Watch the Intelligence Squared GMO Debate

The Intelligence Squared debate logo

Update: Watch the Debate Live Here.
Tune in Wednesday, December 3rd for a debate on GMOs. Intelligence Squared is hosting a debate between four individuals from two opposing camps, addressing the question of whether or not we should grow genetically engineered foods. Arguing the positive are Robert Fraley from Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam from UC Davis, and arguing the negative are Margaret Mellon, formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists and currently a consultant for the Center for Food Safety, and Charles Benbrook, who is currently at Washington State University. The debate starts at 6:45 pm EST and runs until 8:30 EST, and will be live-streamed. Tune in, and discuss the debate here!
Here’s how they frame the debate:

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?

The Intelligence Squared debates have an interesting aspect to them, and that is that they ask people to vote for or against the Motion both before and after the debate. Then, they can measure how many people are swayed by the arguments being presented. Here are the short arguments for and against:

For The Motion

GM crops have been safely in our food system for nearly 20 years. There are currently no known harms or risks to human health.
GM crops benefit farmers and the environment by increasing crop yields, reducing the use of pesticides, and reducing the need for tillage.
Food security will be improved through the development of crops that can fight disease, resist pests, improve nutrition, and survive drought.

Against The Motion

The current regulatory system does not adequately assess the safety of GM crops and we cannot be sure of what the long-term effects of consumption will be.
The environmental threats include the possibility of cross-breeding with other plants, harm to non-target organisms, and decreased biodiversity.
The world already grows enough food to feed everyone, but it doesn’t get to the people that are hungry. Genetic engineering moves focus away from public policy solutions.

We know from social science research that debates tend to increase polarization rather than find middle ground and change minds. While this will be a good opportunity to hear what each of the participants present as their most formidable arguments and best evidence, it will also inevitably involve rooting for one side and dismissing the arguments of the other. It also tends to introduce a false balance when one side has more evidence than the other – which John Oliver hilariously demonstrated by setting up a debate on global warming on his show.
It will be interesting for me to see some of these participants in the debate, particularly as I have met all but one, and interviewed two (Mellon and Benbrook) and am familiar with many of their primary arguments. Science is not decided by opinion polls after debates, but by evidence and repeatable and testable phenomena. That is the greatest weakness of the claims about risk from GMOs, because no one has been able to demonstrate a repeatable risk to human and animal health. Knowing this, it is logical that they take the weak form of the argument about safety and say that not enough is known. Kevin Folta has his Bingo card ready, expecting scary claims without the evidence to back them up.
On the flipside, can Van Eenennaam and Fraley convince about low risks without getting bogged down by a Gish Gallop or moving the goalposts? While partisans are certainly convinced about their positions, the vast majority of people are largely undecided. But will they be watching? I’m interested to see how it turns out, and whether it changes any minds.

Gaming the vote?

Smith-SkewScientists aren’t the only ones interested in the outcome of the debate. Anti-GMO activist organizations are busy rallying their supporters to watch the debate. That’s probably a good thing, as it will allow them to hear one of the other sides in this debate in an unfiltered fashion. The same is true for supporters of both sides. However, one organization, the Institute for Responsible Technology, sent out a newsletter today instructing their followers on how to game the vote. Since Intelligence Squared debates seek to measure a change in opinion, this organization, run by Jeffrey Smith, explained a voting “strategy” to “hold results accountable” (whatever that means).
This shameful tactic is just what we would expect when facts – even something as meaningless as an accurate measurement of a change of opinion from a structured debate – are threatening to some people. This is a microcosm of the wider debate, and another example of the difficulty of having an honest dialog on a politically contentious topic. This is why we can’t have nice things.
(The only voting that counts is the voting that occurs with the audience in New York, so it appears that Smith’s organization may have been trying to make it seem that the people voting online disagreed with the people in the auditorium. Perhaps that’s what they meant by “holding results accountable?”)
Update: The debate came to a close tonight with a significant vote change in favor of the motion. Both sides hovered around 30% before the debate, with 38% undecided. At the conclusion of the debate, there was a significant shift of votes from the undecided category to the Yes side, and only a 1% gain by the No side. The final results with only 9% undecided was 60% in favor of the motion, and 31% against. The official winner of the debate was the side in favor of genetically engineered crops.
And the online voting resulted in 53% in favor and 47% against. The attempt to game the vote apparently failed.


  1. For most of the general public it is impossible to understand who is biased, misinformed, misled, bribed and or corrupted of simply plain WRONG! I feel very sorry for people who have not had the chance to study biosciences to university level as it must be rather frightening. All I can do is to suggest they ask the science teachers in out main universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Durham or perhaps somewhere like Harper-Adams University College or the Royal Agricultural University College at Cirencester. (I would suggest asking me but I am fairly sure I would be accused of being biased for some reason!).
    The answers they give when asked: “Should be proceed with plant breeding using genetic modification as a technique”. will be in essence: “Don’t be so daft; of course we should”.
    I strongly suspect that Jeffrey Smith and his anti-GM mob actually know this but for their own reasons, probably ideological or political want to oppose it. They are in my opinion quite simply unethical in doing so. They are just plain wrong!

  2. I wonder if the anti groups will wreck the voting by voting en mass for g.e. crops and then voting en mass after it against. Are there any precautions being taken?

  3. The very fact that smith is advocating this is a virtual admission that his side does not have the evidence.

  4. “The world grows enough food for everyone”. Is that the strongest argument, or are they saving the best for later?
    It’s a bit like saying the world has enough money for everyone. Any volunteers?

  5. You know, I didn’t look. I was going to just stream it. I recently bought one of those awesome chromecast jobbers and can throw anything to my TV from my laptop now.
    I’ll check though,

  6. Think there’s a chance this might be recorded and put on youtube (or vimeo, etc) following the debate? I wish I could watch but won’t be able to

  7. It’s interesting, though not surprising, to note that none of the “Against the Motion” arguments are really about GM at all!
    1. Even if the current regulatory system is inadequate, that only means that a better system is needed. It’s not evidence that GM is inherently unsafe. Moreover, if the current system is inadequate for GM crops, then it’s virtually certain to be inadequate for non GM crops too.
    2. Conventionally bred plants have the same opportunity to cross-breed, harm non-target organisms, and decrease biodiversity. GM per se doesn’t change that at all. Of course, GM may allow introduction of particular genes that could be especially harmful in that regard, ones that couldn’t easily be introduced by conventional means. But that’s an indictment of the genes being transferred, not the transfer method.
    3. If genetic engineering moves focus from public policy solutions, surely conventional breeding for higher yield does so just as much. And besides, whose fault is it that we spend too much time debating GM safety? If the anti-GM crowd think public policy changes are what’s really needed, maybe they should quit wasting time with invalid arguments against GM and spend their time on those policies.
    If people truly believe that GM crops are inherently less safe simply because they are GM, they should make that argument. Unfortunately, the data don’t support them, so instead we get non-sequiturs, alarmist language (“we can’t be sure”), and other nonsense.

  8. Karl I have only the company computer on out of town assignment. The debate is blocked by our smart guys. Bummer. Can you pleas let me know how to phrase the google search for the you tube? BTW It appears the wackos are streaming out tonight based on the volume of nutcase arguments I am seeing in comment sections.

  9. Tried to comment on the comments section below the blocked video and could not get through. Twice. Once the security code said to type in the 2 words in the box and there were 4 numbers in the box. Overloaded with anti-truthers? Hey, that is almost as good a term as some of Mary’s

  10. Whew…that was great. I think I need a GMO-tobacco cigarette. And I don’t even smoke. See what happens when people actually get facts??

  11. The anti side kept asserting that GMO is taking the limelight/funding for research. An interesting premise, that at no point do they actually provide evidence for. In fact Mellon provides evidence to the contrary when she brings up the conventionally bred crop in Africa and in fact she brings up several conventionally bred successes. Hilariously she thought this made a point against GMO, except no one who is pro GMO has ever said it is the best and only tool in the box. The pro side even lauded the cases she brought up since they believe in using any and all tools.
    God bless that audience member who asked the anti side what evidence it would take to convince them. Turns out its not thousands of peer reviewed papers, the consensus of just about every major scientific organization in the world, but the Codex Alimentarius. I was flabbergasted at this supposition considering the people who make up the regulations for it are the same people they so easily dismiss, I’d wager even if everyone was willing to spend the billions it would cost to introduce the Codex Mellon and Bembrook wouldn’t move one inch.
    Their whole side literally argument for argument sounded like Climate Change Denialist talking points reworded to fit GMO.

  12. the anti-gmo folks must have spread word of the “final” cast cause its now 51% against… I didn’t watch the debate itself, perhaps I will later on but I can’t help but laugh at the against heavily bias “research” (union of concerned scientists, organic consumers…, organic center, earthjustice)

  13. Backed by the usual solid evidence used for all these accusations? Hot air? That’s loyalty? Actually this constitutes an admission of defeat.

  14. I doubt the authenticity of the image that was posted to the Greenpeace page. It gives their site as a .com and not a .org, doesn’t have the apple icon of their Canadian affiliate, and has much more detail and organization than their usual stuff. Without knowing who posted it, I cannot assume that they created it.

  15. Has Jeffrey Smith ever debated a scientist? I have heard him speak, and he is polished and articulate. He presented a wealth of sciencey soundbites—with just enough truth to be dangerous. He even sent me an email offering a training course on how to debate GMO proponents ($79, if I’m not mistaken).
    I would have loved to see him toe to toe with the two debaters on the “pro” side last night.

  16. Comments about this debate on the IQ2 website are truly amazing. Great illustration of “facts don’t matter when you are right”.

  17. Yeah, I saw the comment over at Genetic Literacy from the editor of GP’s page. So it may not have been on Greenpeace’s page. I’m not on Facebook so I can’t track the provenance of it there.

  18. I have been to a couple of occasions where Jeffrey Smith was to speak. I got the impression from both that they were stage managed in such a way that Smith didn’t have to respond to any criticisms of his remarks. One he appeared by video link and disappeared as soon as he was done.
    In fact it was quite difficult to isolate something coherent to criticise, because he starts off with a Gish gallop of things and any response by him is a Gish gallop of other things.

  19. The debate was as pathetic as I had feared. Framing this topic in an adversarial, win-lose, paradigm is exactly what’s getting in the way of progress. This not some entertaining sports spectacle or TV court-drama: this is about feeding the world sustainably. Yes, as armchair quarterbacks, we may stand around the coffee machine and discuss who had the most polished talking points, but is that really going to get us closer to a solution, or help an informed population apply the appropriate pressure on their legislators to get anything useful done? I doubt it.
    The science, economics, psychology, and politics are complex here; no superficial debate is going to help.

  20. One thing I had hoped Robb would bring up after Ms. Mellon made the comment about other technologies being more powerful, is that conventional and marker-assisted breeding are powerful, but they have their limitations as well. If one has NO alleles in any related population that confer resistance to a disease or confer a beneficial trait…you’re done. That’s why we have things like transformation and mutation breeding.

  21. What irritates me most about that line is that these things are not in opposition. Only anti-GMO folks think that way. It’s bizarre.
    It’s like you need to turn something–and sometimes you’ll want a wrench, and sometimes you’ll want a screwdriver. They are the only ones insisting we can only use screwdrivers. Everyone else wants to sometimes have access to the wrench for when the screwdriver isn’t appropriate.
    Nobody who is pro-GMO is insisting everyone else needs to use the wrench.

  22. That could be written up as a parable. Protesters with anti-wrench signs, debaters saying ‘maybe you can do some good with wrenches, but screwdrivers are undervalued so I’m anti-wrench.” The logic is wrong. It tells me that the person saying ‘maybe you can do some good with wrenches’ is just paying lip service.
    I have yet to see a single prominent GMO critic say: “I don’t think that GMOs are a good idea in general, but in this specific case, and for these specific reasons, I believe it was the best, most appropriate choice, and I support that choice.” The closest I’ve seen is “I won’t lose any sleep over this one/I’m not concerned about this one” when a beneficial trait comes out. That and Tom Philpott’s statements about the GMO orange, but I wouldn’t regard him as that prominent.
    I’ll say it in the reverse. Trying to make a transgenic to generate a trait that already exists and is easily bred into elite varieties etc etc… is a bad idea.

  23. So how did Snidely Smith’s plan work out?

    At the beginning, 32 percent of attendees were pro-GMO and 30 were opposed (38 were undecided). By the end 60 percent were pro GMO and 31 were opposed. One of the events’ publicists said it was the largest movement in opinion he’d ever seen in one of these debates.

  24. From the very beginning it was obvious that the audience was packed with pro-GMO attendees. The applause for the introduction of pro-GMO debaters was loud and long whereas the applause for the two anti-GMO debaters was barely discearnable and brief.
    My conclusion from this indicates that the pre-voters (this could includes both groups) lied at the initial vote.

  25. About debater Robert Fraley and accolades… but, what is this World Food Prize?
    Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, and
    Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States — share the 2013 World Food Prize.
    One can trace this foundation back to 1986 as the General Foods World Food Prize, based on Norman Borlaug’s ideas. Yes, Norman Borlaug of the dubious failed ‘Green Revolution’ movement, which raped the land and crops in India. A failure on many levels. It has led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts.
    Name changed in 1990 and was sponsored by businessman and banker John Ruan of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, which is one of the nation’s largest trucking operations. Internationally, Ruan founded the Iowa Export-Import Trading Company, a business involving over 50 nations around the world. Guess what product(s) Iowa could be exporting.
    In 2008, the World Food Prize Foundation accepted a $5 million contribution from Monsanto to ensure the continuation of the annual World Food Prize International Symposium “Borlaug Dialogue”.

  26. Jeffrey Smith ‘gaming the vote’ ?
    More like GMO activist are gaming the vote. Look at the final vote. This appears to be a false smear through and not Jeffrey Smith’s web page ‘Institute for Responsible Technology’. I follow this site and there is no record of any reference to any advice for audience strategy.
    Also my two previous post have been ignored. Why? This just confirms the closed mindedness of ‘Biology Fortified’.

  27. Since GMO’s conception in the early ’90’s my family and I recognized this scientific experiment as an unnecessary assault on natural plant breeding. This has the potential of creating an endangered specie of our precious natural and heirloom seeds. After 40+ years of looking and listening to both sides of the argument I have yet to see any future in genetically engineering food. There are close to 2000 studies that have shown serious and adverse affects of Big Ag and bio-technology on our food and environment.

  28. Smith’s plan was only ever going to work with the online voting. Not enough of his followers were ever going to attend live.
    Even then it didn’t work out too well for him.

  29. When i enter the .com site it redirects me to the .org site. The facebook page does have other memes without the Canadian affiliate’s logo on it.
    Whether it has much more detail or not seems to depend on the particular meme. Many there do seem busier than others.
    Of course none of this is a smoking gun but it’s strange they didn’t reply that to Entine that it is a fake.

  30. Same here. Plus the anti’s have a real schoolyard bully air to their arguments and tactics.

  31. The text shown above in the post was sent out in the IRT newsletter and as far as I know was not seen on the website itself. Doubtless it was not intended to be posted publicly.
    Your comments were held up in moderation because this is the first time you have commented here. You seem to jump to many conclusions.

  32. Yes, the evidence that supports the idea that it is fake is weak, but at present I haven’t seen any evidence that it is genuine. It is very interesting after almost a week that GMO Free USA has been made aware of its existence and has NOT denied its authenticity. I have confirmed with Kevin Folta that he picked it up from his facebook feed, but the original post is now missing.

  33. “raped the land and India” That is the type of wacky exaggeratio9n that originally caused me to begin to question the anti rhetoric in the first place. When I see this and the emotion behind it. I immediately suspect that the author has few or no facts coming in the rest of the post. Was I correct this time? In addition to Karl’s point. Your list of accusations is clearly inaccurate. No till does not cause soil erosion. Bt corn is not more vulnerable to pests…… reduced availability of nutritious food crops. Just how does someone planting g.e. crops reduce nutritious food availability elsewhere? Oh, and the g.e. corn is just as nutritious as hybrids.

  34. gmo has been going on for thousands of years. Those heirlooms are gmos. There is no assault on breeding. Except, perhaps for those who insist heirlooms have some sort of “natural” superiority to newer hybrids. By all means keep growing your heirlooms. I grow a few as well. I will also grow some Mainly for myself and neighbors. My market customers sometimes have the anti bias. On the bright side it seems to be receding.

  35. Who wants a food full of a pesticide?
    There’s the snowball affect of need for stronger herbicides and pesticides. If you are only looking at nutritional aspects of corn to base your choice then just eat it in an equivalent nutritional pill.

  36. The difference between GMOs, hybrids and heirlooms is like night and day. GMOs are created using biotechnology. Techniques such as, splicing, microinjection, viral carriers and bacterial carriers create plant varieties that could never occur naturally. These methodologies give food scientists the ability to introduce genes of completely unrelated species into food producing plants. I didn’t know that for thousands of years we’ve been splicing and pollinating seeds with pesticides and cross-breeding plants with totally unrelated species that would never occur in nature.

  37. 1700 GMO studies & its adverse effects:
    This compilation is a sample of the scientific references including over 1700 studies, surveys, and analyses that suggest various adverse impacts and potential adverse impacts of genetically engineered (GE/GMO) crops, foods and related pesticides. This list contains references regarding health impacts, environmental impacts, including impact of non-target organisms (NTOs), resistance of target organisms, pesticide drift, genetic contamination, horizontal gene transfer, unintended effects, as well as references regarding yields, social impact, ethics, economics and regulations. In most cases, links are provided to the abstracts for the references or links to sites where the study can be purchased.

  38. No sir, hybrids result in modification. So does mutagenesis. G.E. is the methods you describe above. G.E.[biotechnology] is simply a more precise method of accomplishing modification. can also be accomplished by turning genes off or on, and does not always rely on introduction of genes from “unrelated” species. Use of gmo to refer to g.e. reminds me of the Orwellian way our language is being modified. I do not go along with that either. When one does one is often accepting misleading terms. Such as the use of cash to describe currency. We are already a cashless society. We may become a currencyless society as well. Finally, I have seen articles about wide ranging crosses and failed to book mark thee one That I’m hoping Mary will post. As well as one about how some species have used genes from other species as a form of defense. There is nothing inherently dangerous about using genes from unrelated species. That contention is simply from the “naturalist” fallacy. Though I admit I do find some g.e. ideas a bit creepy. That is an emotional response which must be kept under control.

  39. Ron, There you go again. “full of a pesticide” Even coffee, which can be an effective pesticide is not full of the pesticide. Also No one ever said that they just looking at nutrition. I strongly suspect that many who contend that g.e. sweet corn, would actually prefer a good flavored one over a pill. Maybe even Karl.

  40. This is a great resource, Ron.
    It’s a bit hard to discuss 1700 articles; are there 2 or 3 that you consider to provide the most compelling evidence of adverse effects of GM crops?

  41. Not one variety of modern corn could occur in nature (one assumes that by “in nature” you mean without the intervention of humans).
    Not that it matters, whether or not something could or could not occur in nature says nothing about its desirability. There is absolutely no way whatsoever that the Mona Lisa could occur in nature, whereas stuff like botulin toxin is absolutely natural.
    It’s almost as if when assessing whether or not something is good or bad one should utterly ignore whether it is natural at all.

  42. So be it. Are you saying that genetically-engineered corn is of the same process of modification for corn that came before Monsanto’s pesticide-included variety?
    I will continue to follow my GMO Rule:
    If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

  43. Are you saying that genetically-engineered corn is of the same process of modification for corn that came before Monsanto’s pesticide-included variety

    I don’t believe that I suggested anything of the kind… a different process is used for sure. But different processes are used all the time in breeding. Induced polyploidy, induced haploidy, chemical mutagenesis, radiation mutagenesis etc etc etc. My point was merely that you’re invoking the naturalistic fallacy and this is a rather silly approach.

    If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

    I’m not sure how that applies to GMOs really. It would, possibly, at a stretch, cover processed vs unprocessed food (I suppose one technically could say the GM techniques have to be done in a (manufacturing) plant – but then so are whole enormous chunks of modern breeding – we have processing plants involved in doing bioinformatics, seed screening, haploid induction etc etc. One would also be forced to avoid many rather neat things, in my opinion, if one avoids eating anything made in a plant – Tofu, Seitan, various fruit juices, almond milk etc etc (using these examples because I’m assuming veganism based on the plant bias, which I heartily endorse although for what are probably different although overlapping reasons, apologies if this is incorrect)

  44. Ewan,
    I can’t win any arguments with you. You are too anti-natural and seem to have a problem with Mother Nature. From your vocabulary I can see you are well-schooled in genealogy as well as in bio technology and probably have this as your source of livelihood. Of course you will be defensive as well as sensitive about natural food vs genetically altered foods.
    ” GM techniques have to be done in a (manufacturing) plant – ”
    Yes, a chemical and pesticide plant and science lab.
    PS. Thanks for increasing my vocabulary but I also find the processes you cite as also dubious.

  45. Ron, You can’t win an argument with him because he is correct. Also He is not anti-natural and there is no such thing as mother nature. To be anti-natural would constitute being anti- Ewan as he is a naturally occurring organism. I hope. He does not believe in the natural is automatically better fallacy. If you do not think he is correct. Try grilling teosinte on the cob this weekend and let us know how that worked out.
    @ Ewan, Thanks for the great updates on genealogy. I will put them to good use.

  46. You are too anti-natural

    How so? That I point out the naturalistic fallacy says nothing about what I think about nature. I’m anti-illogic, and it is illogical to assume that because something is natural it is better or necessarily good. The asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs was perfectly natural, but I don’t think that from the perspective of ~50% of species on earth one could consider it good, at least in the short term. Ebola is natural, I wouldn’t consider it good. That isn’t to say that anything natural cannot be good – the naturalness of anything is a neutral in the assessment of goodness, which is why the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy.

    From your vocabulary I can see you are well-schooled in genealogy as well as in bio technology and probably have this as your source of livelihood.

    I work in Corn breeding. Doing data management. I did previously work in biotech for 5 years. I’m awesome enough at what I do that my skillset is readily transferable to non-ag biosciences though.

    Of course you will be defensive as well as sensitive about natural food vs genetically altered foods.

    Pharma-shill gambit? It wouldn’t matter if I was head honcho in charge of biotechnology at Monsanto (one can but dream) – this wouldn’t make my arguments wrong, to suggest otherwise is simply ad hominem.
    “Yes, a chemical and pesticide plant and science lab.”
    Only the third really. Chemical plants and pesticide plants aren’t the same place whatsoever as the science labs in which genetic modification gets done. They’re pretty much indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the very same labs where molecular breeding is done.

  47. The debates are over
    We dont want increased use of pesticides adn herbacides like roundup and their genre. The debate is over.
    Who really cares what experts beleive?

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