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How To Win the GMO Debate


A few weeks ago I wrote about how the current debate over biotechnology was not about science. I suggested that showing people the benefits of GMO technology would win their support. Just a week after that column was published, came a dramatic example of just that point.  A group of New York City consumers, most of whom were opposed to biotechnology or at least undecided about it, overwhelmingly voted in support when shown the benefits.


On December 3, Intelligence Squared US, an organization that hosts public debates on significant issues, held a debate on biotechnology in New York City.  The question before the audience was “Should We Genetically Modify Food?”  Presenting the case for biotechnology was  Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer at Monsanto and literally one of the original inventors of GM crops. With him was Alison Van Eenennaam, a specialist in animal science at UC Davis. Opposing biotechnology was  Chuck Benbrook, a professor at Washington State and an outspoken opponent of biotechnology, and Margaret Mellon, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.


The 90 minute debate was balanced, fair, and for the most part civil, something rare in the GM debate.  Before the program began the audience was polled on their positions; the results were 32% in favor of GM, 30% against, and 38% undecided.  Keep in mind this was held in NYC, where they have regulated the size of soft drinks and are trying to ban the use of horses to pull carriages.


Here are a few quotes that sum up the position against Biotechnology:

“We have to look at the fact that there are still safety concerns about this technology, particularly about the long term effects. And that’s what the American Cancer Society says. Yes, the current products are safe, but the long-term concerns are still out there.”


“Right now I think we have too much faith in genetic engineering, which as I said, has not — it really hasn’t proven itself except in one instance. So, I do think it’s important that we face that.”


Here are a few quotes that sum up the position in favor of Biotechnology:

“As a parent, it’s my responsibility to use the best possible information to protect the health of my family and to determine what the scientific consensus is on technology. That is why my kids drink pasteurized milk and have had all of their childhood vaccinations. Sometimes the risks that concern people and the risks that kill people are entirely different. 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.”


“I’d like to do is actually highlight what a vote against the motion really means, what it would be like to live in a world without GMO crops, what that would look like. First thing, there’d be a significant impact to the land. Without GMOs, farmers would need to dramatically increase their use of herbicides and insecticides. I estimate it to be about 100 million pounds added to the environment each year. Second, since GMOs improved yields and helped farmers deliver more food, in their absence means we’re going to have to farm more land.  And you know, it’s going to take about 120 million acres more land to just keep where we are today. That’s about one California or four New York states.”


As you can see those supporting  GM crops focused on the benefits of the technology or the reality of the costs of not using the technology. Those against relied on fear of what we might not know about technology that has been in use for over30 years. In the end, when the audience voted again, 60% said they favored GM foods and 31% were opposed.  When we get beyond the science and the fear mongering and show consumers why biotechnology is important, they will support it. Another important point made in the debate that all sides agreed on is that GM use in food production is safe but not perfect. It is also not the entire answer to world food security.   The debate over GM crops is not an either or debate.  So let’s stop wasting time and resources on this argument and focus on how to apply the appropriate technology in specific situations to produce food security, safety, and sustainability for all the people of the world today and into the future.


 By Gary Truitt