Quick Facts about Biotech Crops

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: Lots of misinformation is floating around about biotechnology (also known as genetically modified, or GM) crops. And in the confusion, we have a hard time explaining what’s truth and what’s fiction.

Biotech cotton grown in Arizona and across the United States has been available to farmers to grow since the mid-1990s. Other biotech crops grown in Arizona include field corn and alfalfa. (Pictured: Arizona Farm Bureau's Julie Murphree, cotton farmer Adam Hatley and Peggy Jo Goodfellow, also of Arizona Farm Bureau.)

So, Arizona Farm Bureau provides some quick, on-the-go facts about biotech crops. We’re only going to focus on plant biotechnology, though the science of life (biotechnology) shows up in a variety of fields like medicine and pharmaceuticals.

  • Using the precise process of “Transgenic” biotechnology, scientists select a specific desired trait for a plant, such as drought tolerance, insect resistance, virus resistance or enhanced nutrition.
  • Today there are 12 “transgentically engineered” crops/plants on the market; 7 food crops available in the United States. They are:
  1. Blue roses and blue carnations
  2. Cotton and alfalfa
  3. To eat – corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, sugar cane, summer squash, papaya and golden rice (the rice is not in U.S.)
  • Almost 2,000 studies by independent researchers around the world demonstrate that genetically modified foods are safe to eat and safe for the environment.
  • The World Health Organization, the National Academies of Science, the European Commission and the American Medical Association all agree there is no difference in food safety between genetically modified food crops and traditional bred food crops. So does EPA, USDA and FDA.
  • Bacillus Thuringiensis (bT) is a natural bacteria found in the soil. It has been used as an insecticide since the 1920s and is still used on organic farms and in home gardens. The bT trait was the first insecticide used in bioengineered corn and cotton.
  • In Arizona there has been a 90% reduction in use of broad-spectrum insecticides since farmers started growing bT cotton. That is great news for the environment, especially beneficial insects!
  • Since bioengineered crops are safe to eat, the only reason to put a “Contains Genetically Modified Organisms” label on food is to frighten consumers.
  • If you still don’t want to eat bioengineered (genetically modified) foods, you have options – organic foods and foods labeled “Non-GMO”. Our local organic farmers do a great job growing fruits & vegetables for you. Plus, the majority of fruits and vegetables are not biotech crops; with the exception of one type of summer squash and papaya as mentioned earlier. 
  • All plants and animals and ultimately foods are from genetically modified organisms. The history of genetically modifying crops, specifically food crops, has been going on for thousands of years beginning with our first moments of deliberately cultivating food. Anthropology tells us humans began crop domestication as far back as 11,000 years ago and from the beginning they used selective breeding to carry the best plants over into the next generation. This is a type of genetic modification. History then reveals that the 1700s was a breakthrough period for farmers and scientists to cross-breed plants within the same species, for example crossing a drought-resistant variety of a plant type with another. In the 1940s and 1950s breeders and researchers sought out additional means to introduce genetic variations into the gene pool of plants. By the 1980s researchers developed the more precise and controllable methods of genetic engineering, specifically transgenic (a genetic trait from one variety of species inserted into another) to create plants with desirable traits such as insect, herbicide and disease resistance. By the 1990s, the first transgenic plants were introduced to the marketplace. Every product on the market is composed of ingredients that have their origins in improved genetic modification. Granted, the more precise method of “transgenic modification” might instill concern for lack of understanding, but this method is well documented in terms of safety than all the previous methods mentioned. If this issue is about informing the public so they can make better decisions, then let’s inform; not deceive with the idea that modification only exists in the lab and is done by a few big, evil organizations.