Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

There are not yet any verifiable yield increases directly brought about by genetic engineering. Convincing concepts for reliable long-term assessments of the associated environmental and health hazards are still missing. It is doubtful whether genetic engineering will play an important or even indispensable role with regard to other plant breeding objectives, such as drought resistance. Attempts to genetically fortify staple crops such as rice and maize with vitamins and minerals, which receive a lot of attention by the media, remain in an experimental stage until today.

Billions invested but zero contribution to fighting hunger

The public controversy over genetic engineering has gained momentum in recent years. While the cultivation of GMOs has almost stagnated in Europe, the area cultivated in North and South America has increased. In the United States, there is also a growing movement that is campaigning for the labelling of genetically engineered foods which is already mandatory in the EU, China and other countries. After intense public debates, India and China now restrict the use of genetic engineering mainly on the non-food sector, despite huge public investment in research. In Africa, public and private development organisations, as well as companies, are trying to establish individual projects. There are many controversies surrounding the cultivation of GM maize in South Africa and yields are problematic.

Problems resulting from the privatisation and patenting of knowledge and seeds are particularly serious in genetic engineering, including patents on individual naturally occurring DNA sequences that are treated like inventions. The extent of its monopolisation in the hands of a few multinational corporations is unprecedented. As GMOs are also both costly and research-intensive, the IAASTD estimates that they will not benefit smallholders in developing countries or play a significant role in the fight against hunger. In particular, poorer countries are faced with problems resulting from the complex safety regulations and control provisions that are required, as well as from the unresolved questions regarding cross-breeding of genetic properties and the coexistence with GMO-free cultivation methods and products.

A symbol for disputed models of progress

Despite all that, many consider genetic engineering as the ideal way to provide a “second green revolution”, above all the members of “Croplife”, the association of agricultural biotechnology companies. They withdrew from the IAASTD process, protesting against its allegedly ideological stance on genetic engineering, pesticides and global trade. But also scientists and politicians promise enormous productivity boosts and the substitution of scarce raw materials and energy sources with “completely new products”. Their business model bets on making profits with “intellectual property”, just like in the software sector. Apart from its technical importance, genetic engineering in food and agriculture has become a symbol for a concept of progress, which consists in an industrial and informational form of dominating and exploiting nature in the “knowledge-based bioeconomy”.
Genetic engineering also has become a symbol for its critics, for the worldwide resistance of civil society and the widespread rejection in the population. In this context, it stands for reckless industrialisation, the private appropriation of nature as “biomass”, the arrogance of science, and the greed and power of international monopolies, as well as for the imponderable risks at the expense of society and future generations. The IAASTD can only reflect but not solve this conflict."Crops derived from GE technologies have faced a myriad of challenges stemming from technical, political, environmental, intellectual-property, biosafety, and trade-related controversies, none of which are likely to disappear in the near future." (Global, p. 95)


  • FAO Biotechnology overview of FAO’s activities in agricultural biotechnologies
  • EFSA The European Food Safety Authority's Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms deals with GMOs and genetically modified food and feed
  • APHIS Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - U.S. agency in charge of regulating genetically engineered organisms
  • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of genetically engineered organisms
  • European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) brings together independent scientific expertise for the critical assessment of existing and emerging technologies
  • ISAAA International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications is a pro-GMO organisation which offers statistics on GM crop cultivation

Civil Society


Videos: Genetic Engineering

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The World According to Monsanto

Spotlight on superweeds


  • UNEP Major GM crop production countriesUNEP Major GM crop production countries
  • UNEP BiotechnologyUNEP Biotechnology
  • UNEP Land area: conventional and GM cropsUNEP Land area: conventional and GM crops

Map of genetically engineered food labelling laws

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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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