Wheel Debates: Are Genetic Modification’s Risks Justified?

The Wheel Debates are written by members of the Barkley Forum. The views argued below do not necessarily reflect each debater’s personal opinions.

Genetic Modification Reduces Hunger, Boosts Sustainability

By Liliana Burgess

Genetic modification (GM), or the deliberate genetic alteration of food, is a safe, effective and necessary tool to ensure future food security and improve the nutritional value of crops. Near-exponential population growth and extreme environmental pressures jeopardize the sustainability of food production, according to MIT Technology Review Editor David Rotman. Currently, 812 million people are malnourished, with the number set to precipitously rise as experts like Rotman predict a 30 percent spike in population by 2050. Global food security, therefore, is an international priority that requires a twofold approach: decreasing hunger in the short term and boosting resources in the long term. GMOs are the requisite tool to resolve both of those concerns they dramatically increase food production and improve the nutritional value of crops, meaning smaller meals could provide health benefits equivalent to larger meals.

GM significantly increases food output. The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development states that without GM foods, “net production of grains and oilseeds would fall by 17.7 million tonnes and global consumption would fall by 15.4 million tonnes. The cost of consumption would also increase by $20 billion.” The benefits of GM crops are magnified in developing countries. Since 1996, GM foods have expanded the global agriculture sector by $116.9 billion, with over half of that amount being earned by farmers in developing countries. Because foods are modified for hardiness in harsh conditions, they also make previously barren farmland arable. Late Harvard Professor of the Practice of International Development Calestous Juma noted that “without GM, the world would have needed another 123 million hectares of land to meet the same levels of production.” The resilience of GM foods also yields environmental sustainability — the crops’ intrinsic properties subsume the need for fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals that damage the surrounding ecosystem.

In addition to increased yields, GM foods provide superior nutrition. Through the process of biofortification, scientists edit genes to increase their natural nutrition and incorporate supplements. Golden rice, for example, is transforming the lives of nearly a billion people by augmenting their vitamin A consumption. According to UNICEF, vitamin A deficiency causes “over eight million children [to] die prematurely each year.” GM combats this by increasing the nutritional value of a given meal, particularly helping those who can only afford a meager supply.

Despite the immense potential of GM foods, they are swathed in fear as anti-GM activists question their safety and production. Oxford Economist Paul Collier cautions thatthe debate over GM crops and food has been contaminated by political and aesthetic prejudices: hostility to U.S. corporations, fear of big science and romanticism about local, organic production. Food supply is too important to be the plaything of these prejudices.” There has not been a comprehensive, peer-reviewed study that rejects GM foods health and environmental concerns are so far unfounded.

Some contend that the expensive production and distribution of GM seeds create corporate monopolies. While corporations led initial GM development, they no longer control access to GM seeds. According to Juma, “of the 16.7 million people who grew transgenic crops in 2011, 15 million or 90 percent were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.”

Regardless, the benefits of GM foods are too important to ignore. The opponents who reject GM foods on the basis of their potential risk or their distribution flaws actively jeopardize the lives of the poor across the globe. The promise and safety of GM foods is unquestionably backed by science. This fear-mongering only serves to disadvantage those who already lack access to fundamental and basic resources. In the words of Columbia University Professor of Economics, Law, and International Relations Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, “fear of an improbable Frankenstein is leading to the certain prospect of the Grim Reaper.”

Liliana Burgess (20B) is from Atlanta, Ga.

Corporatized Agriculture Isn’t the Solution

By Emily Silber

Corporate control of the agricultural industry through genetic modification (GM) is unnecessary and devastating for small farmers and the environment. Corporate GM patents skew market prices: according to the Agriculture Department, corn seed prices have risen 135 percent and soybean prices have risen 108 percent since 2001, while the Consumer Price Index has increased only a measly 20 percent. The price hike hurts small farmers because they have to buy seeds from corporations. In other words, farmers in poor regions with the most severe food scarcity can’t benefit from the crops’ supposed increased hardiness and nutrition because they can’t afford them in the first place.

GM foods furthermore cause a transfer in industry power from small farmers to large corporations at an institutional level. Because of GM corporations’ fiscal and lobbying power, people like Michael Taylor, former vice president of Monsanto (a huge agricultural and agrochemical company famous for its soybeans), are consistently appointed to powerful positions in the FDA. This is dangerous — people like him regulate agriculture to increase their profits, not look out for the wellbeing of the country. Corporate insiders are known for abusing their power by giving more and more subsidies to their friends in big farming, creating a feedback loop that hurts small farmers.

Crops produced by GM also endanger the environment. Because they’re patented, only the corporate creator can do research on their potential health and environmental concerns, which creates a huge conflict of interest. Also, because crops are often developed to be immune to common pesticides, farmers carelessly drench their fields with those harmful chemicals because it won’t hurt their profit. From the fields, these chemicals seep into groundwater supplies, potentially killing other plants and polluting our water supply.

Food insecurity and malnutrition are undoubtedly daunting problems facing societies around the world, but GM technology isn’t the solution: redistribution is. According to CNBC, 1.7 billion people are overfed and billions of tons of food go to waste before reaching the market. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers found that consumers in the United States and the United Kingdom throw away about half of the food they buy. This means that we aren’t actually lacking food — we just aren’t committed to properly distributing it. A lot of this is due to the corporate price controls rendering food unaffordable for impoverished communities. But if we focus on using the food we already have, there is no need for an increase in production even with expected population growth.

GM is also unnecessary to increase output. Selective breeding and other forms of alternative agriculture have a very similar effect on the hardiness of crops and can create plants that are ideal for harsh environments.

Finally, the nutritional value of GMOs is often overstated. For example, one of the most well-known nutritionally supplemented plants — golden rice — is not as magical as its creators would have you believe. The volume of golden rice that a person would have to consume to get any of the benefits is more than a human could ever eat, according to Professor Emeritus of Technology and Public Policy at the University of Washington Philip Bereano. GMO advocates cherry-pick statistics without assessing real-world implementation.

GM is the wrong solution for food insecurity and malnutrition. It’s a corporate tool that delays responses to poverty, hurts the environment and increases the wealth gap with deception and corruption.

Emily Silber (21C) is from Lincolnwood, Ill.