GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones

From peas to trees.

Scientists wielding high tech tools like garden trowels, watering cans, and fountain pens launched the genetic engineering age, long before the advent of GMOs and bioengineered food.

I wonder what early genetic engineers would think about today’s biotech industry. Would they feel proud or dismayed about how their own contributions to science have led us, in part, to where we are today?

This is the second post in a series of posts aimed at helping you learn about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and bioengineered food without shocking headlines or industry spin. In the first post, GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It? you were introduced to genetic engineering terms and got a glimpse into how it works. This post will cover a bit of background and history. Other posts will address U.S. laws and regulations (including the pending labeling standard) and environmental issues.

For this post, I selected some of the historical milestones that I found particularly interesting (with some emphasis on food) beginning with the man recognized as the “father of modern genetics,” Gregor Mendel. If you are a history buff or just want more history, check out the links in the references and resource sections.

1866 – Dawn of Modern Genetics

Gregor MendelAustrian monk, Gregor Mendel, presented his paper Experiments on Plant Hybridization.

He had discovered that plant and animal offspring inherit traits from their parents via what we now call genes. Mendel accomplished this by growing 28,000 pea plants between 1856 and 1863, observing seven traits for each generation of plants, and painstakingly recording data (by hand). Unfortunately, as often happens with new scientific breakthroughs, the scientific community, mostly ignored his work until decades later, after he had died.1, 2

1868 – What is this Slimy Stuff?

Friedrich Meischer, a trained physician, and researcher was the first person to isolate the substance we now call DNA.

He conducted his experiments using white blood cells from bandages supplied by a nearby hospital. The molecule he identified came from the nucleus of the cell so he called it nuclein. Meischer published his findings in a paper with the catchy title, On the chemical composition of the pus cells. It would take decades before other scientists realized that the substance Meischer discovered is what carries genetic information and for it to be named deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).3

1952 – It is Confirmed, DNA is Responsible for Inheritance

Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase conducted experiments confirming that DNA is the genetic material responsible for inheritance.

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey
Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey – Photo Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

Previously, some scientists had suggested that DNA carried genetic material but many believed that protein in cells was responsible for inheritance.4

1963 – International Food Safety Standards Get Their Start

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) began working on the Codex Alimentarius (Latin, meaning food law or code).

Their purpose was to establish voluntary international food standards to address the growing international food trade and to help ensure food safety, quality, and fair trade practices. Now, guidelines related to biotechnology are included in the Codex.5

1970 – One Weed Killer to Rule Them All

A chemist working at Monsanto named John E. Franz discovered that a glyphosate molecule could be used to create a herbicide that would kill virtually any plant it came in contact with.

A few years later, Roundup hit the market.6

1973 – Pick and Choose DNA

Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen demonstrated that they were able to cut and splice strands of DNA from one organism to another organism.

Recombinant DNA is the general name for DNA created by combining at least two strands of DNA. Sometimes, it is called chimera DNA because DNA from different species can be combined like a bacteria and a plant.7

1975 – Hold On, Safety First

140 people, mostly biologists, attended a conference on recombinant DNA at Asilomar State Beach in Monterey County, CA.

Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Berg at Asilomar Conference on rDNA in 1975
Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Berg at Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975 – Photo National Academy of Sciences

These experts came together to talk about the potential dangers of biotechnology and to establish guidelines for conducting experiments safely and keeping them contained.8

1980 – You Can Patent Life

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a scientist working for General Electric, could patent a bacterium he had genetically modified to break down crude oil to help mitigate oil spills.

For the purposes of patent law, the fact that this bacterium was a living organism did not make any difference.9

1982 – It All Began with a Drug

Eli Lilly submitted a request for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve their new genetically engineered insulin drug called Humulin in May 1982.

Five months later, in October 1982, the FDA made history by becoming the first U.S. regulatory agency to approve a genetically engineered product for human use.10, 11

1990 – Say Cheese

A genetically modified enzyme for making cheese was the first product ever approved by the FDA for human consumption.

The review process took 28 months.12

1992 – Extended Shelf Life Tomato

Calgene’s FLAVR SAVR tomato crossed its first regulatory hurdle when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deregulated it meaning Calgene could grow as many FLAVR SAVR tomatoes as the wanted in outdoor fields unrestricted and unregulated.

The FLAVR SAVR tomato had been genetically engineered to improve its shelf life after being picked. It was the first genetically engineered food crop to receive USDA approval.13

1995 – Plants Make Their Own Insecticide

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved in regulating genetically engineered plants when some plants were genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium that is toxic to certain insects.

In 1995, the EPA registered the first “Bt plant-incorporated protectants” for use in the United States. This included Bt corn, Bt cotton, and Bt potatoes.14, 15

1996 – Roundup Ready Crops

Roundup Ready Soybeans Logo

A year after the EPA approved the first insecticide-producing crops; the first herbicide-resistant seeds became commercially available.

In 1996, a million acres of Roundup Ready soybeans were grown in the United States. This meant that farmers could spray their crops with Roundup herbicide to kill weeds in their fields without harming their crops.16

1999 – Rice for the Greater Good

Biologists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer unveiled Gold Rice, which they co-invented to produce beta-carotene in hopes of preventing vitamin A deficiency in millions of children in disadvantaged countries.

This scientific breakthrough was the start of a complex and lengthy patent, regulatory, and acceptance journey that continues to this day.17, 18, 19

2003 – International Biosafety Cooperation

On September 11, 2003, after more than a decade of work, The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety went into force becoming the first international treaty governing the movements from one country to another of living modified organisms (LMOs) that are created through biotechnology.

To date, 172 countries, not including the United States, have ratified the protocol.20

2007 – The Butterfly Seal

Non-GMO Project LogoTwo grocery stores got together to develop their own non-GMO policy and founded the nonprofit Non-GMO Project.

The organization grew and collaborating with FoodChain ID and other stakeholders created a Non-GMO Project Standard and Product Verification Program. Over 43,000 products now display the Non-GMO Project butterfly logo.21

2009 – Pharm Animals

The FDA approved ATryn the first drug produced by a genetically engineered animal, a goat in this case.

ATryn is made from the milk of goats that have been genetically modified to produce a plasma protein for treating blood-clotting disorders. 22

2013 – CRISPR Critters

MIT scientist Feng Zhang published the first method to engineer CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to edit the genome in mouse and human cells.

Feng Zhang and Patrick Hsu in MIT Lab
Feng Zhang and Patrick Hsu in MIT Lab – Photo Justin Knight

CRISPR is an alternative to other existing genome editing technologies.23, 24

2015 – Did You Know a Fish Gene is a Drug?

On November 24, 2015, the FDA gave the go-ahead to AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. “for an opAFP-GHc2 rDNA construct at the α-locus in the EO-1α lineage triploid, hemizygous, all-female Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) known as AquAdvantage Salmon,” which grows about twice as fast as a wild salmon.

The FDA regulates genetically engineered animals as veterinary drugs claiming that genes inserted into animals meet the definition of a drug.25, 26

2016 – Put a Label on It

On July 29, 2016, the United States Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (Public Law 114-216) amending the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1621).

The USDA is finalizing the labeling standard for implementation on January 1, 2020.27

2018 – Bringing Back the American Chestnut Tree

Researchers at State University of New York (SUNY) have been developing a genetically engineered American chestnut tree to combat a fungus blight that has killed billions of American chestnut trees on the east coast of the United States.

Charles Maynard and William Powell with Transgenic American Chestnut Tree Seedling
Charles Maynard and William Powell with a Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Tree Seedling – Photo State University of New York

Their intent is to outcross the genetically engineered trees with wild trees to create a wild version resistant to the blight. SUNY recently published the results of two greenhouse studies that evaluated belowground interactions between the genetically engineered tree and organisms found in their native ecosystems.28, 29, 30

I hope you found at least a few of the above genetic engineering historical milestones interesting and informative. The next post in this series will cover some of United States laws and regulations including the pending bioengineered food-labeling standard.

Featured Image at Top: Fountain Pen Drawing a Line on Paper – Photo Credit iStock/jmimages

Related Posts


  1. Gregor Mendel – Wikipedia
  2. Experiments in Plant Hybridization (1865) – by Gregor Mendel, 1866
  3. Friedrich Miescher – Discoverer of DNA – Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research
  4. Hershey–Chase Experiment – Wikipedia
  5. Codex Alimentarius: International Food Standards – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization
  6. The History of Roundup – Monsanto
  7. Genetic and Genomics Timelines: 1973 – Genome News Network
  8. Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA – Wikipedia
  9. Can We Patent Life? – by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, 04/01/13
  10. A New Insulin Give Approval for Use in U.S. – by Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times, 10/30/18
  11. Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product – by Suzanne White Junod, Ph.D., FDA Historian, September-October 2007
  12. FDA Approves Bioengineered Cheese Enzyme – by Malcolm Gladwell, The Washington Post, 03/24/90
  13. Now, We Bring You…the Engineered Tomato – by Donna K. Walters, Los Angeles Times, 10/17/92
  14. EPA’s Regulation of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Crops – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 2002
  15. E.P.A. Approves Three Genetically Altered Crops – by The Associated Press, The New York Times, 04/11/95
  16. Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, by McKay Jenkins, published by Avery, 2017 (p. 58)
  17. Golden Rice Project
  18. Scientist At Work: Ingo Potrykus; Golden Rice in a Grenade-Proof Greenhouse – By Jon Christensen, The New York Times, 11/21/00
  19. Golden Rice meets food safety standards in three global leading regulatory agencies – Press Release, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), 05/25/18
  20. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety – Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Environment Programme
  21. Non-GMO Project – History
  22. F.D.A. Approves Drug From Gene-Altered Goats – by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, 02/06/09
  23. Questions and Answers about CRISPR – Broad Institute (includes a 2-minute video)
  24. CRISPR Timeline – Broad Institute
  25. New Animal Drugs in Genetically Engineered Animals; opAFP-GHc2 Recombinant Deoxyribonucleic Acid Construct – U.S. Federal Register, 11/24/15
  26. Genetically Engineered Salmon Approved for Consumption – by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, 11/19/15
  27. National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (Public Law 114-216) – United States Congress, 07/29/16
  28. ESF’s American Chestnut Trees Make Return in NY – State University of New York, 05/06/15
  29. SUNY ESF researchers growing 10,000 blight-resistant American chestnut trees – by Katelyn Faubel, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, 04/09/18
  30. Transgenic American Chestnuts Do Not Inhibit Germination of Native Seeds or Colonization of Mycorrhizal Fungi – by Andrew E. Newhouse, Allison D. Oakes, Hannah C. Pilkey, Hannah E. Roden, Thomas R. Horton, and William A. Powell WA, Frontiers in Plant Science, 07/19/18


Organic Food – History

What do the Dust Bowl, World War II, and the 1970s energy crisis have to do with organic food? Perhaps more than you might think.

Definition of Organic as it Relates to Food

A discussion of organic food should begin by defining what is meant by the term organic as it relates to food. For our purposes, we will use the description of the USDA National Organic Program 1.

“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

20th Century Influences on Organic Farming and Food

Agriculture has been a 10,000-year-long experiment in growing plants and raising animals by trial and error. On the one hand, the use of synthetic chemicals and mechanization has enabled us to improve crop yields. On the other hand, these framing practices have resulted in nutrient depleted the soil, erosion, water pollution, “super” pests, and loss of biodiversity.

Organic farming is not a return to the old pre-industrial farming methods. It is a way forward that builds on what we have learned over several millennia. This post will explore how 20th-century historical events have influenced organic farming and food.

1930s – The Dust Bowl

In a dramatic and devastating manner, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s demonstrated the importance of conserving soil and maintaining biodiversity.

1930s Dust Bowl - Baca County, CO - Photo: D.L. Kernodle, Library of CongressDuring the 1800s and early 1900s, settlers trying to farm on the Great Plains dug up moisture-retaining prairie grasses and plants and replaced them with monoculture crops, they disrupted the soil with mechanized deep plowing and burned stubble leaving land dry and bare. These farming practices combined with severe drought and high winds literally blew away the topsoil of over 100,000,000 acres of farmland in the Great Plains region and displaced thousands of farmers.

The federal government responded to this calamity by creating the Soil Conservation Service under the USDA to oversee soil research and conservation projects across the country. Labor was supplied by the Civilian Conservation Corps formed to provide jobs during the Great Depression.

1940s – World War II

War often results in innovations and new products that find their way into civilian life. Sometimes these new products have unintended consequences and result in more harm than good. Like the proliferation of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use after World War II.

"DDT is good for me-e-e" from 1947 USDA BulletinDuring World War II, U.S. factories were built to pump out munitions and synthetic chemicals like DDT for the war effort. After the war was over, some of these factories were converted to make pesticides and fertilizers. The government urged farmers to use these new synthetic chemicals to improve crop yields and assured the public they were safe. Crop yields did increase but so did water pollution, soil erosion, and death of beneficial insects, birds, and other animals.

Concurrent with World War II, several important works about organic farming were published.

  • Look to the Land by Walter James, 4th Baron Northbourne describes a holistic approach to farming and his view of the farm as an organism. Northbourne is said to have coined the term organic farming.
  • Cupped Hands Holding Humus - Photo: Maui Farmers Union UnitedIn his book An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard shares what he learned during decades of living in India, observing and working with traditional Indian farming methods. He believed humus was essential to soil health and could be manufactured from vegetable and animal wastes. Howard is often referred to as the father of composting.
  • Lady Eve Balfour published The Living Soil based on her research and results from the Haughley Experiment, the first long-term, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical-based conventional farming.
  • American J. I. Rodale established an experimental organic farm in Pennsylvania, founded Rodale Press, and published Organic Farming and Gardening magazine.
1960s – Silent Spring

The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 brought the dangers of widespread insecticide and herbicide use into the purview of the general public. It demonstrated how bugs and weeds quickly adapted to pesticides and came back even stronger, but the damage to plants, animals, and humans was long-lasting and sometimes fatal.

Carson’s chronicling of the effects of DDT eventually led to its use being banned in the U.S. in 1972.

1970s – The Energy Crisis and Environmental Legislation

1970s Energy Crisis - Gas Station SignThe 1970s energy crisis resulted from U.S. oil production peaking and political events around the world. People worried if they’d have enough gas to get to work and companies worried about having sufficient fuel to run their operations. Farmers had two concerns; having access to synthetic chemicals and adequate fuel to operate the mechanized equipment they now relied on.

At the same time, Americans were demanding something be done about air, water, and land pollution. This led to numerous pieces of environmental legislation being passed such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.

Environmental issues and anxiety about food safety contributed to the growing interest in organic food which was promoted through programs like “Know Your Farmer”.

1980s – USDA Organic Farming Study

Due to increasing requests for information on organic farming, and in light of energy shortages and public concern about food and the environment, the USDA embarked upon a study of organic farming in 1979. The results and recommendations were documented in a 94-page typewritten report published in July 1980.

During the study, the team found common concerns as noted in the excerpt below:

  • Increasing costs and uncertain availability of energy and chemical fertilizer.
  • Decline in soil productivity and excessive soil erosion.
  • Degradation of the environment from erosion, sedimentation, and water pollution from agricultural chemicals.
  • Hazards to humans and animals, and food safety from heavy pesticide use.
  • The demise of the family farm.

“Consequently, many feel that a shift to some degree from conventional (that is, chemical-intensive) toward organic farming would alleviate some of these adverse effects, and in the long term would ensure a more stable, sustainable, and profitable agricultural system.”

The team recommended conducting a study of conventional vs. organic farming, creating organic farming education programs, and establishing an interagency committee on organic agriculture.

1990s – Organic Foods Production Act

Enthusiasm for organic food continued to grow and by 1990 almost half the states had organic food standards in place, but there was little coordination between states and a fair amount of confusion on the part of consumers.

Organic StrawberriesIn 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to establish a national standard for organically produced agricultural products and facilitate the interstate commerce of organic food. It took over a decade to establish the final national organic standards which were implemented on April 21, 2001.

In future posts, we will examine the National Organic Program, rules and regulations, and what the USDA Organic label means.

Related Posts


  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Organic Program – What is Organic?