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Why were GMO initially created?

Why were GMO, what was the purpose, for which they were initially created?

Submitted by: debata


Expert response from Steven Calhoun

Head of Regional Breeding Management, Bayer

Tuesday, 12/04/2016 15:49

There are many reasons and positive impacts stemming from the creation of GMOs. One being to develop crops with pest resistant traits, and/or crops that are resistant to low cost, environmentally safer herbicides. These crop varieties mean fewer and/or less troublesome chemicals are needed to control various crop pests.


GMOs have also been developed to improve nutritional content. For example “golden rice” (not yet on the market) contains higher vitamin A content to reduce blindness in impoverished communities, but unfortunately its approval has been stalled. Other GMOs have been developed to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables and to reduce food waste. Additionally, future GMOs could reduce drought susceptibility and improve nutrient uptake by crops.


I spent the first 10 years of my career using traditional breeding to reduce insect damage in cotton. We were able to reduce damage from caterpillars by up to 10 percent through breeding for higher gossypol content of the plant. Gossypol is a natural compound present in cotton plants that is toxic to caterpillars—and mammals. Other scientists genetically modified cotton plants to express a gene called Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt) from soil bacteria that allows the plant to produce a protein that is fatal to caterpillars but completely benign to other species, including other insects and mammals. This GMO, “Bt cotton,” provides essentially 100 percent control of caterpillars with no known side effects, whereas 40 years of traditional breeding provided 10 percent control along with known adverse side effects.


I would also note that traditional breeding does in many cases provide very acceptable solutions. We have dramatically reduced nematode damage and eliminated bacterial leaf blight through traditional breeding. Where feasible, traditional breeding is more efficient than a GMO approach. However, where traditional breeding cannot provide a solution, a GMO approach can provide great benefits to society and the environment.


For more information on the origin of GMOs, please see a response to a similar question below: What were GMOs originally created for?



Expert response from Community Manager

Moderator for

Friday, 11/03/2016 10:41

The technology of genetic modification or genetic engineering was first developed in the early 1970s, commercialized in pharmaceutical applications in the early 1980s, and then agricultural applications in the early 1990s. You can read more about genetic modification for medical purposes in the article GMOs in Food and Medicine: An Overview  by Richard Green, Former Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Manager.

There are a variety of reasons that GMOs are created and they serve many purposes.  First let’s start with the definition of a GMO: GMO crops are developed with genetic engineering, a more precise breeding technique, that enables someone to take individual traits found in nature and transfer them to another plant, or make changes to an existing trait in a plant. You may have also heard of “agricultural biotechnology” or “biotech seeds”. These are terms that may be used to refer to the same thing – a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Why GMOs? GMOs in agriculture are created to achieve a specific, desired trait. For example, resistance to an insect or a specific herbicide or to enhance nutrition, as noted in this table. It is important to remember that farmers choose seeds that are best for their farms and businesses. They determine which seeds, inputs and management practices are best for their land, business and growing conditions.  There are a variety of seed options for farmers to choose from - including GM, conventional and organic.

To better understand why GMOs were initially created, we have to take a look at the evolution of crop modification and how we got the foods we eat today. Farmers have intentionally changed the genetic makeup of all the crops they have grown and their livestock since domestic agriculture began 10,000 years ago.  Every fruit, vegetable and grain that is commercially available today has been altered by human hands, including organic and heirloom seeds.

In the late 20th century, advances in technology enabled us to expand the genetic diversity of crops. For years, university, government and company scientists intensively researched and refined this process. A major result has been GM seeds that maintain or increase the yield of crops while requiring less land and fewer inputs, both of which lessen the impact of agriculture on the environment and reduce costs for farmers.

So, genetic engineering (the process which creates GMOs) is a more precise plant breeding technique which was developed to improve modern agriculture.

This infographic explains how crops have evolved from ancient Egypt until today (from European Biotech Week), and Crop Life America provides a video which is a journey through the last 80 years of modern agriculture.

In addition to the benefits of genetic engineering when it comes to GMO plants and crops, genetic engineering can also help society in other ways such as agriculture sustainability. Cecilia Chi-Ham, Director of Science & Technology, PIPRA at University of California Davis, explains that “society has the responsibility of using science” in a response similar to this question:

“Biotechnology crops have provided significant economic benefit to millions of consumers, reduced agriculturally related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduced soil erosion and substantially decreased the use of many toxic agricultural chemicals.”

Read the full response from Chi-Ham here.

In this response, expert and farmer Brian Scott, explains some of the ways GM crops are beneficial to him and his farm. Brian explains:

“With Bt corn traits our crop is protected from infestations of particular corn pests. These pests must munch on a corn plant to be affected. One great benefit of this technology is that if an economically damaging level of corn rootworm or earworm comes along our crop will be protected.”

“Herbicide tolerance is a great tool. There are several different traits on the market, but right now we are only using RoundUp Ready technology. All of our soybeans are Roundup Ready (RR). Some of our corn is RR and some is not.”

We hope the information provided answers your question. If you have any further questions, please ask. Also, feel free to contribute to the discussion in the comment section below!