Genetic engineering (GE) involves the insertion of a gene into an organism, usually from another species or from another kingdom. This technical procedure is done at the molecular level in laboratories. The first genetically engineered organisms were bacteria in 1973. The first patent on life was awarded in 1980 in the landmark case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that living organisms (in this instance, a bacterium) could be patented. This decision paved the way for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to begin accepting patent applications for GE crops. Since 1996, there has been commercial use of GE crops with large-scale production of GE soybean, corn, canola, and cotton.
Most of the GE crops are planted in North America; however, agricultural areas with GE crops are increasing rapidly in developing countries. For instance, in 2009, 214,000 km2 of GE soybeans, maize and cotton were grown in Brazil, and 84,000 km2 of GE cotton in India.
The promise of greater yields and disease resistance has lured farmers to grow genetically engineered varieties. However, available data around the world have proved otherwise. For instance, the rapid adoption of Bt cotton in India (portrayed as a success story that cut insecticide use and increased productivity), has coincided with the rise of unknown insect pests, increased pesticide applications by farmers, and declining productivity.
The expansion of the production of genetically engineered (GE) crops was facilitated by the extension of patents to cover living organisms and their parts. This was aggressively lobbied for by the agrochemical transnational corporations.