offered a set of principles to serve as a starting point for the analysis of transgenic organisms and their possible effects on the environment. First, the paper concluded, the act of creating transgenic organisms itself carries no special threat. Second, the risks associated with placing transgenic organisms into an environment are of the same type as the risks associated with releasing any new organism—one brought in from another location, for example, or one that has been created by conventional breeding—into an environment. Third, to assess the risks posed by introducing a transgenic organism into an environment, one need consider only the characteristics of the organism and of the environment, not how the organism was produced. However, at the time these principles were drafted, there were no commercial releases of genetically modified organisms.
In the years since that white paper appeared, genetic engineering of plants has gone from a new and largely untested technique to common agricultural practice. Although genetically modified plants did not become commercially available in the United States until 1995, they now account for a major portion of the crops that American farmers plant each year. In 2000, some 70 million acres of transgenic crops were grown in the United States, including 25% of all corn, 54% of soybeans, and 61% of cotton (Reference: USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service). Of those acres, 30 million were devoted to plants that have been genetically engineered to produce the Bt toxin, and much of the remaining area was planted with crops that have been engineered to resist wide-spectrum herbicides, such as Round-Up (manufactured by Monsanto). A field of such herbicide-resistant plants can be sprayed with the herbicide in question to kill all weeds and leave only the crop plants alive. Other, less widespread transgenic crops were also grown, such as plants that have been given resistance to particular viruses by having a gene from the virus inserted into their DNA. Although the current disfavor with genetically engineered plants in the European Union might slow their spread among American farmers, many of whom sell to Europe, it seems likely that transgenic crops will remain an important component of American agriculture.
As transgenic crops have become more widespread, so have concerns about their possible risks to human health or to the environment. Some people believe that the risks are no greater than those posed by traditional crops and expect the benefits of transgenic crops to outweigh any disadvantages. Others worry that the risks have not been properly assessed and that the crops will pose dangers that will not become clear until it is too late.
One of the natural responses to the controversy is to gather more information about genetically engineered plants and their effects. In April 2000, when a committee of the National Research Council released a report