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?