Friday, October 3, 2014

PF Nov 2014 - Genetically Modified Foods - Pro Position

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

For part one of this series, click here

The Overview

There is nothing in the Pro position which suggests the evidence is in and we no longer need be concerned about wide-spread GM food use. Caution is always prudent and it always best to check and recheck when the health and safety of humans and biomass may be at stake.  But we must also look ahead and see that very soon, under the pressure of increasing population growth, global warming, pollution, and loss of fertile soils, a potential for a steady decline in food security is likely. While caution is prudent it would also be wise to utilize all of the tools at our disposal.  The fact is, people in the U.S. have been consuming genetically modified foods since 1994 and thus far we have not identified substantial negative human health or environmental effects. In reality, every technological advancement in food production, whether through innovative breeding, development of new pesticides or fertilizers, or genetic engineering all present risks that are managed by appropriate administration, regulation and testing.

GM foods are under the microscope. It is a fact that none of the non-GM foods consumed around the world have had the same level of evaluation as GM foods. One source I looked at stated the level of insecticides in most brands of coffee is higher than some GM foods and many of the chemicals in coffee have never been tested for health effects. To put things in perspective, probably everything we do as a species has some adverse effects on the planet, but as the resolution asks, do the benefits outweigh?

Technically, the resolution does not put any demands on the development, manufacture or consumption of GM foods.  We are not expected to defend increases or decreases in its usage. In many respects, the resolution simply asks us to pause and assess.  We have been developing GMOs since the 1980s and we have been consuming them since 1994.  On balance, do the benefits outweigh the harms?  For the Pro, the answer is yes.

The Status Quo

Let's begin this process by looking at the status quo because we need to pause a moment and see where we are at and where he are headed.

Long (2013):
From a global perspective, the world is heading towards a food shortage. Even though there have been technological advances that, for example, have allowed U.S. farmers to roughly triple corn and soybean production in the past five decades, population and economic growth are placing a surging demand on food. Additionally, we are also confronting rising temperatures, increased drought, and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and surface ozone concentrations... U.S. agricultural exports in 2011, the most recent figures we have, were worth $137 billion. That is about 10 percent of all our nation’s exports now and it’s almost doubled over the last 10 years. And if we look at projections for world food prices and demand, it could well double again over the next 10 years,  becoming a most significant part of our exports. Now despite these increases in production and exports, demand, at the present time, is growing faster than supply. This has resulted in wheat prices more than doubling in just seven years and sorghum prices almost tripling over that time.

The so-called 'Green Revolution' is pretty much over.  The age of innovative breeding, use of pesticides and fertilizers, and improved tilling and cultivation techniques has reached the point of diminishing returns.  Food prices are rising, crop yields are falling and food security is at risk.  Pro would advocate that all technologies should be applied to avert the looming risks to food security including breeding, pesticides, fertilizers and genetics. But Pro is not advocating plunging ahead irresponsibly. Even very conservative and cautious protocols urged in other parts of the world understand the risks of suspending GMO deployment.

An Abundance of Caution

The Pro agrees it is prudent to be cautious, but not so cautious progress halts.  We must find the balance between caution and our sense of urgency to meet the demands of the changing world. Let's enlighten the opponents about the realities of scientific certainties.

IUCN 2007:
To date, scientists have found no unequivocal evidence of direct negative damages to biodiversity or human health associated with released GMOs, though some potentially negative impacts have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments (see below). However, the potential risks justify the need for a precautionary approach to minimise risks associated with releasing GMOs. On the other hand, some governments, supported by the WTO, are concerned that excessive precaution might prevent trade in GMOs that could provide real benefits to farmers and consumers, and especially the rural poor.

At issue is the principle of "scientific certainty" and if the intent is to uphold a moratorium on GMOs until we are absolutely certain there are no risks, we may never attain that point.

IUCN 2007:
Science works with probabilities, so most scientists use statistical measures of certainty, and state these explicitly in their publications. As Giampietro (2002) points out, it is impossible to ban uncertainty and ignorance from scientific models dealing with evolutionary processes, and as such, science can never really “prove” that GMOs in general are safe for biodiversity and human health. The “beyond reasonable doubt” provision in WCC3.007 will therefore remain more a political issue than a scientific one, though the negative result -- that a GMO has caused damage to biodiversity or human health -- can be demonstrated...The existence of ecological risks per se should not be used as a reason to stop innovations altogether, but the precautionary approach encourages scientists to carefully assess the trade-offs that may be involved (Giampietro, 2002). 

The Harms

It is difficult to quantify the harms of GMOs.  After all, it is because we do not yet know what harms may arise we urge caution.  It is appropriate, though to realize we have a problem looming due to increasing food stress for large populations and pressure from changing climate.  We identify the harms that already exist in the status quo as a result of current farm practices.

Kegley (undated):
Our current conventional agricultural system relies heavily on synthetic pesticides, and when pesticide exposure is mentioned, the first thought that may come to mind is pesticide residues on food. But for those who live in agricultural areas or work on conventional farms, exposure is a full-body experience. Farm workers have the highest exposures, since they are often involved in applying pesticides or working in the crop soon after the pesticides are applied. And ironically, people seeking a bucolic rural lifestyle may also have higher exposures simply from living near farms where pesticides are used.
Gilbert (2012):
The global food system, from fertilizer manufacture to food storage and packaging, is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the latest figures from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a partnership of 15 research centres around the world...Using estimates from 2005, 2007 and 2008, the researchers found that agricultural production provides the lion’s share of greenhouse-gas emissions from the food system, releasing up to 12,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year — up to 86% of all food-related anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. Next is fertilizer manufacture, which releases up to 575 megatonnes, followed by refrigeration, which emits 490 megatonnes. The researchers found that the whole food system released 9,800–16,900 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere in 2008, including indirect emissions from deforestation and land-use changes.
Industrial-type farming has major impacts on the environment but perhaps those can be mitigated by adopting the practices of traditional "organic" farms.  Then again, maybe not.

Oxford 2012:
'Many people think that organic farming has intrinsically lower environmental impacts than conventional farming but the published literature tells us this is not the case,' said Dr Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). 'Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realise that an "organic" label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product.

And as to the perceived heath benefits of organic products, perception is not science.

Stanford (2012):
After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The researchers were also unable to identify specific fruits and vegetables for which organic appeared the consistently healthier choice, despite running what Bravata called “tons of analyses.”

Pro cannot claim, GM food production will eliminate environmental or health impacts associated with farming and food production.  Nevertheless, by reducing the impacts, in a multitude of small ways, by reducing the number of times farmers need to run hydro-carbon gulping machinery through the fields, or using less fertilizer or pesticide which washes into ground water, and so many other improvements to conventional farming the accumulated benefits add up to a major weight in evaluating the benefits of GM food.

No Health Harms

Just for completeness, and I am sure you will have no problem finding the data, there is currently no known health effects from approved GM foods.  So let's just cover it now.

IUCN 2007:
Much of the GM production currently grown worldwide is destined for animal feed. According to the UK’s Food Standards Agency, food from animals fed on these crops is as safe as food from animals fed on non-GM crops (FSA, 2005). The FAO has also concluded that risks to human and animal health from the use of GM crops and enzymes derived from GM microorganisms as animal feed are negligible (FAO, 2004). Following an evidence-based study, the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded that “GM foods currently available on the international market have undergone risk assessments and are not likely, nor have shown, to present risks for human health any more than their conventional counterparts” (WHO, 2005). To date, the consumption of GM foods has not caused any known negative health effects. In the US and Canada, objective estimates suggest that 70 to 75 per cent of processed food contains GM ingredients (Phillips and Corkindale, 2003). Some 300 million people have been eating genetically modified crops for a decade or more, and no health problem has yet been identified as being caused by the consumption of GM products (Soupcoff, 2004).


It is now time to begin accumulating the small benefits that add up to tilt the balance in favor or Pro. This is nothing more than a compendium of benefits gleaned from the literature and there is so much more which I leave to you root out.

One of the true success stories of GM foods arises from the enhancement of the nutritional value of food items. This contribution is recognized by the World health Organization " asserts “can contribute directly to enhancing human health and development” (WHO, 2005)" (IUCN 2007).

Notable examples of proven nutritional value are found in the so-called "golden rice" with enhanced vitamin A and iron which has been shown to increase the iron-status of anemic women in the Philippines.  In addition, potatoes are being developed in India which contain nutrients and protein missing in the diets of millions of poor children.

WHO (2005):
Qaim and Zilberman (2003) report that farmers in Argentina that adopted herbicide-tolerant soybeans reduced per hectare production costs through the reduced number of herbicide applications, and thereby increased total factor productivity by 10%.
On average, the Bt cotton farmers in China reduced pesticide spraying for the Asian bollworm by 70%, producing a kilogram of cotton at 28% less cost than the non-Bt farmers (Huang et al. 2002b). These benefits have had a significant impact on the agronomic, environmental, health and economic situations of approximately 5 million resource-poor farmers over eight provinces. Similarly, farm-scale trials in China of GM rice containing genes which make them resistant to insect larvae that devastate rice crops showed 80% less pesticide use and yields increased by 6–9% (Coghlan 2005). In addition, farmers who grew the GM varieties suffered less pesticide-induced illness than those growing the old varieties (Coghlan 2005).
A two-year study of the economic impact of Bt cotton adoption by the farmers in the Makhathini Flats of Kwa-Zulu Natal Province of South Africa showed that farmers not only experienced yield increases, but that the savings from reduced chemical applications outweighed the higher seed cost (Ismael et al. 2001). Between 1997 and 2001, the number of South African cotton farmers who adopted the planting of Bt cotton increased 16-fold (Bennett et al. 2003).
Several agro-economic studies have been commissioned since the introduction of seed derived from modern biotechnology in the USA. One report illustrates that the greatest yield increases were achieved with insect-resistant maize, while the greatest reduction of input costs was seen in herbicide-tolerant soybean (Gianessi et al. 2002). The economic benefits associated with the cultivation of Bt maize by farmers in the USA in 2001 were primarily the result of the decreased need for pesticides. The financial gain takes into account the seed-price premium paid by farmers for Bt maize seed. Benbrook (2002) argues that farmers in the maize belt forfeit a significant proportion of their farm income to biotechnology companies because of the seed-price premium.

Raney (2006):
China, where some 7.5 million small farmers are growing IR cotton, represents the most successful case so far in terms of productivity, farmer incomes, equity and sustainability. Much of China’s success rests on its highly developed public agricultural research system, which has independently produced two transgenic constructs that confer insect resistance. These have been incorporated into a large number of locally adapted cotton varieties and compete directly with Monsanto’s IR cotton varieties. As a result, transgenic seed prices are much lower in China than elsewhere and farmers reap substantially higher returns. The role of the public sector in developing and distributing IR cotton varieties has been instrumental in reducing the price premium. Lower costs and marginally higher yields translate into large net profit gains in China.

Raney (2006):
HT soybeans are estimated to have increased total factor productivity in Argentina by 10% on average, with the cost savings being slightly greater for smaller farms (less than 100 ha) than for larger farms, owing mainly to lower seed prices among small farmers who are more likely to use uncertified seed than larger farms [23]. Aggregate global welfare benefits from HT soybeans are estimated at more than US $1.2 billion, with the largest share going to consumers (53%), followed by seed and biotechnology firms (34%) and farmers (13%). Owing to comparatively weak intellectual property protection, Argentine soybean growers receive 90% of the benefits in that country.

Raney (2006):
The IR cotton varieties available in Mexico (as with most varieties available elsewhere) incorporate a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which confers resistance against a narrow range of pests. Comarca Lagunera is the only state in Mexico where these pests constitute the major threat to cotton production; hence, it is the only state where IR cotton has been widely adopted. The major pests in other states require continued chemical pesticide use, making the IR varieties of less value. The authors estimate that farmers gained 83% of the total economic value created by the crop on average for the two years in the study.

Fernandez-Cornejo & Caswell
The economic impact of GE crops on producers varies by crop and technology. Herbicide-tolerant cotton and corn were associated with increased returns, as were insect-resistant cotton and corn when pest infestations were more prevalent. Despite the rapid adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans, there was little impact on net farm returns in 1997 and 1998. However, the adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans is associated with increased off farm household income, suggesting that farmers adopt this technology because the simplicity and flexibility of the technology permit them to save management time, allowing them to benefit from additional income from off-farm activities.

Water Safety
van den Brink (2010):
In the intensively farmed maize-growing regions in the USA, surface waters have often been contaminated by herbicides, principally as a result of precipitation run-off shortly after application of herbicides to maize and other crops. In general, glyphosate and glufosinate-ammonium are relatively rapidly broken down in the field. A model study in which glyphosate-tolerant maize and glufosinate-ammonium tolerant maize were compared with conventional maize showed that glyphosate and glufosinate-ammonium loads in run-off could be generally one-fifth to one-tenth of those of atrazine and alachlor. This is an indication that the introduction of herbicide resistant maize has reduced herbicide concentrations in vulnerable watersheds (Cerdeira and Duke, 2006). 

van den Brink (2010):
The first released insect-resistant maize provided protection against the European corn borer and a reduction in insecticide use was expected. Fewer non-selective insecticides, such as organophosphates and synthetic pyrethroids, could be used. The introduction of insect-resistant maize reduced the risks associated with the application of some insecticides including risks from exposure to field workers’ and consumers, adverse effects on nontarget species, and ground water contamination by insecticides. 

van den Brink (2010):
Drought tolerance of Bt maize with resistance to rootworm is improved, because the rooting system is not suffering from rootworms (Andow, pers. comm., see appendix) A higher production and a more efficient use of water is a positive environmental effect. 

As I said, there is much, much more that can be added to this section which directly address many of the harms identified in the status quo but you need to figure how to condense into a four minute constructive speech.

Good luck debaters. Have fun with this topic.


Fernandez-Cornejo, J., Caswell, M. (2006), The First Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, Economic Information Bulletin, No. 11

IUCN, 2007, Current knowledge of the impacts of genetically modified organisms on biodiversity and human health, The World Conservation Union, Postion Paper, 2007, Pages: 1-53

Kegley, S. PhD. The Health Costs of Our Food Production System: Pesticide Exposure and Effects on Farmers, Farm Workers, and Rural Residents, Physicians For Social Responsibility, accessed at:

Long, S.P. (2013) Food, Feed and Fuel from Crops under Global Atmospheric Change: Could we have it all in 2030?, 2013, Proceedings of the 2013 AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture

Oxford University (2012) Organic farms not necessarily better for environment, Oxford Media, News and Events, Accessed at:

Raney, T. (2004). Agricultural biotechnology for developing countries. Health Policy and
Development Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2, Aug. pp. 122-130.

Raney, T.; Economic impact of transgenic crops in developing countries, Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2006, 17:1–5

Stanford (2012), Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, study finds, Stanford Medicine, News Center, accessed at:

WHO (2005). Modern food biotechnology, human health and development: an evidence-based
study. Accessed at

van den Brink, L., et al (2010) Inventory of observed unexpected environmental effects of genetically modified crops, Applied Plant Research, 2010


  1. Your blog is just...amazing. Your dedication, research skills, and overall comprehensiveness astounds me to no end. Keep 'em coming.

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. I'm glad to know I am doing my part to help the forensics community.

  2. Omg you saved my life. Im so bad at research, now I'll have a damn good case

    1. Keep working at it Terrell. Good research requires persistence, curiosity, and a healthy dose of skepticism. Go deeper than this blog and you will have an even better case.

  3. you just saved my life at making my case better for tomorrow.

  4. thanks. i had to write a speech about this.


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