VIDEO: Experts Including Monsanto and the Union of Concerned Scientists Debate the Safety of GMOs

The debate primarily focused on safety issues and environmental impact, and discussion on copyright and labeling was essentially nonexistent. And, oh yeah, Bill Nye was there.

Earlier this week, representatives from Monsanto, UC Davis, Washington State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists squared off to debate the future of genetically modified food as a part of intelligence2’s series. The event primarily focused on safety issues and environmental impact, and discussion on copyright and labeling was essentially nonexistent.

We’ve summarized some of the key points from the debate here. Have anything you’d like to add to the discussion? Share by leaving a comment.

The basics:
Hardly 30 seconds of any discussion about genetic modification pass before someone brings up the fact that our farmland will soon have to feed nine billion people. Proponents of GMOs claim that they can increase yield, resist disease, maximize efficiency and ultimately feed the hungry. The opposing opinion is quick to point out that they may be unsafe for consumption and may encourage the rapid development of superweeds or pest resistance.

Are GMOs safe?

  • For: No known acute injuries have been reported throughout the 30-year history of genetic modification. GMOs don’t pose any new potential risks, and they undergo rigorous testing before they reach the market.
  • Against: These studies fail to accommodate potential risks due to long-term exposure. Furthermore, seed companies are starting to “stack” traits, meaning manipulating many traits within a single plant. These new seeds have not undergone testing for the stacked traits. A gold standard for testing has been established by Codex Alimentarius Commission and is not being followed by any biotech companies.

What’s the environmental impact of GMOs?

  • For: Genetically modified crops have effected dramatic pesticide reduction and many studies show that resistance has not been an issue thus far. The crops increase yield by diminishing pest threats. GMOs allow farmers to practice no-till agriculture, which minimizes erosion.
  • Against: Resistance is in fact an issue, and the opposition is relying on old data. Farmers in the U.S. have already stopped using GM cotton because of issues with weed resistance. The potential for superweeds or a “bugpocalypse” does exist.

What was Bill Nye the Science Guy’s role?
Bill Nye made a guest star appearance asking a question from the audience. He asked the panelists to reach a consensus on how long it would take to determine the true environmental impact of genetically modified organisms. Pro-GMO panelists claimed that adequate testing has already occurred. The opposition agreed that studies should span at least two crop rotation cycles, or about 16 years. However, because the technology has changed so rapidly, a coherent study of this length has not been completed.

Did the audience vote yea or nay for GMOs?
The audience was polled before and after the debate. Before the debate, people were split evenly between supporting GMOs, opposing GMOs and being undecided. After the debate, about 60 percent of the audience voted in support of GMOs while the number of people in opposition stayed constant and the undecided category shrunk to 9 percent.

The missing pieces:
One audience member asked the panel about copyright issues, the situation of small-scale farmers and labeling laws. Here’s a reading list that broadens the scope of the GMO debate to encompass its very real economic implications.

You can watch a full video of the debate here.

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Claire Brown

Claire is the Associate Digital Editor at Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. When she's not writing about food, she can often be found leading tours at the Union Square Greenmarket.