GENETICALLY MODIFY FOOD?
Plenty to Chew On
Top Thinkers Debate Today's Most Important Issues
he final Intelligence Squared debate for 2014 tackles Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the global debate about their risks and advantages. This debate topic again provokes strong opinions for some and increased uncertainty for others - which is part of what makes Intelligence Squared succeed. This replay is available here
Our Oregonian classmate Jonathan Ater
provides our preview. He tells me that he already was concerned about GMOs but became more intrigued as he learned more and saw the organizational and financial commitments from both sides in his state's tightly contested referendum. Please don't be reluctant about commenting yourself and seeing other classmates' reactions here
As many of you know, in 1965 Jonathan and his wife, Deanne, drove a Volkswagen bus from New Haven to Portland, Oregon, where they raised seven children and now shepherd 16 grandchildren aged two to 29. Jonathan is the senior partner of Ater Wynne LLP, a well-respected Pacific Northwest law firm, and is active in state and local commissions and projects related to public health.
Our thanks to all our preview writers, to so many of you for your support of the Yale62.org partnership with Intelligence Squared US, and to Al Chambers
for arranging it. We trust you agree that the six debates were all on thought-provoking subjects and conducted civilly. Let me know
if you would like to see us continue this project in the Spring of 2015 or if you think you have had enough.
by Jonathan Ater
live in Oregon, where we have just voted on Measure 92, which would require labeling of most foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Three weeks after the election, the vote count finally was completed. The measure was defeated by 809 votes- 50.03% to 49.97%. There will be an automatic recount.
This has been by far the most expensive ballot measure in Oregon history. Together, the two sides spent at least $29 million to influence about 1.5 million voters, about $19 per voter. Almost all of this money came from non-Oregonians. Oregon is just a battleground in a still-developing larger national referendum. The proponents - mostly wealthy individuals - spent about $8 million. The opponents - mostly large food and biotech companies - spent about $21 million. These are large sums, but even they represent only a fraction of the human energy and money being spent on GMO politics.
Also in November, Colorado voters rejected an almost identical ballot measure by a 2-1 margin. In earlier years, voters in Washington and California rejected similar ballot measures requiring GMO labeling - in each case also after hugely expensive political campaigns.
The closeness of the Oregon vote is either an outlier or a bellwether. Despite those "no" votes it is possible that public opinion about GMO foods is changing, as it has with other issues like gay marriage and legalization of marijuana.
Indeed, folks concerned with beating back genetically modified organisms have achieved some notable victories in the last few months:
- The Vermont legislature has approved a GMO-labeling measure to take effect in 2016.
- Voters in Maui voted on Election Day to ban the use of GMO crops in Maui, pending further testing. (Monsanto spent $8 million to oppose the measure and has now filed suit to block implementation.).
- By a 60 percent margin, voters in Humboldt County, California voted on Election Day to ban outright the production of GMO crops.
- Monsanto since the election agreed to pay more than $2.5 million to settle claims made by Oregon wheat farmers whose fields were contaminated by an experimental GMO variety, causing Asian buyers to reject the crop.
From my perspective as a concerned citizen who has just weathered an onslaught of Measure 92 campaign advertising, I am still confused about the pros and cons of GMOs. In Oregon, the issues were framed as "right to know" vs. "food will cost more." These concepts oversimplify and likely distort the questions which ought to be part of society's public policy discussion. The matter is far from clear and public opinion not only divided, but likely uninformed.
What in the world is this expensive political fight all about? It is good that the Intelligence Squared Debate on December 3 will address some of the important questions, such as:
- Many reputable organizations, such as Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists, advocate labeling of GMO foods. More than 60 countries, including Japan, Australia, Russia, and the entire European Union, regulate GMOs, by banning or limiting them, or by some kind of labeling requirement. What is the basis for this strong opposition to GMOs? What is the "it" that consumers should know?
- Is this debate about food safety or agricultural policy or both?
- What do we really mean by the term "genetic modification"? Consider that Luther Burbank - generally revered by Americans - developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including the Russet Burbank potato, now the world's most widely used potato in food processing. How and why is Burbank's work different from the recent announcement by the JR Simplot Company in Idaho that it has received USDA approval for a genetically modified potato which has been altered so that frying produces less of a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people?
- How can we know what food products are safe? Is it possible that GMOs are inherently unsafe, or is this a case-by-case analysis? What about other food additives, such as preservatives? How about the use of antibiotics in animals? What should consumers "know" about any of these things?
- If the issue is about the impact of GMOs on native plants, or about the increased use of pesticides, why is consumer labeling the appropriate response?
- Assuming that people have a "right to know" what they are eating, what is relevant knowledge? What is the risk of too much disclosure? Should labels read like a prospectus? How many of us read the labels that come with the drugs we take?
- Should labeling and farming regulation be addressed as a national issue, rather than state by state? Should Congress pass a bill preempting state regulation? Would federal preemption foreclose public discussion? Would it be contrary to our national history of states serving as laboratories for social change?
- Can and should food safety be tested and regulated in advance, similar to the regulation of pharmaceuticals?
- What are the potential unintended consequences of introducing GMOs into the food supply? How many times in our history have we heard that something is benign, only to discover that it is dangerous: DDT, tobacco, Thalidomide, Agent Orange?
- What about the environmental issues related to pesticide use and pollution? What happens as nature evolves and adapts in response to the introduction of GMO crops and animals? What if GMOs invade and even destroy indigenous plants and animals? How would we deal with new generations of pests, which adapt to GMO crops or become resistant to pesticides? How is any of this different from evolution and extinction as natural processes?
- Modern agriculture now has the capacity to feed the world - although our economic and distribution systems do not achieve the potential. Is industrial farming good or bad for the planet? Is it sustainable over time? Should we revert to local and organic farming practices across the planet? How would that function in an increasingly urban world?
- How will humans develop and produce crops and animals which can survive climate change? How do we promote innovation? Are GMOs part of the solution or part of the problem?
Thanks to our classmate, Bob Rosenkranz
, for sponsoring this Intelligence Squared US debate on such an important issue. Tune in here
at any time to comment on Jonathan's preview and to watch the replay. The comments area is still open for your thoughts.
To read comments on Intelligence Squared debates held earlier
this season, click here