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Debate: Genetically modified foods

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Are genetically modified foods (GM foods) beneficial?

Background and context

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, is a term that can apply to plants, animal, or microorganisms that have undergone genetic modification. The predominant areas of analysis in the debate of GMOs include the application of genetically modified crops as a food source. Additionally, GMOs are also used for the production of pharmaceuticals and enzymes as well as enhancing cellular function for the purpose of study. An examination of the acceptability and medical ramifications of GMOs requires specific analyses in each sphere of biotechnology research: plants, animals, and microorganisms (which include pharmaceuticals and industrial enzymes).

Contents

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Consumer safety: Are GM foods safe/healthy for consumers?

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Yes

  • Conventional foods have always involved genetic tampering The most common forms of alteration have been cross-breeding and irradiation. Cross-breading involves breeding plant variations together to achieve desirable characteristics. Irradiation involves blasting seeds with gamma rays to produce genetic mutations, from which desirable variations are selected. Both are legal and are not considered "genetic modification". But, of course, they are essentially equivalent, making it wrong to alienate the process of "genetic modification".
  • Genetic modification is considered safe in medicine; why not in foods? "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "Also, those who oppose genetic modification in agriculture often embrace the technology in medicine. The human insulin used to treat diabetes, for example, is genetically engineered: the human gene that codes for insulin has been transferred into bacteria and yeast, a process that involves crossing the species barrier. By what rationale can the technology be safe and ethical when saving lives in medical treatment, but not when used to make plants resistant to pests in order to save people from hunger?"
  • GM food products should be judged; process should not be judged. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - The scientific way of ensuring that crops are safe is to test the product, not the process. Perversely, regulations in the US as well as Europe require the opposite. The result is that it takes much longer and costs at least ten times as much to bring a new GM crop to market as an equivalent conventionally bred crop.
  • The anti-GMO principle that genetic tampering is bad is erroneous Many anti-GMO advocates maintain that anything artificial or involving human tampering is morally bad. Obviously, only the most extreme misanthropes could believe that anything affected or produced by human tampering could somehow be evil. Conventional foods have always been produced and refined with such tampering. This moral argument against human tampering in GMOs, therefore, must be dismissed.
  • GM foods present risks that are tolerable and should be taken.
  • Concerns surrounding private controls of GM foods can be addressed. Richard Strohman, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology University of California at Berkeley. "Crisis Position". Say No to GMOs, Safe Food News 2000 - "3) If the issue with GMOs is not related to health or safety but privatized food as part of a global, corporate managed-market then the issue is not genetic modification but privatization. That could mean that there would be nothing wrong with GM food if they existed in a different social-political context. They could be manufactured in a workerowned cooperative, distributed to farmers for free, or be a part of a non-profit agricultural system geared toward sustainability, not profit. In that case the genetic qualities of the food would be irrelevant if human rights and food security are fully respected. There is nothing wrong with GMOs “in themselves” but only as an instrument for the corporate take-over of food production."



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No

  • Even if GM foods are safe, they are wrong on other grounds. Frederick Adams, ed. Ethical Issues of the 21st Century. "What’s Wrong with Genetically Modified Food?". (Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center Press, 2004. - "Maybe the biotech defenders are right and they are safe to eat and safe to grow. A stronger argument would show that even if GMOs could be made safe to eat and safe to grow there would be still be good reason to oppose them. I believe the key to such an argument is the way that the biotech industry uses intellectual property rights laws and international trade regulations to patent GMOs and to transform the nature of farming from an activity required to sustain life to a profit-driven high-tech industry." Other arguments (below) can fully debunk GM foods, even if it is a possibility that GM foods are safe.
  • The precautionary principle needs to be applied to GM food safety. Frederick Adams, ed. Ethical Issues of the 21st Century. "What’s Wrong with Genetically Modified Food?". (Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center Press, 2004. - "Among the potential dangers of genetically modified food are the various health risks they could pose. In 1992 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that genetically engineered foods were no different than conventional foods. Under FDA law, food must be thoroughly tested unless it is “generally regarded as safe,” (GRAS) which is a legal determination. Because biotech goods have been determined to be GRAS they undergo no independent safety testing. Instead, we rely on the tests performed by biotech companies. However, there are important questions to be answered about the toxicity of GMOs, their connection with allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, and carcinogens. Some argue that the possible health risks are so great that it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid them altogether. The recent episode in which the GM corn Starlink, deemed unfit for human consumption, found its way into consumer goods in grocery stores, attests to the real danger GM food posses to the public. Until the manufacturers can guarantee safety and institute procedures to keep the unsafe products out of our food, GMOs should be viewed as possible health hazards and avoided whenever possible."
  • GM foods are hazardously controlled by unaccountable corporations "To understand what GMOs are and how they affect our health and the environment we should at very least address the issue in terms of hazards rather than risks. It is even more important, however, to consider the ways in which these hazards occur within a free enterprise system. That way we will be able to see a number of rather predictable connections between free markets and the erosion of public interest safeguards, including public health and safety, environmental degradation, and even human rights."


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Pesticides: Do GM foods require fewer pesticides?

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Yes

  • GM crops are more pest-resistant and require fewer pesticides. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "These findings were reported by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of PG Economics in a careful study of the global effects of GM crops in their first ten years of commercial use, from 1996 to 2005. They concluded that the "environmental impact" of pesticide and herbicide use in GM-growing countries had been reduced by 15 per cent and 20 per cent respectively."
  • GM crops require fewer pesticides; lowers rate of food poisoning.
  • GM crops require fewer pesticides; keeps water sources clean.
  • Health risks of GM foods should be weighed against risks of conventional foods.
  • GM crops are easier to manage; less labor needed to spray crops.


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No

  • GM crops may require more pesticides in the long-run. "What's wrong with GM?". Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) - "Advocates of GM crops argue that GM crops are good for the environment since they will reduce the amount of agrochemicals (pesticides and herbicides) that need to be used in crop production. However, opponents of GM crops believe that these crops are a threat to the environment. The claim that GM crops require fewer herbicides and pesticides has been proved wrong. They require fewer chemicals than conventional crops in the short term but gradually they need significantly more."


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Socio-economics: Are the socio-economic impacts of GM crops positive?

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Yes

  • GM crops have lower production costs; higher gross margins
  • GM crops increase income with less effort; higher living standards.
  • GM crops can be tailored to local growing conditions. Muffy Koch. "The case for GMOs in the developing world". 4th International Crop Science Congress - "Whether this material is genetically modified, open pollinated or hybrid, it benefits from having the genetic background best suited to the local growing conditions. Existing experience with GM crops indicates that appropriate, improved planting material has a significant beneficial impact on small scale and subsistence farmers in South Africa and there is no reason why this benefit could not extend throughout the continent."
  • GM crops can respond better to fertilizer; grow better "Monsanto makes the case for GM crops". American Public Media. June 4th, 2008 - "The Green Revolution was, in part, made possible by dwarfing genes that made wheat grow short and strong, so that it could respond to fertiliser without collapsing and concentrate the plant's energy into producing bigger ears and thus more grain. At the time, these genes were not identified, but now they have been. GM technology could be used to apply them to any plant in which the seeds, rather than the leaf, is the part that is eaten."
  • GM crops can have a boosted tolerance of drought.
  • GM food companies are being strangled by opposition, regulation. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "The scientific way of ensuring that crops are safe is to test the product, not the process. Perversely, regulations in the US as well as Europe require the opposite. The result is that it takes much longer and costs at least ten times as much to bring a new GM crop to market as an equivalent conventionally bred crop. As Potrykus has pointed out, no scientist or scientific institution in the public domain has the funding or the motivation to go through such an expensive and drawn-out procedure. Only large companies or the most richly funded charities can and the only projects companies are likely to back are those that make big profits. Producing rice that saves the lives or the eyesight of millions of the poorest peasants offers no great financial rewards."


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No

  • GM crops are often problematic and less productive. Michel Bessières, UNESCO Courier journalist. "GMOs: the wrong answer to the wrong problem" - How does the use of agrochemicals affect Filipino farmers? It started with the Green Revolution in the 70s which farmers were almost forced to join as the use of “high yielding varieties” was then part and parcel of the bogus land reform programme of the Marcos dictatorship. I remember that before we always brought something home from our farms even between harvesting seasons. There were mudfish, snails and frogs. In this respect, our farms were much more productive then. It was only after the introduction of the so-called miracle rice that we started to incur debts because we always had to buy new pesticides every time there was a new pest ravaging the fields. Because of their debts, many farmers were driven from their land.
  • GM food patents favor large corporations and monopolies. Frederick Adams, ed. Ethical Issues of the 21st Century. "What’s Wrong with Genetically Modified Food?". (Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center Press, 2004. - "Maybe the biotech defenders are right and they are safe to eat and safe to grow. A stronger argument would show that even if GMOs could be made safe to eat and safe to grow there would be still be good reason to oppose them.I believe the key to such an argument is the way that the biotech industry uses intellectual property rights laws and international trade regulations to patent GMOs and to transform the nature of farming from an activity required to sustain life to a profit-driven high-tech industry. The World Trade Organization (WTO), the largest, most powerful international organization dealing with global rules of trade among nations, has aggressively protected the rights of GMO producers to sell their goods, prevent labeling, and protect their patents. I believe that what is at stake here is the institutional privileging of market imperatives over the needs, interests, and democratic values of peoples and nations around the world to choose what kind of food they would like to produce and consume. It is a conflict between the basic human right to freedom and food security versus the property rights of private enterprises – and that’s what’s wrong with genetically modified food. After briefly examining the usual arguments opposing GMOs, I’ll explain what is wrong with the way the WTO allows for the corporate control of patented food, and suggest some things we can do as philosophers and citizens to address ourselves to it."
  • GM agriculture threatens the viability of traditional farming communities. "WTO policy not only requires nations to buy GM seeds, but it also requires that they change the nature of farming from small farms that produce food for local people to eat, to large farms that grow export crops like coffee, sugar, cotton, fruits, and flowers. These large farms replace human labor with machinery thereby displacing millions of people every year while eradicating societies based on rural farming, where one half of the world’s population still lives and works. As farming communities dwindle in the face of competition, people are driven off their land and into poverty, usually settling in urban centers. Hunger actually increases as farm size increases.9 Even if GM foods could produce more abundant crops they would do little to solve hunger. The issue is poverty and poor governance, not lack of food. By turning food into intellectual property, biotech is likely to exacerbate hunger by increasing dependence on the corporate sector for seeds and materials. The WTO makes it illegal to prevent the takeover of farming by corporate agri-business."
  • Farms accidentally obtaining GM crops have to pay fines to multinationals. "What's wrong with GM?". Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) - "Some farmers whose conventional crops have been contaminated by GM material have found themselves obliged to pay fees to biotech corporations (which have patented the GM material) or face legal action. In the words of a US farmer: ‘Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell.’"
  • GMO corporations force farmers to buy seeds each year. "What's wrong with GM?". Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) - "GM crops are produced for corporate profit. Seeds, and the chemicals that are required to grow them, must be bought from the multinational biotech corporations. Farmers are prohibited from saving and sharing seeds: every year they must buy more seeds and the associated agrochemicals from the corporations."
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Environment: Are GM foods good for the environment?

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Yes

  • GM foods help keep waters clean of pesticides.
  • GM crops reduce the need for plowing, increase the life of soil and land. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "Energy-intensive cultivation is being replaced by no-till or low-till agriculture. More than a third of the soya bean crop grown in the US is now grown in unploughed fields. Apart from using less energy, avoiding the plough has many environmental advantages. It improves soil quality, causes less disturbance to life within it and diminishes the emission of methane and other greenhouse gases."
  • GM crops reduce need for plowing; reduces methane/other emissions. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "Energy-intensive cultivation is being replaced by no-till or low-till agriculture. More than a third of the soya bean crop grown in the US is now grown in unploughed fields. Apart from using less energy, avoiding the plough has many environmental advantages. It improves soil quality, causes less disturbance to life within it and diminishes the emission of methane and other greenhouse gases."
  • GM crop production is more efficient, saves energy, cuts emissions. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "Worldwide experience of GM crops to date provides strong evidence that they actually benefit the environment. They reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays, save energy, use less fossil fuels in their production and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. And by improving yields, they make better use of scarce agricultural land."
  • Many factors combine with GM crops to dramatically reduce emissions.
  • Environmental risks of GM crops should be weighed against risks of conventional crops. "Seven Scientific Academies Support GM Crops". The Times (London). July 12, 2000 - "Scientists from the academies of sciences in Brazil, China, India, Mexico and the United States, the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste and the Royal Society produced the report after a year-long study. It says that worries about safety and the possible environmental impacts of GM crops should be countered by research. The environmental effects, if any, should be balanced against the effects of conventional agriculture and care taken to maintain a diversity of crops, conventional and transgenic."
  • GM crops can be mismatched with ecosystems, as can conventional crops. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "Some opponents of GM crops, who seem to have realised that the argument based on lack of safety has no basis, now focus their opposition on environmental concerns, arguing that GM crops destroy biodiversity. It would be wrong to claim that the planting of GM crops could never have adverse environmental effects. But their impact depends on circumstances, on the particular crop and environment in which it is grown. Such effects occur with all sorts of agriculture."
  • GM animals can be made sterile. According to The Economist ["Dawn of the Frankenfish", Technology Quarterly, June 2010], developing fish eggs can be subjected to high pressures, which "alters their complement of chromosomes, giving them three sets per cell instead of the usual two. Such "triploid" fish are perfectly viable, but they are sterile. (...) The company [that carries out this research] claims a 99% success rate with its pressurising technique..."
  • GM animals are designed to be "food",not "breeding machines". GM creatures breeding in the wild would present a threat only if they were "better at surviving and reproducing than those honed by millions of years of natural selection. On the face of it, this seems unlikely, because the characteristics that have been engineered into them are ones designed to make them into better food, rather than lean, mean breeding machines." [The Economist, "Dawn of the Frankenfish", Technology Quarterly, June 2010]
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No

  • GM crops mix with native plants and reduce genetic diversity Frederick Adams, ed. Ethical Issues of the 21st Century. "What’s Wrong with Genetically Modified Food?". (Charlottesville: Philosophy Documentation Center Press, 2004. - "A second set of arguments claim that GM crops pose a unique threat of genetic pollution. The real danger, already evidenced, is that GMOs will be spread to the soil and other plant and animal life, triggering irreversible genetic contamination. For example, genetically engineered crops could pollinate with other plant life making them genetically engineered, as well; GM crops that contain their own pesticides often kill more than their targeted insects, producing a chain reaction of unintended consequences, among them pesticide resistant “super-pests”; GM crops designed to be herbicide resistant (so that large amounts of strong weed killer can be safely used on them) have already spread to related weed species, which then also pick up the resistance to the herbicides and become “super-weeds” that are difficult to control. There is also the possibility of creating new strands of “super-viruses” as the genes of viral resistant plants are passed on to other plants. Finally, there is the danger of GE crops threatening regional biodiversity as single, mono-crops are imported and transplanted into foreign ecosystems."
Protocol treaty permitting countries to prohibit GMO imports, require segregation of GMOs, and make GMO producers liable for any future economic or environmental damage. The results were mixed. The strengths of the Protocol include the adoption of the Precautionary Principle which allows a country to ban a GM product even in the absence of scientific data on its harmful effects; it puts the burden on the producer to demonstrate safety. The Protocol also requires that GM products bear the label “may contain,” although they do not have to offer specific details on what GM materials are included. And no labeling will be required for processed plant and animal products, like flour, cereal, and cooking oil. The weakness of the Biosafety Protocol is that it will not override other international agreements; any dispute will be reviewed by the WTO.12 In the most recent Ministerial in Doha, the WTO agreed to an interpretation over the TRIPs agreement that would allow developing countries to override patents in the interests of public health, but it issued no clear statement if the Biosafety Protocol would take precedence over WTO rules. They will make a decision on that in their next meeting. The 2002 U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg did little to resolve the conflicts between the Biosafety Protocol and international trade rules. There remains a need to develop fair legal-political mechanisms to resolve conflicts should they arise between the two agreements."


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Poor: Do GM crops help the poor and third-world?

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Yes

  • GM foods help meed nutrition deficiencies of poor countries. With more than 800 million people in the world who do not have access to sufficient nutrition needs.Biotechnology has also made contributions in the realm of nutrition and the quality of foods. A strain of "golden rice" has been developed that packs more and iron and Vitamin A, helping the more than 100 million children worldwide who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, the developing world's leading cause of blindness.
"Sir David King, a former scientific adviser to the British government, argues that the unjustified vilification of GM is leading to needless deaths. He thinks the delay in the introduction of flood-resistant GM rice, for example, has condemned many in the poor world to starvation." The Economist, "Taking root", February 25th 2010
  • Developing countries already benefit from transgenic crops. According to The Economist "Taking root", February 25th 2010, "developing countries now account for nearly half of the world’s 134m hectares of transgenic crops, with Brazil, Argentina, India and China in the vanguard. Of the 14m or so farmers now benefiting from the technology, perhaps 90% live in poor countries."
  • Multinational do not exploit their crop patents. "As developing countries develop GM crops of their own, these firms are now pursuing public-private partnerships or joint ventures with local firms and otherwise softening their stance. Monsanto, a hard-nosed pioneer of transgenic crops, is donating its drought-resistant technology to a coalition called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, for example." The Economist, "Taking root", February 25th 2010


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No

  • An alternative is to direct aid into agroecology in poor countries.
  • Poor countries are exploited as dustbins for failed GMO experiments. There is concern that countries like India, Pakistan and other countries in the sub continent and developing nations of the world are exploited as dustbins for failed experiments on seeds. Modified GMO seeds, which may have failed safety tests, are traded to poor countries for profit, and without keeping health concerns in mind.


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Food shortages: Are GM crops an important part of responding to global food shortages.

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Yes

  • GM foods are essential to responding to global food shortages Genetically modified crops are injected with insect-resistant genes, thus mitigating crop shortages. Biotech (Bt) Corn is a notable species of prevalent genetically modified plants currently being utilized in the United States. In 1997, the World Bank Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research estimated that biotechnology can increase the world's food production by 25 percent based on the precedent set by Bt Corn.
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No


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Alternatives: Are the alternatives to GMOs insufficient?

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Yes

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No

  • Agroecology and sustainable agriculture are suitable alternative to GMOs. "What's wrong with GM?". Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) - "What is the alternative? Agroecology or sustainable agriculture is an approach to agriculture that is environmentally, economically, culturally and socially sustainable. It emphasises crop diversity and rotation, conserves natural resources, and favours small and medium-sized farming rather than agribusinesses and large corporations.
Moreover, it focuses on food security (ensuring there is enough food for people to eat) and thus prioritises the production of staple crops (rather than cash crops for export). It is a key livelihood strategy for poor farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean, who have recognised that their best hope for a sustainable future is to nurture and protect the environment."


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Assessing benefits/costs: Is it possible to fully assess benefits and costs now?

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Yes

  • Anti-GM protesters make it difficult to access/assess benefits. Muffy Koch. "The case for GMOs in the developing world". 4th International Crop Science Congress - "Constraints to accessing benefits. There are two major constraints to accessing the benefits of GM technology in developing countries. The first is the current, strong and targeted anti-GM campaign being waged by activist groups and aimed at creating a distrust of GM crops and the companies that develop them. This makes it difficult to run field trials and difficult to ensure a stable market for GM produce, even for products developed for small farmers with public funding."
  • GM crop production has been hampered by opposition, regulations. "The real GM food scandal". Prospect. November 2007 - "It is true that the promised development of staple GM food crops for the developing world has been delayed, but this is not because of technical flaws. It is principally because GM crops, unlike conventional crops, must overcome costly, time-consuming and unnecessary regulatory obstacles before they can be licensed."


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No

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Scientific community: Where does the scientific community stand on GM foods?

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Yes

  • A 2000 report by seven major scientific bodies supported GM foods. "Seven Scientific Academies Support GM Crops". The Times (London). July 12, 2000 - "Leading scientists from around the world have backed genetically modified crops. They are needed to feed growing populations and to provide employment in rural areas, a report from seven respected scientific academies, including the Royal Society, says." The report included scientists from the academies of sciences in Brazil, China, India, Mexico and the United States, the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste and the Royal Society.


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No

  • Dr Abrahams [a biologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland] "thinks it possible that fast-growing salmon could displace the natural sort in places where predators are rare." [The Economist, "Dawn of the Frankenfish", Technology Quarterly, June 2010]
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Public opinion: What is the public opinion on GMOs?

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Yes

  • People do not oppose "random" mutation, then why should they oppose scientific genetic manipulation? According to The Economist, ["Dawn of the Frankenfish", Technology Quarterly, June 2010] "[people] buy the meat of Belgian blue cattle [=product of random mutation followed by selective breeding] at a premium."
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No

In the South, several developing countries – such as Angola, India, Sudan, Zambia and Malawi – have said no to GM crops. They have also resisted GM foods as food aid. USAID, the US international agency, has exerted enormous pressure through the United Nations World Food Programme, effectively telling countries that they have no choice: accept GM food, or get no food aid at all.
In May 2004, more than 60 groups from 15 African countries, including environmental and development organisations and farmer and consumer groups, wrote an open letter to the World Food Programme denouncing the way in which hunger is being cynically used to impose GM crops and food on developing countries."
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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No

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Pro/con videos

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Yes

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No


See also

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