What are GMOs?
A GMO (genetically modified organism) is an organism in which a gene belonging to one species is transferred into its DNA. For example, when a gene for resistance to insects in a bacterium is transplanted into corn. This process cannot occur in nature through breeding or natural genetic cross over. Most GM crops fall into one of two categories: either engineered to resist chemical herbicides, or engineered to produce insecticides themselves.
What aren't they?
Supporters of GMOs would like to make consumers believe that they have always existed. In reality they are intentionally confusing the genetic engineering that produces GMOs with other biotechnologies such as grafting, interbreeding, seed propagation, etc. These techniques, some of which are thousands of years old, actually underlie the fundamental developments made by agriculture and humanity itself. GMOs are created exclusively in laboratories; there is no way in which they can be created in nature.
GM crops are patented - allowing research, propagation and the entire food chain of GM crops to be controlled by a few multinational companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow. Three principal companies now control 53 percent of the world's commercial seed market.
Research in genetic engineering began in the 1970s but it wasn't until the end of the 1980s that the first GM seeds and plants were produced in the USA, mainly soy, corn, cotton and rapeseed. At the same time, debates began around the introduction of GMOs in un-controlled environments - i.e. outside of greenhouses or laboratories. The subject was discussed in the preparatory phases of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. In 1994 the Flavr Savr, delayed ripening tomato was the first commercially grown GM food (but taken off the market after poor success), and in 1996 the first GM seeds were commercialized in the USA. Between 1996 and 2012 the cultivation of soy, corn, cotton and rapeseed spread across the world.
More than seventeen million farmers across 28 nations planted GM seeds on 173.7 million hectares in 2012. The USA dominates the market with 69.5 million cultivated hectares. Of the 28 countries which planted biotech crops in 2012, 20 are developing countries, lead by China, India, Brazil and Argentina.
In Africa four countries currently cultivate GM crops: Sudan, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt; in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Mexico, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, Cuba, Costa Rica and in Asia: China, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Burma.
In Europe, public opposition has so far meant that GM crops are not widespread, though are cultivated in Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. Biotech multinationals have submitted dozens of applications, and the European Commission is currently considering reviving talks to approve the cultivation of new GM crops.
Sources: ISAAA, Friends of the Earth, GM Watch