The Why Files The Why Files --

Genetic engineering

POSTED 18 MAY 2006

Genetically modified crops: Looking back
Picture of wheatOnce upon a time, technology was a good thing. Trains knit continents together. Water pipes and washing machines relieved drudgery. Vaccines prevented disease, and crop production rose year after year.

Then, in the early 1970s, along came genetic engineering, technology for deliberately moving genes between species. The specter of changing the very basis of animals and plants caused such a wave of concern that in 1975, biologists temporarily halted experiments to work out some safety guidelines at the famous Asilomar Conference.

Photos this page: USDA

The questions raised were basic, and chilling. Could genetically engineered bacteria cause havoc if they got loose? farmers silhouetted against sun, with words overlaidWould we engineer human beings to be better, smarter, and good looking? Were we smart enough to replace nature?

Fear was afoot: "Man, at last, is about to begin playing God... human societies are now facing huge, unpredictable new challenges and, most likely, this world will never be the same," wrote science writer Robert Cooke in 1977. "Scientists are even now picking the locks guarding some of life's most sacred inner secrets, and they're gambling that the information found may pay off someday in new products, processes and lifestyles that we can't now even imagine" (see "Improving ..." in the bibliography).

A string of technological disasters fueled the concern: Nuclear meltdowns at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. The Bhopal industrial cataclysm in 1985. The explosion of space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Much of the early concern about genetic engineering focused on the human-health impact. Then, around 1990, scientists and seed companies began engineering crops, causing a second wave of worries about the ability to change genetics.

This two-part series covers the historic concerns about genetic engineering in agriculture.

1: Genetically engineered crops: How safe for the environment?

2: Genetically engineered crops: How safe for humans?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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