Wednesday, October 1, 2014

PF Nov 2014 - Genetically Modified Foods - Introduction

Resolved: On balance, the benefits of genetically modified foods outweigh the harms.


This is potentially a good topic and hopefully one even novice and junior-varsity debaters can handle with ease while still offering sufficient depth for more advanced debaters. Basically a genetically modified food is one (such as wheat, corn, soybeans, etc.) that has its genes intentionally modified by human intervention in order to introduce advantageous traits.  For example, a certain crop may be attacked by certain insects in a region, so the modifications are made to the crop genetic makeup in order to yield a crop that is resistant to insects, perhaps by introducing a trait which enables it to produce a natural insecticide.  More commonly, these modifications produce crops that are resistant to certain pathogens, or make them more nutrient dense.  The techniques used to introduce genetic changes involve various kinds of gene splicing and cloning techniques which are well known within the genetics science community but the particular details and methods utilized are often closely guarded trade-secrets of the corporations which pay for the research and market the products.

Genetically modified foods are a subclass of broader studies of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which may include livestock, non-food plants, bacteria, and virtually any organism which possesses a genetic structure.  Genetically modified humans are a very controversial topic.  In general terms, cloning or genetic modifications to humans are considered "immoral" in the U.S. however, there are many researchers developing genetic techniques for medical reasons to cure, reverse or mitigate various diseases or conditions which often have a genetic source.

To understand how genetic engineering can potentially benefit populations of humans, consider a hypothetical situation in which farmers in sub-Sahara Africa need to grow corn to sustain their livestock, but the dry conditions often result in crop failures.  Suppose an indigenous plant in the region is resistant to arid conditions and flourishes but other properties of the plant make it undesirable as food for livestock.  Researchers may isolate the genes in the indigenous plant which impart the trait of resistance to arid conditions, and splice those genes into the corn and if successful, produce a corn that also yields a trait of resistance to arid conditions.  The genetically modified crop can have a higher success rate in the region and thus serve to sustain the livestock to the benefit of the people living in the region. Such genetically modified foods can potentially benefit millions of at-risk people either through direct consumption of the products or indirectly by sustaining livestock, or other food sources.

There are two major problems that can be identified which explain why this debate can be potentially rich for the Con side.  First, the health effects of consuming GMOs may not be well known.  The science is relatively new and the long term effects may be unknown or hidden.  Even if, within the context of present scholarship, there are no known harms arising from consumption of GMOs, there are no comprehensive sets of regulations to ensure that the highest standards of safety are maintained in developing and testing new GMOs and once GMOs are introduced to the "wild" it is difficult if not impossible to control their spread. Also, in light of potential harms, it can be argued the public has a right to know when they could potentially be consuming GMOs and often the regulations covering food product labeling is inconsistent across markets and around the world.

A second major source of contention is the fact that GMOs are manufactured products which U.S. courts have allowed corporations to patent.  With the patents in place, large corporations can market their products exclusively and retain all rights to the genetic structure.  This is extremely controversial, in that living organisms can be patented.  Even more troubling is the fact that when these genetically modified products spawn or reproduce, the off-spring carry the patented genetic material owned by the manufacturer.  As a result, a farmer's non-GMO crops may cross-pollinate with GMO products and the farmer can lose his rights to his crops based on the fact that patented technology exists in his crops.  Seeds which come from the cross-pollinated crops can then be seized by the corporation under patent law.

Examining the Resolution

The resolution begins with the words "on balance".  As we have seen many times in the past, this demands that the Pro side must establish a comparative framework, where, as the resolution demands, the advantages (benefits) are evaluated against the disadvantages (harms).  Of course the Pro will show a positive outcome.

The "benefits" are advantages or gains. While this should not necessarily carry any kind of contested meaning, we can generally hold that genetically modified foods produce benefits if they yield gains or advantages over non-use of GMOs. Of course the same standard can be applied to harms which I will address shortly.

Genetically modified foods are those products I discussed in the introduction, above. There will be more discussion about these when the various Pro and Con positions are presented.

For the term "outweigh" we mean the relative weight of benefits must exceed the relative weight of disadvantages.  I will discuss this further in the section below about framework.

As mentioned already, the "harms" are the disadvantages or those things which may be considered negative outcomes from the production or consumption of genetically modified foods.  Again, while it should be reasonably clear what is meant by the word "harms" we can suggest the harms must be conditions which are worse now than they were in the past or soon will be worse.

Please note, this resolution is not specific to the United States.  The potential benefits and harms of GMOs are global so don't forget that since it will add much more weight to the advantages and disadvantages.  Also, keep in mind that genetic engineering is a global enterprise and regulations which restrict certain practices in one region may not apply to other regions.


As required by the resolution, both the Pro and the Con will need to establish some way to convince the judge that benefits do or do not "outweigh" the harms. To apply a practical analogy, items can be weighed on a type of scale known as a balance beam. The beam has a center balance-point and weights are added to each end until either balance is achieved or the beam tilts to one side or the other.  One can tilt the balance by adding one very heavy weight or many lighter weights. The result is the same.  The sum total of weights accumulate to tip the balance. In debate, one may think of weights as impact statements which tilt the balance positively or negatively and there can be a few, really big impacts, or many smaller ones which add up. Impact statements invoke a kind of emotional reaction in the minds of listeners that can be persuasive when backed-up by evidence.

When debating a comparative framework, it is necessary to clarify the standards, the judge should apply when evaluating round.  For example, you may ask the judge to prefer the side which results in more of an economic advantage, or saves more lives, or better promotes peace. One may also reverse the perspective and ask the judge to reject the side which costs more, or results in more death or leads to conflict. Keep in mind, the best results will be had when your analysis allows the judge to weigh both sides on the basis of the standard you provide.  For example, if you want to claim the Pro economic advantage outweighs the Con disadvantage of product labels not informing the public, it creates a difficult comparison of economy versus public's right to know.  On the other hand, if want to claim a cost advantage it is much easier for the judge to evaluate when you claim your position costs less and the opponent's position cost more. Now you are using a common standard of cost by which the judge can make a proper evaluation.

Now, when evaluating the weight of benefits and harms, I think it may be important to realize that Pro is not necessarily advocating a change to the status quo.  This resolution is not asking us to consider whether GMOs use should be increased or eliminated.  GMOs are already present in the status quo. For this reason, Pro must base its analysis on conditions which were prevalent prior to the wide-spread use of GMOs and claim, now that we are using GMOs we are reaping benefits. Conversely, Con must do the same and claim harms in the status quo which exist due to GMO consumption or claim we are on the brink of harms which will be identified in the Con position.

For Con position click here
The Pro position is here.


  1. Just debated about stadium last night and I'm already so fired up for this topic!!!

    1. debate is bad

    2. Seriously? you think debating to see both sides of the the topic before you reach a decision is bad? you think it's better to just assume and blindly follow what others are siding on?

  2. Thanks, really helpful!

  3. Replies
    1. your right. there is no mean 4 this or debate.

    2. dude don't be such a jerk

  4. LOL at those who think "debate is bad." You wouldn't last two seconds before your opponent dug you into a hole so deep you'd be crying your eyes out.

  5. I have a debate in class on this so you guys really helped me get a better understanding of both sides of the argument. THANKS SO MUCH!!!!!!!


Feel free to leave comments relevant to the topics and activity of competitive high school debate. However, this is not a sounding board for your personal ideologies, abusive or racist commentary or excessive inappropriate language. Everyday Debate blog reserves the right to delete any comments it deems inappropriate.