Genetically engineered food (GEF) is any type of food whose genome has been artificially and directly altered from its naturally-occurring form through genetic engineering.
The first GEF approved by the US FDA was the Flavr Savr, a slower-ripening tomato, in 1994.
As of December 2012, there are no GEF animal products approved for human consumption, but at least one is near to approval.
GEFs have become controversial for a number of reasons:
- There is a lot of bad intellectual property (IP) law and policy relating to GEFs, especially in the US, mostly surrounding the fact that US patent law allows the modified genomes to be patented and germination of modified seeds to be legally handled as an act of copying (and therefore doing so without license from the IP owner is considered an act of media piracy).
- Farmers can't legally save seed stock for the next planting without buying a license (GEF companies have generally not included this option in their business models)
- Vagueness in the law (which the Supreme Court has refused to clarify) mean that farmers might be sued by GEF IP owners for infringement if their non-GEF plants are pollinated by pollen from GEF plants.
- Some types of GEF have shown indications of being unhealthy for humans.
- GEF companies tend to also be manufacturers of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and thus engineer their products to work best with (or even require) the presence of synthetic chemicals. This leads to further problems:
- Soil infertility due to build-up of non-biodegradable chemical residue (Glyphosphate herbicide is particularly problematic.)
- GEFs are less genetically diverse than naturally-bred foods. (Query: are GEF seeds all essentially clones, or is there at least some variation?)
- Loss of biodiversity (aka monocropping) increases the likelihood of a single-point failure mode (a single disease can destroy more crops).
- Terminator seeds produce plants whose seed is sterile, wasting resources and causing the farmer to be more dependent on an external supply of seeds.
- There is some question as to whether this represents a change from the pre-GEF status quo.
- Terminator seeds plus enforced dependence on synthetic chemicals creates dependence on a single source for seeds and chemicals, reducing resiliency and giving the GEF seed producer too much unaccountable power.
The majority of these issues have surrounded actions by GEF producer Monsanto.
- Monsanto is among the largest producer of GEF stock, possibly the largest worldwide.
Other terms are more commonly in use to refer to the same thing, but they are generally inaccurate or overly broad:
- a genetically modified food (GMFs) is (literally) food whose source-organism has been genetically modified from its naturally-occurring form by any artificial means, which can include selective breeding. However, most people do not mean to include selectively-bred food organisms when discussing GMFs. Selective breeding, which accomplishes artificial genetic modification through much slower and more restrictive means, has been practiced for millennia, and most foods consumed by most people have been selectively bred -- in many cases since before the beginning of recorded history.
- a genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism -- whether used for food or not -- whose genes have been artificially modified from its naturally-occurring form. GMOs are a superset of GMFs.
Neither of these terms are generally meant to include organisms whose genomes have only been modified through artificial radiation (mutagenesis), even though the literal meaning of the terms would seem to do so.