The need for genetically modified food is one of the most contested topics in the health industry today. Those who oppose GMOs argue they can harm our health, show no evidence-based benefits, and tamper with the natural environment. But at the end of an Intelligence Squared Debate (you can see the full debate, below) that pitted Robert Fraley, Executive VP of America's oldest and biggest GMO-seed power-house Monsanto, against GMO skeptics Charles Benbrook and Margaret Mellon, the audience, who were asked to privately vote for or against GMOs, ended up disagreeing with the detractors. Before the debate, only 32 percent voted for GMOs as a necessary technology but after the panel, that bumped up to 60 percent. It's a result that contrasts with recent polls that revealed skeptical American views on GMOs, and counters Monsanto's formerly long-held reputation as a corporation that takes down small, organic farms with genetic engineering technology. Here's a look at both sides of the debate which hit on the the top issues surrounding GMOs.
Can genetically modified foods harm our health?
Yes: Mellon and Benbrook counter there's always the potential for future health problems. "There could be subtle, long-term effects we haven't identified," says Mellon. "For example, there's no evidence that gene-silencing won't have negative effects." And with more GMO plants, more herbicide used, and more genes "stacked" on top of other genes, complications will arise. "The mixing [of genes] carries implications," Benbrook says, likening genetic modification to mixing drugs. "A doctor would ask what other medicine are you on, but no regulatory body has looked at the mixing."
No: Robert Fraley notes that GMO technologies have been in the marketplace for over 20 years, and there hasn't been a single issue of food or feed safety in humans or animals. He adds that the regulatory USDA, EPA, and FDA oversight for GMOs are the "gold standard", and academic studies have confirmed the same conclusion about GMO's safety. Mixing independent genes is also a safer endeavor with the biotechnology available today to companies like Monsanto.
Will GMO's help preserve our environment?
Yes: About 18 million farmers already use GMOs because they know herbicide-tolerant crops — which genetically modified plants tend to be — can increase produce and help preserve farmland. "The huge benefit of herbicide-tolerant crops has been the fact that it has basically eliminated tillage," says Fraley. "We don't plow fields anymore. We don't have that erosion. We don't have the instantaneous release of greenhouse gases when they flip the soil over." He adds that GMO technology has actually reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, increased yields by 22 percent, and upped farmer's profits by 68 percent, because the crops are so tolerant. Without GMO's, argues Fraley, farmers would eventually have to plow more land to make up for the reduced food production — draining wetlands and cutting forests in the process.
No: Benbrook argues we still don't know how GM technology will negatively impact our environment in the future; he asks people to think of the reality of genetic engineering agriculture today as opposed to the promise: "It's not just the genes that Rob Fraley and his colleagues at Monsanto were able to work into the corn plant, you have to think about how that corn plant behaves in the field, the yields, what the impacts of the BT proteins that are throughout that plant are on the environment, on aquatic ecosystems, on the cost to farmers," The question of long-term effects — like how many decades rather than years until GM technology impacts the environment — is a point Bill Nye also brought up during the debate. "My question is about time," Nye says. "You can know exactly what happens to any organism, any plant, any crop, but you cannot know what happens to an ecosystem."
Are herbicide-tolerant crops really a positive thing?
Yes: Herbicide-tolerant crops have led to reduced pesticide use and stronger crops, says Fraley and his co-debater Alison Van Eenennaam, a geneticist at UC Davis. They've enabled farmers to use safer chemicals and stop plowing their soils. One strong example is that of Roundup-ready crops — or plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate — which "gave farmers a more environmentally friendly tool for controlling weeds." And though 12 weeds have become resistant to glyphosate since Roundup was first introduced (inciting the need for more herbicide), they argue Roundup still has usefulness. "You've all heard of antibiotic resistance," says Fraley. "Should [drug companies] not develop new antibiotics just because there's become a resistance to an antibiotic? Absolutely not. Roundup still controls hundreds of weeds. It needs to be used effectively."
No: An increase in herbicide-tolerant crops are dangerous, Mellon and Benbrook counter, and rather than reducing herbicide use we'll end up using even more, as these plants become more and more resilient. The positive evidence of Roundup-ready crops is outdated. "Vote on the reality of what genetically-engineered crops, the ones that are on the market today, have actually brought about, and not just how well they work for the first three or four years," says Benbrook. Despite being "spectacularly effective" in Roundup-ready crops — making it easy for farmers to control weeds in corn, soybeans, and cotton — weeds became resistant to herbicide, requiring the use of even more.
Could genetic engineering solve the global food crisis?
Yes: Fraley argues that GM technology is a "tool" allowing farmers to harvest a larger number of produce that will last longer — a potential solution for the challenge of food security, and feeding the hungry. "Sometimes the risks that concern people and the risks that kill people are entirely different," says Van Eenennaam. "For too long the debate over the merits of genetically modified food has focused on unrealized hypothetical risks, and has been conflated with the use of pesticides. It has not addressed how GM could help with the very real risks faced by the hungry and malnourished. "What's hanging in the balance, she says, are the lives of over 20,000 hungry and dying people.
No: There are safer alternative ways to feed the world, says Mellon. “If you want to feed hungry people around the world, I can give you a list of 10 things to do," she says. "You can build roads, you can raise [people's] incomes, you can change the role of women, you can help people make their own decisions about what they want to grow, and help them grow it. Production itself is not an answer to the problems of hunger." These options, she argues, have no health risks like GMOs do.
Is there enough evidence on benefits of GM technology?
Yes: "There are costs associated to excessive precaution," says Van Eenennaam. "Doing nothing is doing something. Scare-mongering and saying that nothing is coming to fruition is exactly what's stopping research and progress." Fraley adds that voting against GMOs would mean forgoing the opportunity for progress. "The future is ahead of us," he says. "We're at the tip of the iceberg–stage in what's possible."
No: GMO skeptics like Mellon say the lack of evidence is actually a sign that it's time to "take the rose-colored glasses off." GM technology has had 30 years to prove its benefits. "We need to be clear about what genetic engineering can't do," she says. "We don't want to ban it, we don't want to abandon research on it, but we do kind of want to move it off to the side of the stage." It's a matter of looking at reality rather than future aspirations: If GM crops haven't shown their worth, companies should focus on other technologies out there for producing sustainable crops, like traditional breeding.
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