom he fed GM potatoes.
With controversies erupting now and then, the general impression was that humans were reduced to mere guinea pigs for this new technology. While that did affect the production in certain regions of the world, it didn't bring the same to a complete halt. Genetic research continued and many other crops were modified to suit human requirements. The total surface area of land cultivated to grow genetically modified crops increased from 4.2 million acres in 1997 to 331 million acres in 2009. As of today, the United States is the largest producer of GM foods, accounting for 45 percent of the world production, followed by Brazil and Argentina, with 16 and 15 percent of the world share respectively.
The controversial history of this practice has kept it in the spotlight over the last fifteen years. If genetically modified foods are as controversial as ever even today, it's mainly because of conflicting research on their benefits and dangers. In the end, there is no concrete evidence to say whether these transgenic foods are harmful for us, or not. In such circumstances, it is wise to evaluate their pros and cons, and opt for a safe way out―even if it means abstaining from them.