Excellent GMO debate hosted at Intelligence Squared - a summary

The GMO debate hosted by Intelligent Squared was excellent and informative. I admit I learned things from listening and that's always a bonus, but it's worth watching to see the "respectable" arguments against GMO posed and dealt with very effectively by the pro-side in this debate. Spoiler alert, the pro-GMO side spanked the anti-GMO, going from 30% pre-debate in support of GMO (~30% against and 38% undecided) to 60% in support of GMO post-debate with anti-GMO only climbing 1% to 31. While voting on points of science and data is largely irrelevant, science is not democratic, it is reassuring to see that when the arguments are laid out it's clear which side convincingly has science on its side. It also suggests that maybe the audience didn't enter as polarized as one might expect.  And Bill Nye (who is a bit foolish on this issue) makes a cameo in the audience, and asks the first question.  I wonder if he was one of the 60%?  He's being cagey about it on his twitter account.

It's a bit long so I can summarize the dominant points. From the pro-side led by Robert Fraley
Executive VP & Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam Genomics and Biotechnology Researcher, UC Davis:

1.  This is a promising technology, still early in its potential, which has the benefit of solving problems with food-security such as plant disease, pests, and need for fertilizers, and may have future productivity and environmental benefit  by allowing greater yields from existing farmland.  Some of these benefits have already been realized like the rescue of the papaya.

2. It has direct benefits for the environment by encouraging no-till farming and decreased pesticide use (roundup-ready and bt products).

3. It is not necessary to see the issue as one of GMO vs conventional breeding as the technology is used in addition to conventional techniques

4. Resistance is a problem with all technologies, including conventional pesticides and herbicides, that's not a good reason not to pursue a technology as you wouldn't use that as an excuse to stop investigating new antibiotics.  Evolution happens.

5.  There is a broad scientific consensus that the technology is safe including organizations such as NAS, AAS and the Royal Academy as well as numerous other international scientific bodies.  Extensive research on safety and experience since implementation in 1997 do not suggest any harm despite consumption by billions - this was acknowledged by the anti-side as well.

6. There is not a believable hypothesis or theory that can describe how the technology will cause a specific harm to human or animal health and that has been borne out by studies so far.


From the anti-side led by Charles Benbrook Research Professor, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and Margaret Mellon Science Policy Consultant & Fmr. Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists:

1. The technology has not lived up to the hype, lots of promising technology is "in the pipeline" but we've only seen a handful of beneficial products and no game-changers for agriculture.

2. The early promise of the technology is the basis for much of the pro-GMO arguments, as time has gone on resistance of weeds and pests has limited the economic and yield benefits.

3. The technology results in resistant weeds and bugs, and increased spraying of herbicides which may impact human health (although they agree they have no data to back this up)

4. Pursuing GMO distracts from better conventional breeding strategies to deal with problems such as drought, and disease.

5. There may be harms from the technology that may not become evident over the time scales we have observed so far.

6. We have seen ecological harm in some animal populations such as the monarch butterfly, and bees.

7. Safety profiles haven't taken into account the rapid roll-out of new technologies as the products are progressively altered with each generation and "stacked".  And the safety studies have not been as thorough as critics have suggested they should be.

There is a lot of back-and-forth on all of these points, and the pro-side does a good job frankly dismantling each of them.

Overall I agree with the audience, the anti-side does not provide a compelling argument not to pursue the technology, nor do they provide a mechanism for a realistic theoretical harm, other than some vague idea that over huge timescales maybe something will come up.  In particular the argument from Charles Benbrook that we should only pay attention to products on the market so far, and ignore the potential future applications I found galling and just pure Luddism.  This is still a relatively new technology as applied to agriculture, although in medicine, as the pro-side points out, we have fully incorporated GM treatments in the form of insulin and other biologics which have revolutionized many fields of medicine and will likely revolutionize many more including cancer, heart disease (the new anti-cholesterol drugs being investigated are GE-biologics), etc.  Multiple times they push a false equivalence that somehow GM takes away from conventional techniques, which is hotly, and effectively countered by the pro-side who both point out that a majority of their research still is based on conventional techniques.  Finally the suggestion of harm to the monarch butterfly is a side-effect of the herbicide resistant crops being more effective (less milkweed = less food for monarchs) and the suggested link to bee die-offs is completely specious.  I am left somewhat confused, as always, over the debate about whether GM has truly resulted in a decreased use of chemical pesticides, according to the anti-side, the good data on those benefits are from early in the application of the technology, and the benefit has decreased or reversed over time.  They do not present data, or evidence from peer-reviewed literature on this claim, however, saying "if you talk to farmers".  Thus I credit this as low level evidence for their side.  Consistently the pro-side discusses results from the peer-reviewed literature, the anti-side is really presenting a "god of the gaps" argument and argument from uncertainty.


What do you guys think?

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I have always figured that the anti stance, rather than focusing on the abuses of the industry (which no one has yet regulated), has opted for the claim that, "Somehow inserting a gene will cause the plant, or animal, or what ever, to somehow become toxic, like way in the future, or possibly, gasp! tomorrow!"

Actually knowing something about the genetics, I am forced to look at this as being a bit like.. having someone claim that because my house didn't come equipped with a hair drier, plugging on in some place in the house will *automatically* induce electrocution, and/or burn down the house. It doesn't work that way. At worst, you might have an expression issue, where your new gene is regulated, without you knowing, by something already there, do to similar gene networks... maybe. But, since we don't, currently, implant whole gene networks, just specific genes, the odds of having developmental regulation effecting it is not real plausible. And, even if it did, it would be toxicity, but like, more or less of what ever protein, enzyme, etc. you intended to produce.

In other words - still doesn't magically make it toxic, any more than putting an old Vanilla Ice CD into your car stereo will transform it from a pickup truck into a 1980s model ford. Its just an absurd assertion.

For me one of the killer points was rebutting the argument that 'GM crops are slow to market' by pointing out that this is a result of the extensive safety testing pushed for by opponents who have never been able to demonstrate why GM poses significantly greater risks than conventional breeding programs.
The most ludicrous comment was that GM free agriculture in Europe is so efficient it is subsidised in the same way as it in the US. What the hell is that meant to demonstrate?

This is more a social problem than one of science or technology. The Roundup being used on GMO crops is the same that you use to spray weeds in the cracks in your sidewalk. I will discuss two issues that do not get enough treatment.

One is the resistance issue where over time weeds evolve so they are no longer killed by a pesticide. It happens in essentially every case of a herbicide that is used on the same population of plants over an extended period of time. But Roundup was being used for about 3 decades before the introduction of Roundup Ready crops and there were no known verified cases of resistance. So what happened? The simple answer is that it went from being a sporadically used herbicide to one that was a ubiquitous component of herbicide use on millions of acres of crops. And in the process, farmers stopped using the other standard herbicides in their crop production because Roundup was cheap, easy and effective (the silver bullet problem, more on this later).

In California, where GMO crops have only recently been approved and are not in wide use we are also seeing the evolution of resistant species of weeds. But not in field crops. Resistance is happening in orchard crops, along roadsides and along irrigation canals. These are all areas where, for a variety of policy and financial reasons, Roundup is the herbicide of choice, often the only herbicide that can be used because of public agency policies.

The other issue is the silver bullet problem mentioned above. A long established principle in agriculture is IPM, integrated pest management, which suggests that the best way to manage pests is to use a variety of tools and approaches so that they do not have a chance to develop resistance to any one tool. In other words there are no silver bullets. As a weed scientist, I was dismayed at the beginning of the Roundup Ready phenomenon that it seemed like everyone was embracing this technology without reservation; there had been no resistance to date so there never would be! The related impact of the Monsanto success was to shut down herbicide development research by the other pesticide manufacturers because there was no market left for them to exploit. That impact continues today, which means that potential new bullets (let alone silver bullets) are a pipe dream.

I'd say that's a legitimate critique along the lines of resistance weedguy and would have been more effective than any that the panelists used. However, that's more of an issue of implementation and management of the technology rather than something inherently dangerous in genetic engineering itself. I think everyone on the panel admitted that the technology could cause unintended consequences, as can all technology, but that doesn't necessarily make it inherently dangerous. It still wouldn't make me vote against use of the technology, but perhaps a regulatory framework for implementation that, like you say, is consistent with integrated pest management.

I thought the debate was fairly even on both sides so was a little surprised by the shift towards the GM side. I think a lot of this was down to the oft-repeated potential of GM - I'm still waiting for the cancer-busting broccoli they promised us in the early 1990s.
There wasn't a lot of science on either side. Reference to a meta-analysis was useful but I did a quick check and nearly 50% of the studies were more than 10 years old as pointed out by the anti-GM side and certainly not debunked by the pro-GM side.
I think the health/safety side of GMOs was overplayed - any effects are going to be minimal - and the environmental effects underplayed. I prefer organic food not because it is more nutritious but because it doesn't contain pesticides and is grown in a more sustainable way especially wrt wildlife and biodiversity.

I wasn't convinced by the pro-GM side's argument re Monarchs. GM crops encourage large scale with industrial glycophosphate spraying and so destroy the habitat for most other species.
I wouldn't want to see research into GM stopped as it certainly has potential particularly in the medical field (e.g. insulin production). I'm not yet 100% convinced it is a game changer in agriculture where alternative procedures (traditional plant breeding) appear to be more successful albeit with longer development times. One reason for this is my belief the genetics of better drought-resistance or higher yields or coping with climate change are rather complex involving lots of different genetic manipulations - this is often better achieved by traditional plant breeding techniques

By Ian Roberts (not verified) on 05 Dec 2014 #permalink


I prefer organic food not because it is more nutritious but because it doesn’t contain pesticides and is grown in a more sustainable way especially wrt wildlife and biodiversity.

Ian, organic food uses pesticides too. Don't read organic as "pesticide free". They just use different pesticides that are organic approved. Between that and the problem of manure-based fertilization and potential e. coli contamination, I'd recommend you still wash your veggies, organic or no.

As far as the second part I agree, and so did the pro-GM side. It seemed as if they wanted to emphasize it's one tool among many that they use, and traditional methods still constitute the majority of their efforts. However, such methods aren't going to get something like bt protein in in the first place.

Funny thing about the broccoli Ian--we have it. Monsanto has produced it. http://www.biofortified.org/2011/10/busting-bellattis-bad-broccoli-brea… But it's not GMO.

Nobody is trying to prevent conventional breeding when that's the right tool. Only one side wants to withhold tools.

And I can't figure out why people think herbicide is unique to GMOs. If it wasn't a glyphosate, it would be something else. The problem is the missing milkweed, and not the GMOness of the corn.

@Ian Roberts, organic production uses untested and unregulated chemicals that are dangerous for some of us. The calcium chloride used on fruit to prevent splitting causes me to vomit everything I have eaten for the past few hours within minutes of eating, and the fungicide used in warehouse/packing house situations causes cankor sores in my mouth. No on has bothered to test the chemicals used on organics and the same rules should be applying to everything we eat.

By Westcoastsyrinx (not verified) on 05 Dec 2014 #permalink

Oh Dear, it is too easy to find misinformation on the pro-GMO side. For example:

2. It has direct benefits for the environment by encouraging no-till farming and decreased pesticide use (roundup-ready and bt products).

If that is so why are weed experts using farmers to go back to deep tilling?

"Palmer amaranth is our No. 1 weed to watch in Missouri and the Midwest right now," Bradley said.

He said farmers facing extreme out-of-control weeds should try deep tillage, a practice that removes weeds but can also lead to soil erosion and other environmental concerns.


And as for the second comment about decreased use of herbicides, how can that be true when the GMO companies are now trying to sell seeds which are resistant to both glyphosate and 24D? 1 + 1 equals twice the amount of herbicide to me.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 06 Dec 2014 #permalink

oops using should be urging

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 06 Dec 2014 #permalink

No-till farming is directly beneficial to the specific harms the anti side brought up multiple times in their. argument. It leads to less erosion, less greenhouse gas emissions, and less fertilizer in the rivers in runoff. Yes they may be suggesting a reversal of this trend, but thats because the old fashioned way, while environmentally more destructive will always work and tend not to breed resistance. It's basically pulling the weeds en masse.

Mark, I don't think you know too much about modern farming. No till farming is much older technology than GMO. It has been used on the prairies for many many years, long before the introduction of herbicide resistance .

Farmers switched to no til when pre-emergent herbicides were introduced. Ploughing a field is very energy intensive and time consuming. Have you noticed the width of machinery that farmers use today? It allows them to do large fields in a very short time. If they went back to ploughing they would never get all their fields ploughed before the soil was frozen. If they waited to spring, seeding would be delayed and frost would hamper yields in the fall.

No till farming also allowed the farmer to rotate which herbicides they could use thus slowing up any tends towards resistance and keeping the price competitive, something which no longer happens since the choices are much more limited.

i don't think you will get a positive response from farmers if you tell them to go back to ploughing, for one thing the manpower is not available.

By Ian Forrester (not verified) on 10 Dec 2014 #permalink