by Gabriel Rangel
figures by Anna Maurer

Summary: To date, scientists have engineered bacteria that produce medication-grade drugs, crops with built-in pesticides, and beagles that glow in the dark. While these are all relatively recent advances in scientific technology, humans have been altering the genetics of organisms for over 30,000 years. How did the original practice of selective breeding evolve into the concept of genetically modified organisms, as we know it today? Innovators, motivated by some of the world’s most critical problems, have paved the way for GMOs — a path that leads to an unimaginable array of benefits, but also raises extremely important questions.

The concept of “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, has received a large amount of attention in recent years. Indeed, the relative number of Google searches for “GMO” has more than tripled since late 2012 [1]. However, humans have been genetically modifying organisms for over 30,000 years [2]! Clearly, our ancestors had no scientific laboratories capable of directly manipulating DNA that long ago, so how did they do it, and how have GMOs become such a popular topic?

Ancient Genetic Modification

While our ancestors had no concept of genetics, they were still able to influence the DNA of other organisms by a process called “selective breeding” or “artificial selection.” These terms, coined by Charles Darwin, describe the process of choosing the organisms with the most desired traits and mating them with the intention of combining and propagating these traits through their offspring. Repeated use of this practice over many generations can result in dramatic genetic changes to a species. While artificial selection is not what we typically consider GMO technology today, it is still the precursor to the modern processes and the earliest example of our species influencing genetics.

The dog is thought to be the first organism our ancestors artificially selected. Around 32,000 years ago, while our ancestors were still hunters and gatherers, wild wolves in East Asia joined groups of humans as scavengers. They were domesticated and then artificially selected to increase docility, leading to dogs that are closely related to what are currently known as Chinese native dogs [2]. Over millennia, various traits such as size, hair length, color and body shape were artificially selected for, altering the genetics of these domesticated descendants of wolves so much that we now have breeds such as Chihuahuas and corgis that barely resemble wolves at all! Since this time, artificial selection has been applied to many different species and has helped us develop all sorts of animals from prize-winning racehorses to muscular beef cattle.

Artificial selection has also been utilized with a variety of plants. The earliest evidence of artificial selection of plants dates back to 7800 BCE in archaeological sites found in southwest Asia, where scientists have found domestic varieties of wheat [3]. However, one of the most dramatic and prevalent alterations in plant genetics has occurred through artificial selection of corn. Corn, or maize, began as a wild grass called teosinte that had tiny ears with very few kernels [4]. Over the hundreds of years, teosinte was selectively bred to have larger and larger ears with more and more kernels, resulting in what we now know as corn.  A similar process has given us large heads of broccoli, bananas with nearly unnoticeable seeds, and apples that are sweet and juicy.

Although artificial selection is an ancient process that is still used today, most current conversations regarding GMOs refer to a much more modern process of altering the genetics of organisms.

The Birth of Modern Genetic Modification

An enormous breakthrough in GMO technology came in 1973, when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen worked together to engineer the first successful genetically engineered (GE) organism [5]. The two scientists developed a method to very specifically cut out a gene from one organism and paste it into another. Using this method, they transferred a gene that encodes antibiotic resistance from one strain of bacteria into another, bestowing antibiotic resistance upon the recipient. One year later, Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz utilized a similar procedure in animals, introducing foreign DNA into mouse embryos [6].

Although this new technology opened up countless avenues of research possibilities, immediately after its development, the media, government officials, and scientists began to worry about the potential ramifications on human health and Earth’s ecosystems [7]. By the middle of 1974, a moratorium on GE projects was universally observed, allowing time for experts to come together and consider the next steps during what has come to be known as the Asilomar Conference of 1975 [8]. At the conference, scientists, lawyers, and government officials debated the safety of GE experiments for three days. The attendees eventually concluded that the GE projects should be allowed to continue with certain guidelines in place [9]. For instance, the conference defined safety and containment regulations to mitigate the risks of each experiment. Additionally, they charged the principal investigator of each lab with ensuring adequate safety for their researchers, as well as with educating the scientific community about important developments. Finally, the established guidelines were expected to be fluid, influenced by further knowledge as the scientific community advanced.

Due to the unprecedented transparency and cooperation at the Asilomar Conference, government bodies around the world supported the move to continue with GE research, thus launching a new era of modern genetic modification.

Use of Genetically Engineered Organisms

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court of the ruled that scientists from General Electric could patent bacteria that were genetically engineered to break down crude oil to help with oil spill mitigation [10]. This ruling legally permitted ownership rights over GMOs, giving large companies the incentive to rapidly develop GMO tools that could both be useful and profitable.

Two years later, in 1982, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first human medication produced by a genetically modified organism. Bacteria had been genetically engineered to synthesize human insulin, allowing them to produce enough of the hormone to purify, package, and prescribe it to diabetes patients as the drug Humulin [11].

While uses for genetic engineering range from oil spills to medication, perhaps the most controversial application is for food production. The first field experiments of food crops that had been genetically modified using recombinant DNA technology began in 1987. After five years of extensive health and environmental testing, Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato became the first food crop to be approved for commercial production by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These tomatoes were modified to include a DNA sequence that inhibited production of a natural tomato protein, increasing the firmness and extending the shelf life of the Flavr Savr variety.

In addition to making food more aesthetically pleasing, scientists have developed crops that are easier to for farmers to cultivate. In 1995 the first pesticide-producing crop was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after rigorous testing [12]. A year later, Bt corn was approved, and now the majority of corn in the U.S. has the Bt toxin gene (see this article). Additionally, crops have also been genetically engineered to resist herbicides, making it easier for farmers to control unwanted plants in their fields. Perhaps the most famous herbicide resistant crops are the Roundup Ready or glyphosate-resistant plants (see this article). The first of these glyphosate-resistant crops was a variety of soybean, engineered by Monsanto in 1996. Now glyphosate-resistant technology has been applied to many other crops, including corn and sugar beets.

Scientists have also genetically engineered crops to increase nutrition value. For instance, Golden Rice was developed in 2000 with the goal to combat vitamin A deficiency, which is estimated to kill over 500,000 people every year (see this article)[13].

Although many species of animals have been genetically engineered, the vast majority of this technology is used for research purposes, and to date, there have been no GE animals approved by the FDA for use in food production [14].  However, in 2009, the U.S. FDA approved the first biological product produced by a GE animal, ATryn, a drug used to treat a rare blood clotting disorder [15].

Genetically Engineered Food Controversies

There have been many controversies regarding GE technology, with the majority relating to GE food. While some critics object to the use of this technology based on religious or philosophical bases, most critics object on the basis of environmental or health concerns. For instance, a 1999 publication showed Bt toxin had negative effects on butterfly populations in laboratory tests, leading to strong objections of Bt use, but follow-up studies in actual farming fields confirmed the safety of this technology [16]. In a different example, the economic stress of the poor yield of GE cotton crops in India over the late 1990s and early 2000s was associated by many organizations with a presumed increase in farmer suicides [17]. However, it was later concluded that suicide rates were actually unchanged after introduction of GE cotton, and that there were economic benefits of GE cotton for most Indian farmers [18].

During the same time frame, public awareness of the existence of GE foods increased, and calls for regulation of GE food grew louder, resulting in labeling requirements for GE food in many countries. Today, 64 countries have mandatory labeling laws for GE food [19]. However, the United States still does not have a mandatory, nationwide labeling law, although many advocacy groups are lobbying to enact one. These groups argue that labeling GE food is important for consumer choice and for monitoring unforeseen problems associated with the technology [20]. In contrast, groups opposing labels claim a law would unnecessarily eliminate consumer demand for current GE crops, causing steep increases in food price and resource utilization [20].

Although the debate about GE food is active, and there is no shortage of opponents to the technology, the scientific community has largely come together and concluded consumption of GE food is no more dangerous and eating traditionally selected crops  [21]. This conclusion has not stopped businesses from capitalizing on the current fear of GE food. In 2013, Chipotle became the first restaurant chain to label menu items as “GMO,” and in April of this year, the company announced the elimination of all ingredients made with GMOs, citing their “food with integrity journey” [22].  With cases such as this, it is safe to say the debate on GE food will continue for some time.

The Future of GMO Technology

There are countless potential uses of GE technology in development. These include plants with superior disease and drought resistance, animals with enhanced growth properties, and strategies for more efficient pharmaceutical production [23].  Likewise, GE technology itself is quickly advancing. Recently, researchers have developed a new technology called CRISPR, which takes advantage of bacterial systems to simplify genetic editing, allowing for easier development of GE organisms [24]. This technology could be used to expedite development of useful GE crops, facilitate disease elimination, or even alter entire ecosystems. Interestingly, recent advances in plant breeding techniques may increase the utility and rebound the popularity of the more traditional GMO method of selective breeding. Indeed, new drought resistant strains of various crops have been recently developed using traditional breeding methods [25].

The United Nations predicts that by 2050, humans will need to produce 70% more food than we currently do in order to adequately feed the global population (see this article) [26]. Indeed, innovative approaches will be required to solve this problem, and genetically engineering our food is a potentially useful tool. As scientists look forward at ways to create better crop survival, yield, and nutrition, it is important that we remember where all of this work began, and give credit to the pioneers who have made our advancements possible. Our ancestors that selectively bred wolves to eventually develop Corgis could not foresee that today we would be able to genetically engineer corn to withstand pests, herbicides, and drought. What is the future of GMO technology that we ourselves can’t foresee now?

Gabriel Rangel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biological Sciences in Public Health Program at Harvard University.

This article is part of the August 2015 Special Edition, Genetically Modified Organisms and Our Food.


  1. “GMO Search Term.” Google Trends, July 2015.
  2. Zimmer, C. “From Fearsome Predator to Man’s Best Friend.” New York Times, May 2013.
  3. Balter, M. “ Farming Was So Nice, It Was Invented at Least Twice.” Science, July 2013.
  4. “The Evolution of Corn.” Genetics Learning Center, University of Utah, July 2015.
  5. Cohen, S. et. al. “Construction of Biologically Functional Bacterial Plasmids In Vitro.” PNAS, November 1973.
  6. Jaenisch, R. and Mintz, B. “Simian Virus 40 DNA Sequences in DNA of Healthy Adult Mice Derived from Preimplantation Blastocysts Injected with Viral DNA.” PNAS, April 1974.
    7.  Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules. “Potential Biohazards of Recombinant DNA Molecules.” PNAS, July 1974.
  7. Berg, P. “Asilomar and Recombinant DNA.” Nobel Media AB, August 2004.
  8. Berg, P. et. al. “Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules.” PNAS, June 1975.
  9. “Biotechnology.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015.
  10. Altman, L. “A New Insulin Given Approval for Use in the U.S.” The New York Times, October 1982.
  11. “EPA’s Regulation of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Crops.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Februray 2014.
  12. Ye et. al. “Engineering the Provitamin A (β-Carotene) Biosynthetic Pathway into (Carotenoid-Free) Rice Endosperm.” Science, January 2000.
  13. “Genetically Engineered Animals: Consumer Q&A.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, June 2015.
  14. “FDA Approves Orphan Drug ATryn to Treat Rare Clotting Disorder.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, February 2009.
  15. Sears, M. et. al. “Impact of Bt corn pollen on monarch butterfly populations: A risk assessment.” PNAS, August 2001.
  16. Heeter, C. “Seeds of Suicide: India’s Desperate Farmers.” Frontline World: PBS, July 2005.
  17. Gruère, G. et. al. “ Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India.” International Food Policy Research Institute, October 2008.
  18. “Labeling around the World.” Just Label It Campaign, July 2015.
  19. “Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea.” Scientific American, August 2013.
  20. “A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research.” European Union, 2010.
  21. Zimmer, C. “Chipotle Says Adios To GMOs, As Food Industry Strips Away Ingredients.” NPR News, April 2015.
  22. “Frequently Asked Questions on Genetically Modified Foods.” WHO, 2015.
  23. Ledford, H. “CRISPR, the Disruptor.” Nature, June 2015.
  24. Gurian-Sherman, D. “Are GMOs Worth the Trouble?” MIT Technology Review, March 2014.
  25. Northoff, E. “2050: A third more mouths to feed.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, October 2009.



80 thoughts on “From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology

  1. Pingback: The Case for GMOs
  2. Pingback: The Case for GMOs
    1. You seem to only tell about the goodness of the plant and the farmer growing the crop, but not about the damage it does to the person eating these freak crops. The diseases it promotes and one being cancer. The lies continue.

      1. I would just like to say that it seems like you’ve been misinformed. You can’t get cancer from eating genetically modified crops. On the other hand, you are much more likely to potentially develop health problems from excessive pesticide use. Which some GMO’s such as BT corn negate the need for because of the fact that they produce their own natural insecticides. I would also like to point out that cancer is caused by rampant cell growth and you can’t catch it by eating something. That is unless you decide it would be a good idea to swallow something absolutely loaded with carcinogens.

        1. Bt isn’t a “natural” pesticide. Bt crops are engineered to produce proteins that naturally exist in certain bacteria. Those proteins kill certain bugs that eat the bt plant. So, the bt crops produce pesticides – not “natural” ones, but ones added through genetic engineering.

      2. I doubt you did prior research to this. “the diseases it promotes?” “one being cancer?” numerous studies have proven over and over and over again that there is literally no risk of eating GMO foods. Please get your facts right. It’s embarrassing.

  3. Selective breeding is not GMO process.
    It is very misleading at best and looks more likely intentionally deceiving, as this paper is trying to describe monsanto’s GMO process as the continuous progression of selective breeding. Selective breeding does not involve inter-species DNA modification. It is very irresponsible of Harvard allowing this kind of article to be published knowing that this will be used to legitimize Monsanto’s GMO products. Shame.

    1. The article says: “most current conversations regarding GMOs refer to a much more modern process of altering the genetics of organisms.” The point is that humans have been influencing the DNA of our food supply for a long time. Furthermore, many of the most modern GMO technologies (many of which are not being developed by Monsanto, btw) don’t actually add any foreign DNA from other organisms or species, but rather delete or silence genes that the organism already has, which is very similar to what happens in selective breeding. You can read more about that in other articles in this special edition:,

      1. Any article or paper that tries to draw similarities between selective breeding and genetic engineering is designed to misinform the reader, scientifically speaking. Yes, all breeding “modifies” genetics. But these authors KNOW that there are technological differences, and the two classes of methodologies present different benefits and risks. (and “newer” GE techniques aren’t an exception)

        This is about public perception and persuasion – not science education.

    2. Mr. Clifford Lee, I concur 100 percent. I regard the argument that requiring GMO labeling could “… cause sharp increases in food prices” as an UNFOUNDED THREAT that may cause acute fear in an unsuspecting public. The author clearly receives some form of support from the GMO cartel. To think Harvard approves of this authorship GREATLY diminishes my regard for Harvard.

    3. It is not irresponsible that Harvard let this paper be published because its there right to publish whatever they wish. To publish a paper that is for GMO’s is not a shame on them but a great achievement! If you kindly take your self absorbed feeling and look at the bigger picture of this great achievement, this paper is not to mislead the public of sticking an idea in their head but to inform them. Genetically modifying DNA is a common study in many fields, GM insulin is a product of genetically modifying DNA that has saved many people . This insulin is create synthetically in labs, but without this people would have to get this insulin from pancreas of pigs or cows. This would kill countless amount of pigs and cows, this is one of many way GMO can save lives and create a better future. So, i ask you again to take your self absorbed felling out of the picture and think of other and how this practice is still young. Papers like this can encourage people to become scientist and study or prefect a form of GMO’s that can save life, those life could be me, you or a love one. Then imagine if Harvard listen to you and did not encourage those people, then those people did not prefect a form of GMO’s. Which that love one or you needed, what would you think then. This is why papers like these are need to be published, for a push to help those in third world countries with dying crops which GMO’s can fix. So, think carefully and think out of the box.

    4. you can selectively breed plants to have certain traits that are normally rare in plants witch is technically changing there DNA

    5. *selective vreeding absolutely involves cross breeding of species, specific example is a horse and a donkey (the mule) which only suffers from the inability to produce offspring. Furthermore, different sub species of dogs/wolves interbreeding can produce entirely new subspecies with new traits.

      I hear you, but you’re wrong. Monsanto isn’t the enemy. Just because they make a lot of money doesn’t maje them inherently evil, it means they have some incredibly intelligent scientists and businessmen/women who work diligently to make advances in in technology to improve our day to day lives.

  4. The simple question would be “what is the motivation of this article?” When GMO is currently associated mostly with monsanto’s GMO products/push (with foreign DNA insertion – which is core of what people are opposing to), why trying to group all GMO into the same umbrella? It is like to including America’s independent war and France’s resistant (La Résistance) in a history of terrorism. In a technical matter, some may argue the validity of assertion but highly inappropriate. especially coming from Harvard website.

    1. Not sure I am entirely understanding your point here, but the motivation of this article is to look at the many ways in which humans have altered the genetics of our food or other organisms to our advantage–through selective breeding or genetic engineering.

      1. I doubt if you seriously do not understand why people are opposing GMO. I think you simply want to deny it. There are so many studies, researches, case studies, empirical data pointing existing human health danger, as well as environmental issues GMO has created, I’m not sure how one can not being exposed to it if one wants to find out. Of course if you choose to not to believe it, I hope you are at least getting paid (scholarship, research grants, or simple money) doing this.
        The original article was published shortly before Harvard & MIT began working with Monsanto. The author’s background and his scholarship history, style of his paper, timing … all follows industry – academia – political manipulation of facts so clearly. Just coincident? I hope you SITNFlash (hope I know your real name) are innocent from all this and simply misinformed person… For those who haven’t heard … here are some links :

        1. To a certain extent, I understand why people oppose GMOs. I personally used to be somewhat skeptical of GMOs. However, as I mentioned before, we (grad student volunteers) took some time to really look into the peer reviewed literature about GMOs to put together a series of articles (of which this article is a part). This really changed my mind about GMOs–the science just doesn’t back up claims against their safety and for the most part, even their negative environmental effects. And by science I mean peer-reviewed, government-funded science. I don’t agree with everything Monsanto does, and I think that there are social and economic reasons to mistrust them. However, I see a lot of problems in our future (due to climate change, rising populations, agriculture’s harm to the environment) that GMOs can help us to solve. And since there’s no indication that GMOs are bad for our health, I am a proponent of further research into solving those problems using GE technology.

          Please stop accusing me (and others) of being paid by Monsanto just because my educated opinion differs from yours. No one involved in the publication of this article was paid in any way by anyone. We are also not speaking for Harvard University as an institution. I’m happy to debate the pros and cons of GMOs with you on a scientific level. I’m open to changing my mind on this if presented with data.

          1. Got your email reply. Funny you mentioned ” …….a lot of problems in our future (due to climate change, rising populations, agriculture’s harm to the environment) that GMOs can help us to solve. ” How does GMO solve or even contribute positive effect? Many of them stems from Monsanto’s practice.
            1. Climate change – Monsanto argues that use of pesticides will decrease and crop yield will increase to provide more food for people. “Feed the World” ? With Monsanto’s crop (round up ready line for example) use of pesticides increased and there are no evidence showing total food yield per lot increased according to USDA data. One can argue we have more corn. Yeh, if you don’t plant anything else and use exclusively for corn, and not worry about farming cost (including all subsidiary) … one knows that they are manipulating statistics to support lie. Per land space, there are a lot of other farming practice that is more sustainable, more productive, and less depend on greenhouse emission. You mentioned that you have examined “data”? Where are they? Other than typical propagandas
            2. agriculture’s harm to the environment – Again, where are you getting the data and what are you conveniently ignoring? How dare you saying GMO lessens harm to the environment? This is one of the most absurd argument.
            3. growing population. Monsantos’ “we feed the world” slogan- Let’s say that growing population is a real problem. Is monsanto’s use of suicide seeds (that forces farmer to keep buying from Monsanto), seed bank monopoly, destroying small farmers, patten – monopoly, buying politics to push their agenda and use our tax money against our will …. all for the hungry population, do you think? Yes if people in every county eats like us, we will have problem of ANY resources. But if only US changes their consumption level/style to that of other countries, we will solve many of the issues you just mentioned very quickly. The projected growing population that will require 6 (or 7 ) earths by… arguments are based on “if all begin consume at the “US and Westernized” level of consumption. Not per capita data based on true world population. With such skewed and misleading data, you are trying to again sell that concept “me and other graduate students’s review of data” under Harvard’s website? So typical…. I’m pretty sure that these type of work can help Monsanto and others leveraging “according to Harvard XXX research group….” in their “scientific studies/peer reviews” and get you cushy rewards at some time…. But if you are who you said you are ( willing to examine the data, exploring true scientific validity….etc., ) do some research and invite for invitation for discussion for your own sake. Provide the real data in the open and be ready to examine the criticism and alternate view. Stop selling your “echo-chamber” slogan as the “scientific finding”

            And since there’s no indication that GMOs are bad for our health

          2. The data that we have found regarding current GMOs is on our website in a collection of articles on GMOs (linked at the bottom of this article) (
            See this and this and their associated references for info about safety to health
            See this and this and associated references for environmental impacts (both good and bad)

            When I was referring to GMOs solving problems of the future, I wasn’t referring to the “feed the world with higher yields” idea, as you assumed. The data I recall about “feeding the word” seems to show that while GM crops have increased yields, that increase has mostly plateaued and won’t be enough to sustain the ever-growing population (I can look for that data if you are interested). Instead, I was thinking about GMOs that are not currently on the market, about the future of the technology. It’s not Monsanto that is doing this kind of development (as far as I am aware), it’s smaller biotech companies and government-funded labs. Agriculture is estimated to have a greater effect on climate change than all of transportation (cars, planes, trains etc combined), contributing to about 25% of global energy use. So developing crops that have less impact on the environment could have a dramatic impact on climate change. For example, this rice (doi:10.1038/nature14673) produces less methane; this canola (doi:10.1139/B07-019) thrives with less nitrogen in the soil (meaning less fertilizer needs to be used, less pollution to the environment from runoff etc. and less energy used to make fertilizer). Please also see this review by a University of Washington scientist in Science magazine (10.1126/science.aag1698) for an overview of the role of science in the “next green movement”. Do these things still need to be tested in the “real world”? Yes–but they show promise enough that to me, a broad, sweeping rejection of GMOs seems at best unwise and at worse harmful.

            Please let me know if there is anything else you would like data on.

            I am trying to invite you to a discussion about this–please send me all the data that you keep telling me I am ignoring. I honestly do not want to ignore it. Also, please stop attacking me personally by questioning my motives.

          3. Thank you for your response to the previous comment from the poster who made claims about your connections to Monsanto. That said I do take issue with the casual lumping of millennia of selective breeding under natures proven rules, with in Lab techniques of directly manipulating genomes. In my mind they are fundamentally very different in that one does not pay heed to natural limits imposed under selective breeding.

            Further I see no evidence of need for such approaches other that to monopolize the human need for food. We have always been able to feed the world despite various world maladies, sadly we simply choose not to for reasons no more complex than greed. These very motives will ensure that GMO’s do not feed the world but may feed those who can pay. I think you can see that a for profit company like Monsanto is not going to give anything away except insofar as they attempted to in Haiti where poor hungry subsistence farmers quickly determined the real motive was to force poor Haitians into annual seed fees that would likely have bankrupted them.

            GMO will not feed the world.

            Lastly, I find not evidence for your claims that prices would soar if people were given the choice to not select GMO. Your assertion is flawed in several ways. First you make the assumption that what is claimed to be a superior product would be shunned. Where is the evidence? Second, we are more than capable of feeding ourselves without GMO’s as we have for decades destroyed over production rather than ship it to starving people long before GMO’s came along. Third, farmers costs due to waste or lower yields may be real but will also be offset by reduced seed costs and the costs of spraying RoundUp on everything in one example.

            In addition a return to more local production and consumption will create more local economy, sadly at the expense of profits in big agri.

            If anything exposes potential bias in your argument, conscious or other wise, it is the fear generating hyperbole of claiming rising food costs with no data to actually support that position.

            At worst more local economy, I can live with that.

          4. Thanks for your comment. I think the line between GE technology and non-GE forms of genetic manipulation is actually not as solid as it might seem. Many officially non-GMO crops have been modified by irradiating seeds to cause random mutations. Many GMO crops currently in development are using GE technology to make targeted, specific mutations. I would think that the latter is safer than the irradiated former, given that irradiating seeds can cause multiple mutations of unknown effect. However, people aren’t up in arms about this former technology, but they are about GE. So I would argue that GE is indeed part of a spectrum of ways that our food is genetically manipulated. There are still some natural limits that one has to consider with GE as well–not every gene can be mutated or added to a given organism and still allow it to grow well.

            I think the economic consequences of allowing a company like Monsanto to have total control over all of our food would probably be bad. I am merely advocating for further research into GE crops instead of a sweeping rejection of anything GMO. This research is currently mostly taking place at government-funded university labs and smaller biotech companies. Of course it will be important for our government to regulate these crops so that corporations cannot choose greed over benefit for people of the world.

            Finally, I’m not the author of this piece, but I don’t think either I or he claimed that prices would soar if people were given the choice not to select GMO. (I think the author was trying to present both sides of the labeling argument without taking one or the other: “These groups argue that labeling GE food is important for consumer choice and for monitoring unforeseen problems associated with the technology [20]. In contrast, groups opposing labels claim a law would unnecessarily eliminate consumer demand for current GE crops, causing steep increases in food price and resource utilization [20].”)

        2. There is good that GMOs have done also. If you did your research from scholarly sources, you would see that the FDA and USDA are working together to bring GMOs BACK in, because the research being done is false or not existing.
          Also, selective breeding is a form of “GMO”, so if you have any kind of dog breed, you have a dog that was genetically modified. If you have any cat breed, cattle breed, horse breed. Even humans selectively breed with each other, considering US to be genetically modified.

          So before you freak out, do research. GMO is simply being genetically modified to make better. There is nothing harmful in placing another gene into an organism. It does nothing negative in any way>.

        3. If they are so incredible, why don’t they make a product that doesn’t cause cancer? Like their Roundup does, and it’s been proven? Trying to kill the public off and obviously you believe their lies or are part of their company or a shill.

  5. What a tremendous disappointment this article is. It is not only misleading but it really sounds like a proGMO industry article, full of outright lies. I’m really not surprised that Harvard put their name on such an article.

    1. We at SITN try to be very careful about not presenting false information. If you have identified such information in this article, please provide a contradictory peer-reviewed source, and we will be happy to correct it. Thanks!

  6. It is very misleading at best and looks more likely intentionally deceiving, as this paper is trying to describe monsanto’s GMO process as the continuous progression of selective breeding. Selective breeding does not involve inter-species DNA modification. It is very irresponsible of Harvard allowing this kind of article to be published knowing that this will be used to legitimize Monsanto’s GMO products.

    1. No. Selective breeding does not involve inter-species DNA modification but the article stated this. The article is in no way misleading. The person who wrote the article just gave an opinion. The opinion does not have to correlate to your opinion but that does not make it wrong.

  7. Honestly the information published by gmo project is a lie and is just increasing food prices. No one truely knows anything and the fact that people think everything is being gmo-ed is stupid. we can help cure world hunger and blindness in Asia.

  8. When a scientific organization or research department purposefully conflates selective breeding through reproductive means and the genetic manipulation of biotechnology, the breaking, disrupting and forced replacement of DNA sequencing–an obvious and radical departure from the historic application/definition of the term ‘genetic modification, I am infuriated and I immediately discount the article and its author(s). Anyone with a basic knowledge of biology, chemistry and nutrition knows these processes are radically different and the campaign to mislead and conflate as though they are not should be discredited, individual scientists and entire labs, participating in this con should be publicly called out and held accountable for their abuses. We must insist as a scientific community that the term ‘genetic modification’ and current GMO research is *not interchangeable* and stop normalizing the conflation and promoting industry efforts to confuse the two. Manipulating proteins and breaking a sequence that is recognizable and bio-available is not the same as manipulating and isolating for expression in reproduction. You know this.

    1. I think the author is pretty clear that modern genetic engineering and selective breeding are not the same (if you read the whole article): “Although artificial selection is an ancient process that is still used today, most current conversations regarding GMOs refer to a much more modern process of altering the genetics of organisms.”

      Also, while I agree with you that selective breeding (which generally results in loss of genes or changes to genes that a plant or animal already has) is pretty different from the GE foods that are currently available (which add foreign genes that could never be gained from selective breeding), newer GE technology that uses CRISPR or RNAi to prevent expression of or otherwise alter genes that the plant/animal already has would pretty much achieve the same result as selective breeding, but faster.

      Given that we are in a global climate crisis, if we intend to keep feeding the billions of humans, we’re likely going to need our food to “evolve” faster than it will by “natural” means. GE technology as a solution to the world’s problems is too often dismissed as “unnatural” when it may be one of few feasible solutions to food crises of the future. While you accuse us (a grad student organization of scientists with no ties to big companies) of comparing GE technology to selective breeding in order to promote industry’s narratives, I can assure you this is not our intent at all (what would we gain from that?). Our intent is to fight against the public perception of “frakenfood” and “unnatural” evil GMOs because, based on our scientific education, we believe that that perception is hugely overblown. And we’re not alone–the gap between what scientists think about GMOs (that they’re safe) and what the public thinks is greater than the gap between scientists and the public for climate change! So yes, this article makes some comparisons between selective breeding and GE tech, but it also states that they are different.

      We also have other articles that support the regulation and testing of GM foods and explain some of the environmental dangers of currently available GM foods–such as the formation of superweeds. We are aware that there are some dangers of using GE technology in foods if it’s not carefully monitored, but we’re not ready to dismiss it outright!

      Since it sounds like from your comment that you may also be a scientist, I would be interested to know what, specifically about GM foods/GE tech has you concerned.

      1. First off I am not a scientist……Where as I found the article to be very informative, I noticed there seemed to be lacking information countering the pro’s of GMO modified food. The article even mentions several times that are groups, if you will, that ping on the con’s of GMO modified food. But, the article doesn’t really address any of these concerns as being legit. I think it’s safe to say that the article leans way to the pro side of the subject. I have, what I believe to be, as well as some comment writer’s, legit concerns to GMO modified foods. The article doesn’t even discuss or raise any concerns as to what these modifications do or don’t do to the nutritional value of these foods compared to non-gmo food. I noticed no mention of any information regarding long term effects of ingesting food that contain these unnatural occurring ingredients. I also think, as well as others I think, that if one were to follow the money one would find Monsanto, that makes huge dollars on all this has spent huge dollars trying to down play the negative publicity. I understand the Monsanto pretty much has a monopoly on seeds that one would/could to buy retail. I also believe, as well as others, that when there’s huge money involved that negative information will sometimes get buried, as in cover ups. It has happened before and will happen again. So all the individuals involved in creating this article should have gone the extra step and investigated the other side of the story a little more thoroughly. It would have done wonders for your credibility.

        1. Hello and thank you for your comment! This article is part of a series of articles that we did on GMOs (this one being specifically about the history of GMOs). Please see our other articles here:

          I was the editor who put together this series, and I have to say that I went into it a skeptic. I thought that there had to be something sketchy about GMOs. And to some extent that’s true–round-up resistant weeds (see our article about RoundUp) are turning into a big problem. But there’s really no evidence to suggest that GMOs hurt the nutritional value of food or are otherwise unhealthy. Also, there’s great potential for GMOs to do good! We have another article dedicated to health effects, and even another dedicated to the potential for allerginicity. Please check them out!

          1. Like the author of this post, I am a graduate student. We are an entirely grad-student-run organization.

  9. The comments on this article, by majority, are proof that this is a terrible time to be intelligent. People’s opinion of a matter directly influences what facts they accept. They call this article misleading for integrating two human influenced concepts, but the title of the article is clear. “From Corgis to Corn:”. If you’d like to argue, please link your article with peer-reviewed scientific sources. If you can’t find one, write one with your independent study and open it for peer review. If you fail a peer review, it may be that all these bandwagon beliefs you’ve adopted are inaccurate.

    I can’t stand all these biased naysayers. argue by presenting facts to the contrary, not by saying “this looks like GMO/Monsato propaganda!” Without facts supporting that claim, YOU’RE THE ONES PUSHING PROPAGANDA.

  10. The research and insights presented in these articles are providing a great launching point, thanks to the referenced sources and measured fact based conclusions, for my own graduate project. For that, I want to say thank you to the authors. While my research proposal is in its infancy, I intend to examine if the application of GMOs in urban agriculture/aquaculture could be a step in creating more sustainable cities. I am still trying to narrow my focus and develop my initial research approach and methods but the information contained in all of these articles has helped me cut past the sensationalism and begin to build a good base of literature concerning the history, process, concerns, and development of GMOs. Again, thank you.


  11. This comment is primarily aimed at Sitn Flash (?) and the author, Gabriel Rangel, who *I* assume from *their* comments are scientists. I am trained as a scientist (math, physics, etc. as an undergraduate and linguistics as a graduate, both at your neighbor MIT). One can (almost) sympathize with the expressions of, let’s call it, dismay at the not specifically defined complaints of many commenters. Nevertheless, unless the comments (in other contexts) that *I* have seen are baseless or simply lies, Monsanto and other GMO producers have ferociously fought attempts to force *all* GMO foods to be labeled as such, with ads and lobbying. This must lead a disinterested observer to ask what they (Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk) are trying to hide, or at least to be receptive to even Conspiracy Theorists who claim (on the basis of likewise anecdotal evidence) that they cause cancer and other ills. The problem is, simply, {and quite clearly Monsanto has no way to refute this suggestion, or they would already have widely publicized it}, that Monsanto et al. are using citizens of the U. S. and other countries who do not have laws forbidding GMO foods, or at least forcing the labeling of such foods as being GMO, as Guinea pigs until, as in the case of Aspartame and other ‘fake’ sweeteners, the evidence became sufficient to cause the (at least partial) banning and/or labeling of the substances. It would not be amiss here to mention the U. S. tobacco companies, at least the largest of which knew well before 1950 about the connection between cigarettes and cancer and nevertheless continued to push smoking on the general public and deny the connection they knew existed, until the public finally realized what was going on and demanded much stricter laws, decades later. (And remember the more recent propaganda campaigns featuring cartoony ‘Joe Camel’ to appeal to *kids* until they were stopped.) [Disclaimer: my maternal grandparents both died in their 50s or 60s of cancer: first my grandfather, who smoked heavily most of his life, in his early 50s; and then my grandmother, who never smoked in her life, at 66, which can now quite clearly be attributed to secondary smoke inhalation.]

    Also, the mechanism which Monsanto used to splice the genes causes the molecules they modified to ‘accept’ molecules of Roundup, Monsanto’s own pesticide, which then binds to the plant, basically forcing people (as well, of course, as the pests originally targeted) who eat the plant to consume at the same time Roundup, at least as I understand the process. No, thank you. By the way, their marketing is correspondingly sleazy: farmers do not ‘own’ the plants, though they can sell their harvest, but only to eat. Even the farmer cannot use his own corn to plant a crop the following year.

    Now, I am just a typical skeptical scientist drawing common-sense conclusions from the facts that (I think) I know. Given Monsanto’s admitted genius at marketing, if their products were really innocuous, then the marketing staff has made a huge mistake and should be put out to pasture. That is, they should have started feeding laboratory rats their Roundup-tainted corn (e. g.) as soon as it was developed (as they probably did) and checked to see if they developed cancer, etc. (as they probably did [checked, in the case of the scientists and got cancer, in the case of the rats–at least by now]).

    Gabriel and Sitn(?), I do want to make clear that I am not trying to take away your livelihood. But I also want to feel that I can possibly make the choices I want to in what to eat, without having to worry that some corporate giant will have bought their label-free way into the food market, which would thereby affect me. (btw, they have done exactly the same with stevia– an inoffensive S. American plant in use for literally hundreds of years or more in that continent and that can be used (broken up) as a sweetener. And it has no side effects. So Monsanto cloned the molecule which produces the sweetening effect (about 500x more than that of sugar) and got permission from the useless idiots at the FDA to market it under the name ‘stevia’ by itself. However, the plant stevia has about 80 other molecules, which may or may not be the reason (the other molecules) why stevia has no side effects. So we’re Guinea pigs again! See you in a couple of generations, and meanwhile may your grandparents not suffer the fate of mine!

    So …, I feel no scientific compunction in drawing my own conclusions in this case, or in (trying to) avoid being a Guinea pig for Monsanto. I can’t really see any other logical possibility that is plausible, given MONSANTO’S ACTIONS. Likewise, I will do all that I can to support passing labeling laws REQUIRING THAT ALL GMO FOODSTUFFS BE LABELED as such. And then avoid eating them. So call me a conspiracy theorist. Sounds like a sound theory to me! Although I’m damned if I’ll be an unwitting subject in Monsanto’s double-blind experiments (which won’t exist, since M. won’t be able to find the normal corn anymore without importing it from, say, some VERY underdeveloped country).


    1. Hello and thanks for your comment! I am a scientist (biologist). I’m not against labeling laws in principle. However, I do think that that just labeling a food as a GMO or not a GMO is not really helpful or informative for the consumer. GMOs are not inherently dangerous or bad for your health (, That is, the process of genetically engineering food does not make it bad for you. Of course, if you’re allergic to peanuts and I put the protein that you’re allergic to into lettuce to make a lettuce-peanut hybrid, then you’d be allergic to that lettuce and that should definitely be labeled. I think it is reasonable to label GMOs if it actually has useful information in it–like what the food is modified with. Otherwise, it’s just encouraging people to be afraid of something that the scientific consensus says is safe without giving them any useful information. Again, I’m not against it, necessarily, I just don’t really think it’s useful.

      Also, your understanding of how glyphosate-resistance (RoundUp-resistance) works is a little off. The plants do NOT bind the pesticide. The plants are just glyphosate-resistant, meaning that glyphosate doesn’t kill them: This actually stops farmers from having to use more dangerous pesticides that are bad for your health (which is not to say that RoundUp doesn’t have its problems). So GM =/= more pesticide on foods. In the case of Bt crops, GM actually = less insecticide than even organic foods (Bt is a common organic pesticide).

      I helped to organize this special edition we did on GMOs (, of which this article is a part, and I have to say, I started out a skeptic, too, but, IMO, the facts just don’t back up any danger of GM foods. Is that to say I think Monsanto is a great company that can do no wrong? No. But I do support further research on GMOs and think they’re generally safe to eat. Given the RoundUp-resistant weed problem, we need to proceed carefully with investigating how they might affect our environment, and public-sector research is key for this! But I am hopeful that GM foods can do good in the world by helping us to lessen the environmental impact of farming.

      1. Hi, SITNFlash! I am a high school student writing a paper on GMOs and I found this article (and your comments) to be very helpful! Originally, I was opposed to GMOs and saw them as “unnatural” and therefore unhealthy; I was also influenced by the public stigma of GMOs. However, after researching for this product, I find this article and series very interesting. Although unintended consequences of inserting foreign DNA into an organism’s genome might not be able to be predicted, in its simplest form, inserting DNA into an organism is simply giving it new characteristics, not causing the organism to suddenly become a carcinogen (at least from my understanding). I find it interesting that many people were upset by the part of the article that commented on price changes caused by GMO labeling. I completely agree with the article: if GMOs were labeled, it might cause the public to view them as something dangerous (since they have to be singled out with a label) therefore decreasing demand for them. This would cause “organic” crop prices to rise since consumers would be willing to pay more for them in order to avoid GMO crops. GMO crop prices might also increase as producers tried to make a profit off fewer sales. Overall, I found this article very informative; I especially appreciated your comment about allergies, since that is an angle I had never considered before. If you had any more information regarding GMOs and how they work, I would find that very interesting! Thank you for taking the time to read this!

        A High School Student

  12. Excellent blog for lots of extremely use bits of information and facts! It is a very good feeling to finally acquire such a handy resource. I have been previously searching the site over an hour or so now and also have really found out a lot. Just wanted to let you know

  13. I don’t understand why people speak negatively about GM food, nature did the same thing that scientists are just very long. Scientists give plants those characteristics that are needed in today’s world and in the current climate. Of course these products can be dangerous to human life if not to follow it all, but everything is controlled by specialized commissions. You accept it or not, but our future for GMOs, but otherwise everything is very bad.

  14. The research and insights presented in these articles are providing a great launching point, thanks to the referenced sources and measured fact based conclusions, for my own graduate project. For that, I want to say thank you to the authors. While my research proposal is in its infancy, I intend to examine if the application of GMOs in urban agriculture/aquaculture could be a step in creating more sustainable cities. I am still trying to narrow my focus and develop my initial research approach and methods but the information contained in all of these articles has helped me cut past the sensationalism and begin to build a good base of literature concerning the history, process, concerns, and development of GMOs. Again, thank you.

  15. GMO will one day change us humans to such a world, it’s difficult to imagine what’s in store for us. Would it be good or bad, only time will tell.

  16. In my Opinion Selective breeding does not involve inter-species DNA modification as stated In The Article. The article is in no way misleading. The person who wrote the article just gave an opinion.

  17. I used this website for a 7th Grade Genetic Engineering Research Project. I found it very usefull. If provided me with tons of information for my project. I would reccomend this website to anyone who needs information on GMO technology. Thank you Harvard!

  18. all anyone concerned about GMO mandatory labeling need to know is this; rich people don’t eat it. Just like doctors don’t take the innoculants or inject their own children with such poisons, that for some strange reason, we are told we need several times a year now, despite we have been defeating bacteria and viruses for literally millions of years, long before the bare blip on the radar that is the current era. It’s proven in the genetic record. If GMO is so great, why is there any debate about whether or not a product must be labelled? If I have no fear of competition, why vote for monopoly? Putting two compatible strains of corn grass together in a field hoping to increase yield is substantially different than messing with the encoding of an organism on the genetic level. Noticing desirable traits in two dogs and allowing them to breed them is markedly different than building a non-native chemical compound cooked up in a lab into a plants genetics. Rats don’t naturally grow human ears on their backs, but differing strains of maize clearly can exchange DNA naturally. The modern era is punctuated by incredible technological potential in the hands of children playing with matches. If you remove one card from a house of cards and the house does not collapse, it is irrelevant, just pull another card – oh, no collapse yet? Just keep pulling cards dummy, it will soon come screaming down around your ears, which in my opinion, is no great loss on humanity, one or more morons collapsing something large and heavy onto their fool heads. The problem is this; I LIVE HERE TOO and I don’t need to be crushed under the weight of some egg-head scientician’s wet-dream or some corporate who-ha’s dreams of avarice

    1. After reading your comment, I can immediately tell you are very misinformed. You say “rich people don’t eat it”, but you have no proof. All of your argument is based on opinions that have been drawn from sources with insufficient evidence. The writing shows that you have not been properly educated on this subject, and therefore should not be making false comments on this article.

    2. I must say, I am quite offended by your comment. My mom is a nurse, and some of my best friends parents are doctors, and all of us are vaccinated every year. And though we have been defeating diseases for years, they took a large toll on human society. For example, the black death killed a third of europe before it slowed down. Some people dont think that GMO should be labelled because it would just add to the myth of the dangers of GMO, which many major companies are using to sell more products. And I am almost one hundred percent sure that you have eaten sweet potatoes, which are naturally GMO, and have been for 8000 years or so. GMO is not super dangerous, and it is not super different from artificial selection. This is a scientific site, so please keep your trollish comments off of it.

    3. “We’ve been doing it for millions of years”
      Humans have only been around for about 200 000 years.

  19. I found this article researching for a school paper, and I thought it was informative and well written. I saw some of the negative comments, and although I don’t fully agree with some of the opinions present in this article, I thought some comments were unnecessarily aggressive. I just wanted to say that I thought it was a great article!

  20. GMO will one day change us humans to such a world, it’s difficult to imagine what’s in store for us.

  21. I guess I’m still confused.
    What are genetics?
    What is modification?
    What are organisms?

    It seems to me if you alter an organism’s genetics (DNA) by selective breeding or by scientifically means that is still a modification. GMO seems too broad of a topic to me. A poodle is a genetically modified wolf right?
    P.S. My favorite replies are the ones who just reject opposition without facts.

    1. Technically speaking, everything is genetically modified all the time. No two things have the exact same DNA. It is natural and life wouldn’t exist without it. So, selective breeding is a modification, but the genes changes even if the organism replicates naturally. Modifying it through scientific methods is just more controlled.

  22. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, humans will need to produce 70% more food than we currently do in order to adequately feed the global population? This insight from above article just shocking. Although References used to create above report is very good and of high quality.

  23. The research and insights presented in these articles are providing a great launching point, thanks to the referenced sources and measured fact based conclusions, for my own graduate project. For that, I want to say thank you to the authors. While my research proposal is in its infancy, I intend to examine if the application of GMOs in urban agriculture/aquaculture could be a step in creating more sustainable cities. I am still trying to narrow my focus and develop my initial research approach and methods but the information contained in all of these articles has helped me cut past the sensationalism and begin to build a good base of literature concerning the history, process, concerns, and development of GMOs. Again, thank you.

  24. I would like to say thanks to author because he put his thoughts in front of us and some people are talking negatively in the comment section which they should not do, we should accept the truth. I would like to thank the author once again.

  25. What a tremendous disappointment this article is. It is not only misleading but it really sounds like a proGMO industry article, full of outright lies. I’m really not surprised that Harvard put their name on such an article.

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