Genetically modified organisms
Behind the debates about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered (GE) crops is a rich history of discovery and experimentation. Although humans have bred plants and animals for centuries, the first authorized release of GMOs into the environment took place in California in 1987. The canister pictured here contained naturally occurring bacteria that had been genetically modified to enhance their frost-fighting ability. Amid protests and extensive monitoring by government agencies, plant pathologist Julie Lindemann put on this suit and sprayed the altered bacteria onto a field of strawberries. The questions raised then about the safety, environmental impact, and potential benefits of GMO/GE crops continue today.
The fall of 2016 marked the 20-year anniversary of the first large-scale harvest of a genetically engineered food crop—herbicide-tolerant soybeans. To discuss the significance of this milestone, the National Museum of American History and the Lemelson Center convened a panel with two of the scientists who helped start the GE revolution—Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley. The event was part of the Lemelson Center’s “Innovative Lives” series.
Richard Adlard (1915-1997) had a lifelong interest in agriculture. He grew and sold fruits and vegetables during high school, worked in his university’s greenhouse, and held positions at agricultural agencies. He also spent several months in China as an exchange student in agriculture. He later wrote, “What I had learned of traditional Chinese agriculture was all but forgotten during many years of my working life. In the late 1960s, however, the environmental movement and the growing interest in organic food production recalled them to my mind, and I realized that much of modern organic practice was what I had observed in China under an agricultural system that has been used for 4,000 years.”