Genetically Modify Food

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Illustration by Thomas James

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Genetically modified (GM) foods have been around for decades. Created by modifying the DNA of one organism through the introduction of genes from another, they are developed for a number of different reasons—to fight disease, enhance flavor, resist pests, improve nutrition, survive drought—and are mainly found in our food supply in processed foods using corn, soybeans, and sugar beets, and as feed for farm animals. Across the country and around the world, communities are fighting the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. Are they safe? How do they impact the environment? Can they improve food security? Is the world better off with or without GM food?

  • Fraley90pxs


    Robert Fraley

    Executive VP & Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto

  • VanEenennaam90px


    Alison Van Eenennaam

    Genomics and Biotechnology Researcher, UC Davis

  • Benbrook90


    Charles Benbrook

    Research Professor, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

  • Mellon90pxs


    Margaret Mellon

    Science Policy Consultant & Fmr. Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Robert Fraley

Executive VP & Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto

Dr. Robert Fraley is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto. He has been with Monsanto for over 30 years, and currently oversees the company’s global technology division which includes plant breeding, biotechnology, and crop protection research facilities in dozens of countries. Fraley has authored more than 100 publications and patent applications. In 2013, he was honored as a World Food Prize Laureate. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2008 National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science for his work on crop improvement and the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1999.

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For The Motion

Alison Van Eenennaam

Genomics and Biotechnology Researcher, UC Davis

Alison Van Eenennaam is a genomics and biotechnology researcher and cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis. She received a Bachelor of Agricultural Science from the University of Melbourne, and an MS in Animal Science and a PhD in Genetics from UC Davis. The mission of her extension program is “to provide research and education on the use of animal genomics and biotechnology in livestock production systems.” Her outreach program focuses on the development of science-based educational materials, including the controversial biotechnologies of genetic engineering (GE) and cloning. She has served on several national committees including the USDA National Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and as a temporary voting member of the 2010 FDA Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee meeting on the AquAdvantage salmon. Van Eenennaam was the recipient of the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award.

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Against The Motion

Charles Benbrook

Research Professor, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

Charles Benbrook is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University, and program leader of Measure to Manage: Farm and Food Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health. His career has focused on developing science-based systems for evaluating the public health, environmental, and economic impacts of changes in agricultural systems, technology, and policy. He spent the first 18 years of his career working in Washington, D.C., first for the Executive Office of the President, then as the staff director for a U.S. House of Representatives agricultural subcommittee. He was the ED of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture, and has run a small consulting firm since 1991. He moved to the west in 1997, and served as the chief scientist for The Organic Center from 2004-2012. Benbrook has served as an appointed member on the USDA’s AC 21 agricultural biotechnology advisory committee since 2011. His 2012 peer-reviewed study documenting the big increase in herbicide use triggered by the planting of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. has been downloaded over 110,000 times.

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Against The Motion

Margaret Mellon

Science Policy Consultant & Fmr. Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists

Margaret Mellon is a science policy consultant in the areas of antibiotics, genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture. She holds a doctorate in molecular biology and a law degree from the University of Virginia. In 1993, Mellon founded the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists to promote the adoption of science-based farming systems that are simultaneously productive, environmentally benign, and resilient in the face of stress. The program critically evaluated products of genetic engineering for their contribution to sustainable agriculture and urged the reduction of unnecessary antibiotic use in animal agriculture. After almost 20 years, Mellon stepped down as head of the program in 2012 and, after two additional years as a senior scientist, left UCS in 2014. Mellon has published widely on the potential environmental impacts of biotechnology applications, and served three terms on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture.

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Declared Winner: For The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

52% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (29% voted FOR twice, 18% voted AGAINST twice, 5% voted UNDECIDED twice). 48% changed their minds (2% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 1% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 9% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 3% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 22% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 10% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link DianneP Monday, 07 September 2015 13:17 posted by DianneP

      The proof in in the pudding so to speak. On a personal note, I have not eaten gmo corn, soy or canola in 4 years, including derivative products listed on ingredients.. My weight has been stable and my energy is great for my age.

      After much reading, the use of roundup topically is of real concern regarding GMO signature crops that have gone on to create super weeds requiring even more herbicide. Monsanto has basically promoted spraying roundup to control the super weeds
      I read this in so many sites, but this quote is succinct.

      “The truth is, Roundup targets enzymes found in both plants AND people — specifically in our gut bacteria — which are vulnerable to potent pesticides like Roundup. Monsanto’s claim — that Roundup targets enzymes ‘not found in people’ — is objectively false and inherently misleading.”

    • Comment Link Jonathan Thursday, 04 June 2015 03:40 posted by Jonathan

      The debate was about the breeding method Genetic Engineering and it's use on crops that we eat.

      Pro said
      We have more cheap food with increased yield and lower environmental impact

      Con said
      but you use Round up on GE crops

      What I would have liked to hear based on what I've heard here
      First. is an unbiased study of effect on human health of eating non-gmo conventional vs gmo conventional vs organic conventional vs no pesticides vs sustainable farming. My guess is no noticeable effect as the over 2000 other studies suggest.

      The second thing I'd like to know is if GE pesticide resistant crops helping speed up the evolution of pesticide resistant weeds. The anthology being we have antibiotic resistant diseases but we haven't made genetically engineered hosts. This could mean that the round up causes round up resistant crops instead of suggestions that GE RR crops help make RR weeds.

    • Comment Link Don Tuesday, 17 March 2015 01:25 posted by Don

      All these lame excuses for the anti-side not doing well. Everybody who doesn't oppose GM food is a liar, being paid by monsanto, the debaters were unprepared and so on.

      BTW - " Malthusian Paul R. Ehrlich, in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, said that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980" and "Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs."[34] Ehrlich's warnings failed to materialize when India became self-sustaining in cereal production in 1974 (six years later) as a result of the introduction of Norman Borlaug's dwarf wheat varieties."

    • Comment Link Cameron Stewart Wednesday, 11 February 2015 20:53 posted by Cameron Stewart

      Robert Fraley essentially made the best point of the debate - in my opinion - that it is more important to trust innovation and scientific discovery than regulate it and pick apart its efficacy to the point of dilution. I understand scientists are not impervious to ethical faults but to limit our brightest minds only puts on impotence on solving our world's problems

    • Comment Link Don hute Thursday, 22 January 2015 14:10 posted by Don hute

      This is good but hard to sit through

    • Comment Link Brandon Paddock Tuesday, 06 January 2015 18:07 posted by Brandon Paddock

      Ann - That's actually a myth. While Monsanto does enforce their patents against farmers who buy their seeds and then violate the license agreement by planting the seeds grown from them, they have never sued anyone for accidentally growing patented crops.

      In fact, Monsanto were the ones sued by a group of organic farmers and seed businesses who claimed they were "pre-empting" possible cases where accidental contamination of a field could result in Monsanto asserting their patents against innocent farmers. Because Monsanto has never done that, and has promised they never will, the judge threw it out.

      This issue would be a lot easier to debate if myths like that weren't spread around.

      Jacyntha Crawley -

      You should also then insist that we label all food containing crops harvested by red tractors, so that customers can choose whether they want to eat products containing red-tractor-farmed plants. There is just as much scientific reason to do this as there is to label foods containing "GMO" ingredients.

    • Comment Link Ann Elk Tuesday, 06 January 2015 01:11 posted by Ann Elk

      I was thinking along the same line as the commenter who said it seemed "suspicious that the topic of food sovereignty and patent law was completely absent from the debate." Even if we knew for certain that GMO foods were harmless biologically, they're a legal and political minefield if one considers Monsanto's history of aggressive assertion of its patent rights when their GMO crop pollen contaminates the adjacent fields of farmers not using their product. Whether pesticide-resistant or engineered productivity and nutrient traits, the manufacturers of these plants ultimately want to wrest control over seed ownership and access. This is the uncontrovertible danger of GMOs to all farmers and nations.

    • Comment Link Jacyntha Crawley Sunday, 04 January 2015 18:41 posted by Jacyntha Crawley

      At Ki Publishing Co-operative we really believe that all GM Food should be labelled as such when it is used as an ingredient. Then it is up to the individual consumer to choose how to spend their money

    • Comment Link Kevin Kreneck Sunday, 28 December 2014 19:17 posted by Kevin Kreneck

      I agree.
      With so many confirmed problems surrounding GMO's, the CON team sounded woefully unprepared and vague.
      All GMO's do is lead to an even more highly centralized Agricultural industry. Farmers have to go back to the same company over and over for updated seeds since they can't propagate new ones from the old stock.
      But let's take a look at the waking nightmare in Eastern Europe.
      Farmers there planted GMO seeds and are finding that they don't work at all. Plants are subject to every disease imaginable and harvests have been a complete disaster.
      Very much like this "debate".

    • Comment Link Travis Cronkhite Wednesday, 24 December 2014 06:59 posted by Travis Cronkhite

      I found it very suspicious that the topic of food sovereignty and patent law was completely absent from the debate.

    • Comment Link Scottish Bob Saturday, 20 December 2014 05:24 posted by Scottish Bob

      Terrible proposition, what were they meant to be arguing for and against? No more a debate topic than 'bread!'. Not sure we can blame the debaters here?

    • Comment Link Bill Crabtree Friday, 19 December 2014 04:20 posted by Bill Crabtree

      A very good debate, the results speak for themselves. The anti-GM group lost their way trying to find a path to win. The science of conventional breeding is poorly understood by the general public and this debate with a smart audience were easily able to sift the wheat from the chaff. Congrats, science is the winner.

    • Comment Link Josh Cox Wednesday, 17 December 2014 00:34 posted by Josh Cox

      I was very disappointed with this debate. The panellists were weak, particularly the CON side. They lacked the ability to stay on point, and present a compelling argument, not for a lack of available argument. The PRO side, while clearly better at presentation, was also weak when it came to addressing some of the major issues and questions that were raised.

      I almost always like John Donvan, but I felt like he didn't present a good debate and unnecessarily overruled some key questions from the audience that were not discussed in the debate and as a result I feel like he made some critical errors. One such example of this was the question of the impacts of GMO on human health over the long term. Regardless of one's formed opinion of this point, he inaccurately stated that this had been addressed already. A discussion of animal health does not necessarily correlate to human health when consuming those animals. There are plenty of examples of this like bioaccumulation (plankton consumes toxin, works its way up the food chain, then killer whales start washing up on the shore dead from poisoning, meanwhile all the plankton are fine at the bottom of the chain). I would have liked the panellists to address this and at least attempt to prove it in the debate.

    • Comment Link Eric Monday, 15 December 2014 22:13 posted by Eric

      This was the worst debate so far. Did the Con side make one valid point? I kept waiting.. So much hype over GMOs and not a single valid point was made that called them into question...

    • Comment Link anthony Sunday, 14 December 2014 22:57 posted by anthony

      So many good points by posters, it's unfortunate the arguments against didn't include some of these points.
      Even the arguments for didn't address in explicit detail the challenges ahead if something is not done or perhaps should not be done.

      Normally I'm at the edge of my seat during a iq2 debate going "oh oh.. what about..?" Usually to have my exact point or concern stated by one of the participants.
      not the case this time. For once, such an important issue and the motion against felt half hearted.

      One quarter of the US gdp is food.
      so much money, I wouldn't want to go toe to toe with that juggernaut. When people are wondering where their next meal will come from, it's a hard sell to ask them to consider the implications of their choice of plentiful inexpensive food.

      Perhaps some people feel they can hide from the implications by shopping at whole foods if they have the money. I know I thought I could.

    • Comment Link Michael Fons Sunday, 14 December 2014 16:00 posted by Michael Fons

      Shame on Intelligences Squared for allowing audience to contain roughly 30 percent Monsanto employees. Almost every one of the undecided votes changed to supporting GMOs. I find that extremely hard to believe. I believe GMOs have a lot of potential for good, but that current GMOs such as Roundup Ready /Corn/Soy/Cotton are not examples of that. There are more effective, less expensive, more environmentally friendly methods of controlling weeds available.

    • Comment Link Julie Saturday, 13 December 2014 23:01 posted by Julie

      I was alarmed to hear the 2 proponents claim there were no noted harm or danger to humans. I offer one anecdote: about a month ago, my parents and some friends dined at a local (non-chain) diner. My mother ordered fried zucchini, and within minutes (or seconds) her throat swelled, constricting (eliminating) her ability to breathe. Fortunately, the friend had antihistamines and my mother was able to breathe again, but felt poorly for the rest of the evening.
      She saw her doctor the next day about what happened to her. He stated that she had a sudden allergic reaction. It could have been the oil, the breading, the spices, or even the zucchini. Because so many foods are genetically modified, it would be hard to pinpoint the exact allergen. (And probably, the health plan does not cover that sort of testing.)
      It seemed that if the doctor had not seen other similar cases, then he was aware that other people had suffered similar allergy attacks to some food in their meals.
      I am so grateful that her friend had the antihistamines and knew what to do. Otherwise, i would no longer have a mother. I now carry antihistamines as well.
      How many more anecdotes need to be collected? of near deaths...or God forbid, deaths.

    • Comment Link Kevin Franck Friday, 12 December 2014 10:00 posted by Kevin Franck

      Personally I thought the only winner was John Donvan the Moderator who did a superb job of controlling both sides, he was neutral, unbiased and very professional. The Team Monsanto side had all the same canned answers as from the beginning and the usual definition shell gaming along with other loop holes. The Team Organics side while hitting on important points of dangers with chemicals, should have taken them on better by what is wrong with the gmo technology. Mostly it's about Patents backed by these dumb arguments that nature is a bad designer. Needless to say I am also disgusted with the audience who seemed more lazy and made their decision vote based on who made them feel more warm and fuzzy all over.

      So I wrote about it. Mostly because of what I know and have experienced through practical application


    • Comment Link Mi Friday, 12 December 2014 02:11 posted by Mi

      This was a joke debate. It is like some college students who are debating each other. If I did not know much about GMOs I would be very confused of who is saying what. The pro GMOs were clearly better prepared or at least better spoken. They could say things with more clarity and simple to understand language. The opposition was talking like they are not sure about of what they are opposing. This was about nothing. I am against GMOs and I know why I am against them but people who talked against the GMOs were not right opposition brains against gmos for sure. It was a weak presentation from the opposition for sure. Thanks for reading.

    • Comment Link Tod Hostetler Thursday, 11 December 2014 20:23 posted by Tod Hostetler

      I have no fear of eating GMO foods and I think that a lot of the fears around the foods themselves are scaremongering by people that don't understand science very well. GMO foods really can't hurt people that eat them.

      That said:

      I am deeply concerned that the pro-GMO crowd underestimates the potential impact on the biosphere in large scale ways without adequate regard for long-term impacts. I think that GMO is the future, and indeed inevitable, but only as our knowledge of the technology grows. Slowly and carefully. Strongly at odds with this reasoned and enlightened approach are the market impulses toward short-term profit, as Monsanto has demonstrated time and time again. We should be concerned, and demand labeling so that we can vote with our dollars whether or not we support the current practices of the industry.

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