Resolved: On balance, the benefits of genetically modified foods outweigh the harms.
For part 1 of this series, click here
OverviewIt is important for the Con and by extension, the judge to recognize that the biotech industry is currently being funded mainly by the U.S. multinational agricultural industry which intends to recuperate its expenditures and earn a profit through increased sales of bio-agro products. Like the price of oil, as long as the price of conventional sources of petroleum products remains low, the incentive to invest large sums of money into alternative fuels production remains low because the investment costs cannot be recovered. In the agro-business, as long as food prices remain relatively low, consumers will prefer non-GM foods, for a variety of reasons mainly associated with perceived risk. Still, investment in GM foods has continued despite the relatively low price of non-GM foods in the U.S. and these GM foods have been in production for many years. Currently, the industry does successfully market and sell a lot of GM food in the U.S. because it is heavily discounted (Curtis, McCluskey & Wahl, 2004) and because consumers are often unaware they are buying GM food products because the products are not labeled as GM products. So another important question is how can consumers make intelligent choices about which products they consume if they are not told what is in the products? Resistance to product labeling may be driven by the fact that setting up the mechanisms and controls necessary to track GM foods from planting, to harvest, through production and marketing will increase the cost of foods an estimated 5% to 15%. Charges have been made the agro-giants lobby strongly against any moves which will increase the costs of these products. If the consumer public perceives high risks in engineered food products, it would be in the best interests of the industry if consumers were not aware of their purchases, even if, as claimed by the industry and some leading studies, there are no apparent harmful effects from consumption of GM foods.
Let's begin by looking at the promises and claims of the biotech industry and perhaps we will find the touted solvency of genetically engineered foods is really a solution looking for a problem.
Food ShortagesIn 1789 Thomas Malthus predicted the explosive rate of population growth would eventually overtake the availability of food supplies. Despite his seemingly sound method of extrapolating future trends, it seems he failed to account for the even greater explosive growth rate of technological achievement which has thus far held off the grim reaper.
Altieri & Rosset (1999):
The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. Enough food is available to provide 4.3 pounds for every person everyday: 2.5 pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and eggs and another of fruits and vegetables. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access to food and land. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available (but often poorly distributed) or lack the land and resources to grow it themselves (Lappe, Collins & Rosset, 1998).
Conko & Smith (1999):
The world has experienced severe famines in this century, but they have not been caused by a general lack of food (and have not taken hundreds of millions of lives). Rather, they have resulted from political turmoil and non-democratic governments. The work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen demonstrates the importance of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and respect for individual rights in ensuring the coordination and delivery of basic economic goods (Sen, 1981). At current levels, world food production could provide more than 2,500 calories every day for all six billion people (Goklany, 1999). Ensuring true food security in a world of nine or ten billion, however, will require more than just redistribution.
While GE [genetic engineering] has received most of the attention and investment, traditional breeding has been delivering the goods in the all-important arena of increasing intrinsic yield. Newer and sophisticated breeding methods using increasing genomic knowledge—but not GE—also show promise for increasing yield.
Altieri & Rosset (1999)
Much of the needed food can be produced by small farmers located throughout the world using agroecological technologies (Uphoff & Altieri, l999). In fact, new rural development approaches and low-input technologies spearheaded by farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world are already making a significant contribution to food security at the household, national, and regional levels in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Pretty, l995).
Production and YieldThe Pro side can yet claim there is a benefit to GM foods even though conventional farming can meet current requirements, if GE can deliver better yields at lower cost. For example if one acre of land can feed fifty people with conventional methods and the same acre can feed more than fifty people using GE technology without a cost increase, then there is a net benefit. In fact it has now been about a quarter of a century this topic has been investigated and researched. Despite glowing assessments by the industry and extremist rhetoric from the certain groups spreading disinformation about the GM food industry, the truth is found in between in qualified scientific investigations.
Dean & Armstrong (2009):
"a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists reviewed 12 academic studies and indicates otherwise: "The several thousand field trials over the last 20 years for genes aimed at increasing operational or intrinsic yield (of crops) indicate a significant undertaking. Yet none of these field trials have resulted in increased yield in commercialized major food/feed crops, with the exception of Bt corn." However, it was further stated that this increase is largely due to traditional breeding improvements."
Note: A "Bt" product is one which creates a particular protein called Bt ( Bacillus thuringiensis) Delta Endotoxin which kills caterpillars. Hence the plant protects itself from catepillar infestation.
We do not need to presume Dean & Armstrong are correctly interpreting the report by the Union of Concerned Scientist. We can refer directly to their paper published in 2009 in which senior scientist Gurian-Sherman asserts immediately, "This report is the first to evaluate in detail the overall, or aggregate, yield effect of GE after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization in the United States. Based on that record, we conclude that GE has done little to increase overall crop yields." Looking specifically at the United States which has the longest history of utilizing GM products Gurain-Sherman elaborates.
GE soybeans have not increased yields, and GE corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop-wide basis. Overall, corn and soybean yields have risen substantially over the last 15 years, but largely not as result of the GE traits. Most of the gains are due to traditional breeding or improvement of other agricultural practices...It is time to look more seriously at the other tools in the agricultural toolkit. While GE has received most of the attention and investment, traditional breeding has been delivering the goods in the all-important arena of increasing intrinsic yield. Newer and sophisticated breeding methods using increasing genomic knowledge—but not GE—also show promise for increasing yield.
This fact is reiterated in other sources.
Altieri & Rosset (1999)
Recent experimental trials have shown that genetically engineered seeds do not increase the yield of crops. A recent study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service shows that in 1998 yields were not significantly different in engineered versus non-engineered crops in 12 of 18 crop/region combinations. In the six crop/region combinations where Bt crops or herbicide tolerant crops (HTCs) fared better, they exhibited increased yields between 5-30%. Glyphosphate tolerant cotton showed no significant yield increase in either region where it was surveyed. This was confirmed in another study examining more than 8,000 field trials, where it was found that Roundup Ready soybean seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar conventionally bred varieties (USDA, l999).
There is widespread consensus that yields have not increased, rather they have tended to be lower compared with conventional varieties (Elmore et al. 2001a, b). Nebraska University’s comparative study of HT and conventional soya beans (1998–1999) found that HT yielded 6% less (200 kg/ha) than their closest relations and 11% less than high-yield conventional soya beans. Researchers distinguished between two problems: yield drag, arising from problems relating to the transgene or insertion itself, and yield lag, arising from the type of soya beans into which the transgene had been inserted (the yield potential of conventional varieties may have overtaken that of an older GM variety). Benbrook’s (1999) study of 8200 university-based varietal trials in 1998 found a similar yield drag of 5–7% for GM varieties, with ‘the best conventional variety producing yields on average 10% or more higher than comparable Roundup Ready™ varieties sold by the same seed companies’. Yields of cotton appear largely unchanged at most locations (ERS-USDA 1999a), and those of maize are mostly unchanged (in 12 out of 18 regions), except where there has been high corn-borer pressure. Where pressure was high, yields were 5–30% greater for GM maize (ERS-USDA 1999b). In Missouri, however, no significant differences in yield under various corn-borer pressures across the state were found (Minor et al. 1999), and at the University of Purdue it has been concluded that farmers may not benefit by adopting Bt technologies under average pest infestation levels, given that economically-significant pest attack occurs only one in 4–8 years in most locations in the USA (Hyde et al. 2000).
Butterflies: The Canary in the Coal MineI have seen in some groups, a certain...shoulder shrug...attitude about recent reports of a link between the decline of the monarch butterfly population and genetically engineered agri-products. Perhaps the disregard is based on, 1) a lack of understanding of the role of butterflies like the monarch in plant fertilization and, 2) a sense that the benefits of GM foods outweigh the risks of a few dead butterflies. And yet, these same 'shoulder-shruggers' would likely avoid purchasing GM products if they found them so-labeled in the markets. Many years ago, miners took canaries into coal mines as a kind of early warning system against the accumulation of harmful gases since the canaries threshold of tolerance was much lower than a human, the miners had time to leave before the gases overtook them. One dead canary could save many miner lives. How about millions of butterflies?
Dean & Armstrong (2009):
Despite these differences, safety assessment of GM foods has been based on the idea of "substantial equivalence" such that "if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food." However, several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
In their report, Dean & Armstrong assert there is 'more than a causal association between GM foods and adverse health effects' and cites six separate studies detailing harmful health effects on animals which consume GM foods.
As transgenes result in the manufacture of new products in crops, usually proteins, a risk to humans arises if these products provoke an additional allergenic or immune response. Conventional non-GM foods already contain a large number of toxic and potentially toxic products, and so the key question is whether a specific GMO could result in a new hazard.
It is reported that nine out of ten food allergies are triggered by proteins found in common foods such as nuts, soybeans and wheat and peanut allergies are famous for being fatal if not treated very quickly. Con cannot claim that food allergies are a certainty. As pointed out in the following article, often allergies only arise after repeated or prolonged exposures to allergens, but the risks of potentially dangerous GM foods entering our food supply has already occurred.
In September 2000, a variety of transgenic corn, called StarLink, prohibited for human consumption was discovered in Taco Bell taco shells. This transgenic corn species was produced by Aventis Corporation, which was approved by federal agencies in 1998 for animal feed. However, because the corn has been genetically modified in a way that makes it harder to break down in the human gastrointestinal tract, agencies have refused to approve it for human use (Kaufman, 2000). It is postulated that the ability of a protein to withstand heat and gastric juices is an indicator that it will cause an allergic reaction (Taylor & Lehrer, 1996; Lehrer, 1999a).
The biggest unknowns arise when GM material migrates to other species through natural processes known as gene flow.
The first potential environmental risk is gene flow, where transgenes could transfer from a GMO to wild relatives and/or bacteria in soil or human guts. Gene flow is a natural phenomenon (Ellstrand et al. 1999), with many species of plants crossing with related species, and so the question of novel risk rests on whether the transgenes could lead to the transfer of undesirable traits, and the emergence of permanently transformed populations.
The public aversion to GM products may be application of the old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". The fact is, there have been no studies which examine the effects of GM foods other than examine the effect of individual chemicals upon human health. However, these kinds of assessments are inadequate.
The health risk assessment of genetically modified foods currently relies on the testing of the toxicity of single chemicals. However, food is a complex mixture of thousands of chemicals. ... The National Research Council (2000a, 2000b), Society of Toxicology (2000), and Royal Society of Canada (2001) have recently recommended that effective toxicity protocols be developed to determine the safety of whole foods. Other adverse health effects could result from overexpression of existing protein or other toxicologically active constituent, resulting in much greater exposure to that constituent than previously encountered by humans in their diet (Royal Society of Canada, 2001).
For All These Reasons...There is more I could add but I caution you, dear Con debater, to be wary of biased reporters. This is one of those topics which requires a deeper analysis than a simple one-page Google search will allow. For the most part, I try to use only academic sources with a preference toward peer-reviewed papers.
For the most part I setup the angle that corporate greed and manipulation of the markets and opportunities may be influencing many of the Pro positions, but I resisted the temptation to run the debate down that path. I will leave that to the bold and adventurous among you. Despite my reluctance, Be sure to check the bibliographies of the source I provided and you will find more than enough information. I hope I have given you enough here to get started.
(All sources are easily found online, even if I do not provide a direct link)
Altieri, M.A. and Rosset, P. (1999). Ten reasons why biotechnology will not ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing world. AgBioForum, 2(3&4), 155-162
Bakshi, A., Potential adverse health effects of genetically modified crops,Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 6, Pages: 211–225, 2003
Conko, G., Smith, F.L. Jr. Biotechnology and the value of ideas in escaping the Malthusian trap. AgBioForum, Vol. 2, No. 3&4, Pages: 150-154
Curtis, K.R., McCluskey, J.J., & Wahl, T.I. (2004). Consumer acceptance of genetically modified food products in the developing world. AgBioForum, 7(1&2), 70-75
Dean A., Armstrong, J.; Genetically Modified Foods Position Paper, Ammercan Academy of Environmental Medicine
Gurian-Sherman, D.(2009), Failure to yield: Evaluating the performance of genetically engineered crops, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009, Pages: 1-43
Pretty, J. (2001) The rapid emergence of genetic modification in world agriculture:
contested risks and benefits, Environmental Conservation 28 (3), Pages: 248–262