Golden Rice, Roads, and Vegetarianism: A Science Debate

Image caption: let’s all take a moment to acknowledge how awesome seeds are.

October 27

Philodemic Room

Though a fair amount of time has transpired since this debate, nonetheless I remember it fondly. Not because of the quality of the debate per se, but rather because we discussed one of my favorite issues—food. As October drew to a close, the Philodemic Society gathered once more to debate “Resolved: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the key to global food security.” On the affirmation was Ms. Alexandra Weissman (SFS ’18) of New York, and on the negation was yours truly, Mr. Micah Musser (COL ’19) of Pennsylvania.

Because of the intensely factual nature of this debate, this blog post will use a slightly different format than usual, emphasizing the information presented by the keynoters.

Both Ms. Weissman and Mr. Musser established a large common ground of agreement for all debaters. First, food security was defined as “the consistent access to safe and nutritious food” and GMOs were defined solely as organisms produced by the insertion or deletion of genetic material, meaning that cross-breeding was not considered genetic modification for the purposes of this debate. Ms. Weissman and Mr. Musser both agreed that our current global food system has enormous problems with food security: 1 in 9 people were undernourished as of 2014, mostly in the Global South and Asia, and 45% of deaths before age 5 are due to hunger. Additionally, both keynoters agreed on two overarching assumptions about the future that will make this situation increasingly dire: first, global world population will continue to grow throughout the next century, although it is expected to peak between 10 and 14 billion people; and second, climate change will have an increasingly negative impact on agricultural yields, although moderate warming could allow decreases in agricultural productivity in the developing world to be partially offset by increases in crop yields in North America, northern Europe, and Russia. Finally, both keynoters agree on another crucial aspect of the debate—that GMOs are a safe and helpful means of providing safe and nutritious food at larger yields than traditional agriculture. The disagreement within this debate occurred specifically over the issue of whether or not GMOs could appropriately become the key to global food security.

Now to the areas of disagreement:

Ms. Weissman presented an extensive defense of the power of GMOs. GM crops resistant to pesticides can permit crops to be planted in higher densities, increasing crop yields; pest-resistant GM crops could prevent the 30% of crop yields which are currently lost due to pests from being lost in the future; crops can be engineered to add necessary vitamins for impoverished populations. Extolling the virtues of golden rice, Ms. Weissman pointed to the fact that over 100 Nobel laureates have signed a petition to dramatically increase the use of golden rice in the developing world. On the issue of climate change, golden rice can decrease the methane emissions of rice paddies by 95% and can help farmers adjust to warming climates. Furthermore, some claims against GMOs simply do not stand scrutiny: for instance, some African nations cite biodiversity concerns as a justification for not implementing GM crops, yet claims to preserve biodiversity are outweighed by the need to increase food access for at-risk populations. When one considers the growing food need around the world, the inability of current infrastructures to meet these needs, and the potential of GM crops, Ms. Weissman argued, it becomes clear that GMOs are the most effective means of achieving food security.

Mr. Musser presented two primary responses to this claim. His first line of attack focused on technical issues regarding GMO implementation. He argued that GMOs must be grown in monocultures, which bring a host of food security issues. Additionally, GM seeds must be purchased every generation and therefore promote farmers’ dependency on large corporations. From a political aspect, a huge number of political barriers must be overcome before GMOs can properly become the key to global food security. Mr. Musser’s second line of attack focused on the claim that our food security shortcomings today are the result of problems in distribution, not problems in quantity: if all food were distributed evenly, each person would have more than enough food to live healthily. Increasing quantity indefinitely through GM crops without first addressing underlying infrastructure problems will not solve major problems. To that end, a number of methods could be pursued to encourage a better infrastructure: we can work to reduce overconsumption; we can work to improve refrigeration and transportation in the developing world to avoid food waste; we can eat even slightly less meat; we can empower women to have equal access to agriculture; we can explore other technologies such as hydroponics. Mr. Musser argued that while each of these would be difficult, and while GMOs may be an important part of our future policies, true global food security must on some level correct our global distribution problems; therefore, GMOs cannot be the key to global food security.  

The floor speakers raised a number of important points. Many floor speakers addressed concerns of neocolonialism: what can more effectively empower the developing world to provide its own food—is it investment from the developed world in infrastructure, as Ms. Spira posited, or is it the provision of GM seeds, as Ms. Provo suggested? Would, as Ms. Ferris argued, the widespread use of GM seeds create a new neocolonialist dynamic in which developing governments were dependent on large corporations? Isn’t the provision of GM seeds more an analogy to the provision of vaccines to the Middle East than to neocolonialist interventions, as Mr. Zacharay Thompson (SFS ’20) suggested? As Mr. Tu responded, wouldn’t GMOs be imperialistic if they disturbed local traditions of farming?

Other floor speakers discussed issues of timing, brought up first by Sergeant Ludtke, who argued that GMOs can provide the immediate relief necessary for starving populations. Negation speakers—notably Ms. Cuppari and Ms. Rebecca Marrow (SFS ’17)—responded that they were not opposed to using GMOs as a temporary relief for those in need, but that this did not demonstrate that GMOs were the key to global food security. Other affirmation speakers retorted that with a long-term view, eventually new technologies must become fundamental to food security, even if that is not essential right now—those in this category included Mr. Jack Townsend (COL ’20), Mr. Ernst, and Ms. Logan.

Other speakers—most forcefully Mr. Perez-Reyes—discussed the role of markets in attaining food security. Some—here’s to you, Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Jackson Dalman (SFS ’19), and Ms. Grace Wu (COL ’20)—stated that the nature of the markets favors the use of GMOs over extensive cultural changes, which makes the use of GMOs simply more practical in achieving food security. However, as Mr. Easterling and Mr. Ryan James (SFS ’20) responded, relying too heavily on singular technologies accumulates power uncomfortably within a few corporations. Mr. Bies further argued that GMO corporations must have an incentive to improve the plight of developing countries; otherwise, the market alone cannot solve food security right now.

What about the relationship between scientific progress and cultural change? Which is a better means of addressing underlying problems? Vice President Fletcher brought these two into conflict and suggested that scientific progress poses a lower bar for change. Ms. Friedmann and Ms. Reilly particularly noted the importance of relying on science in an era of changing climate. Others noted the inability of our current infrastructure to solve food crises, especially in the context of a growing global population—particularly President Thanki, Ms. Cooke, Ms. Fisher and Ms. Tehya Corona (COL ’20)—but drew different conclusions as to whether cultural or governmental changes could overcome these challenges without the need for scientific breakthroughs.

Mr. Musser and Ms. Weissman provided a few responses to each of these points brought up on the floor, but their speeches diverged on philosophical grounds. Mr. Musser argued that relying on scientific advancement to continually solve human-created problems removes the importance of responsibility. As with carbon sequestration as a proposed solution for climate change, GMOs can be a part of attaining food security, but if we state that GMOs are the key to global food security, we remove our own responsibility to make difficult changes. Ultimately, without systematic changes, no level of technological advancement can resolve the issues that have generated our current food security problems. Ms. Weissman took a far more pragmatic approach: each of the proposed governmental or cultural changes that could promote infrastructure development is far less feasible than a straightforward adoption of GMOs. And GMOs can be a solution to many current technical problems facing agriculture—drought-resistant genes, for instance, can helping farmers adapt to climate change.

In sum, where do we put our trust? In the ability of mankind to unite to solve these large-scale issues, or in the ability of science to provide solutions for us? In culture or in science?

Our Society chose to trust our scientists (perhaps very wisely if the alternative was to trust our politicians): with a vote of 21 affirming and 18 negating, this resolution was affirmed! I, for one, was quite proud of our Society for their valiant attempt to engage in an actual, bona fide science debate.


Micah Musser

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