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30 Years of Genetically Engineered Plants - 20 Years of Commercial Cultivation in the United States: A Critical Assessment

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Farm Issues page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Genetic Engineering page.

1. Introduction
The United States has been one of the main pioneers in the development and marketing of genetically engineered organisms. In cooperation with Monsanto, researchers from the US and Europe developed the first genetically engineered plants in 1983. In 1994, the first genetically engineered crops appeared on the US market, and in 1996, the first genetically engineered crops to be imported to Europe came from the US. As Table 1 shows, the United States has been a global leader in the release, marketing and patenting of genetically engineered organisms ever since.

Table 1: Some key dates in the history of genetic engineering in the United States
1980 Patent granted for a microorganism in the United States (bacteria designed to break down oil slicks, 'Chakrabarty' case).
1983 First genetically engineered plant developed by researchers in the US and Europe in cooperation with Monsanto.
1985 First release of genetically engineered bacteria (ice-minus bacteria) in the United States.
1986 Release of genetically engineered tobacco in the United States and France.

1988 First patent granted for a genetically engineered mammal in the United States ('OncoMouse').
1994 The first genetically engineered foodstuff placed on the US market: the Flavr-Savr tomato, designed to be harvested when ripe and keep for longer. These tomatoes were taken off the market shortly after their introduction.

1996 Commercial cultivation of genetically engineered soya in the United States by Monsanto, and first shipments exported to Europe.

When genetically engineered organisms were first released in the US, the controversy they caused was similar to that in Europe today. There were for instance vigorous protests on the release of genetically engineered bacteria (ice-minus). However, in the US, the interests of the agribiotech companies gained much more support in years after the first releases than was the case in Europe.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the agricultural sector in the United States today is considerably more industrialized than in most regions of Europe. Herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered - red crops appeared to offer a solution to the problems faced by US agriculture, which has long been characterized by large-scale monocultures. Even in the 1990s, the cultivation of soybeans was coming under pressure from weeds that were resistant to many of the herbicides available at the time 1 . The introduction of the Roundup Ready soybean provided Monsanto with the first-ever opportunity to use the active ingredient glyphosate in soybean cultivation. At the same time, Roundup Ready soybean cultivation was an example of a new business model. Monsanto had a patent for genetically engineered seed and for the herbicide glyphosate and could therefore sell its products in a twin pack. Unlike Europe, there were companies in the USA that were able to make money out of genetic engineering at a fairly early stage, even though the marketing of the Flavr-Savr tomato in 1994/1995 turned out to be an economic disaster for the US company, Calgene. The tomatoes were too soft when they were ready to be harvested and were unpopular with consumers.
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