“Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab,” remarks molecular biologist Robert Goldberg. “This [is] the most depressing thing I have ever dealt with.”
However, by “This,” Goldberg is actually not referring to GMOs themselves, but rather the fears and misconceptions that surround GM technology. Indeed, this issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) draws so much controversy that I find it necessary to dedicate this article to considering GM science as it applies to this year’s Stoa resolution.
The good, the bad, and opportunity
When it comes to labeling GMOs (one of the most common policy issues under GMOs) I’ve got “good” news and “bad” news, but I hope that by the end of this article you will see it in reverse, while also seeing new opportunity. The “good” news is that Congress passed and Obama signed national mandatory GMO labeling. The “bad” news is that a case for mandatory GMO labeling just got much harder to run. However, this “good” news has also created a new possibility worth exploring: a case to repeal this new law!
Yes, go ahead and gasp. Get angry and “Curse Monsanto for their brainwashing!” This criticism notwithstanding, I would like to demonstrate why this soon-to-be policy is arguably bad for us.
Yet, perhaps even more exciting is that this possibility holds potential for a legitimate Counter-Directional Alternative Plans Case (CDAPC)—an understandably daunting phrase which I will explain further down.
Additionally, I will also be discussing some other potential cases that aren’t specifically related to labeling.
A bit of background
The practice of GM/GE (Genetic modification/Genetic engineering) is new:
- The first man-made DNA (“Recombinant DNA” or just “rDNA”) was created in 1973, by scientists at Stanford University.
- The first GMO (Genetically modified organism) to become patented was an oil-consuming bacteria that could be used to clean up oil spills, in 1980. In fact, this was a landmark Supreme Court decision, as it narrowly held (5-4) that someone could patent a living organism.
- Still, the first GMO to be sold as food wasn’t until 1994; a “Flavr Savr” tomato that was created to have delayed ripening, so that it could remain on store or pantry shelves longer without rotting.
Now, as some are quick to point out, the idea of crossbreeding has been around for millenia. However, there is a difference in practice between crossbreeding and genetic modification. As is stated by Scientific American, “GM technology, in contrast, enables scientists to insert into a plant’s genome a single gene (or a few of them) from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal.” The real question is, does this translate to differences in effects, in terms of safety and health? As stated by the previous source, “Supporters argue that this precision makes the technology much less likely to produce surprises,” but detractors of GM technology argue that the unnatural mixing of genes from completely different organisms, like bacteria and plants, is more prone to surprises of greater danger. I would love to be able to explain the science as to all of this, but alas, I am not a molecular biologist. This is why I default to the later-discussed data and experts when it comes to the issue.
That aside, you may be asking, “What do these modifications even do? Why plant GMOs?”
The intuitive response is to say that they improve the yield of the crop, by making more or larger fruits/vegetables/etc. However, GMOs don’t actually improve the potential yield of these plants. In fact, in some cases the GM technology slightly decreases the potential yield of these plants. Instead, GM technology reduces losses, such as from pests and weeds, while also making it cheaper to care for the crops. These benefits of lower costs and higher average yield both come from two traits: Bt and Ht.
- Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) trait GM crops have the Bt pesticide built into the plant. This pesticide kills insects that try to eat the plant, by rupturing their stomachs. Studies have held that it is harmless to humans, but there are some who claim the health effects to humans are still unknown and potentially dangerous. (That aside) The cost benefits to the farmers come from having to spray practically no pesticides, and (theoretically) the yield benefits come from a more effective pesticide, being built into the crop (although some are challenging this, as discussed further down).
- HT (Herbicide tolerant) trait GM crops are designed to resist certain herbicides (weed-killers), primarily Monsanto’s Roundup. Thus, they are generally known as “Roundup Ready” crops. Otherwise, the farmer would have to more carefully spray other, generally more expensive herbicides.
Argued Problems with GMO crops
- Most obviously, there is the issue of safety. Admittedly, the idea of frankenfood, where “bacteria genes are in our corn,” would seem very unsafe. Thus, it’s not surprising that people are skeptical of GMOs. However, because this is such a large issue, I will discuss it in its own section, further down.
- Closely related is the perception of health hazards and deceit by companies like Monsanto. This is different from the previous in the sense that it is not about whether GMOs are actually safe or dangerous, but instead about what people think or fear.
- Some argue that GMOs are the root of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” and pesticide-resistant pests. This is particularly observed in glyphosate (the herbicide used with HT crops) use. The reasoning is fairly straightforward: just like with any kind of organism-killing treatment, if there are any species that resist the treatment, then they propagate and the population develops immunity. (Brennan Herring recently posted an article that goes into further detail on this issue of herbicides)
However, there is much more to the GMO-superweed story. GMO use has probably led to glyphosate resistance, but the question should be whether GMOs have uniquely harmed us in regard to superweeds. Various data, experts, and reasoning suggest that in reality, they have not. Just take for example the following graph:
As the source of this illustration argues, the real problem is not GMOs but rather a general practice of monoculture (growing only one kind of crop in a plot of land) and “mono-treatment,” with farmers only using one kind of herbicide and pesticide. Thus, GMOs may lead to resistance for one kind of chemical, but it is merely replacing another treatment which would just do the same for a different chemical (non-uniqueness).
But beyond that, some argue that non-GMOs have created even worse superweeds. Ultimately, this is an issue one must research and decide for himself.
- Another thorny issue in the realm of GMOs are intellectual property rights: particularly the idea of “Patenting life,” which was only narrowly upheld by Supreme Court (5-4).
- Closely related is the issue of tort law for cross-contamination, which is an issue when it comes to being accused of infringing IPRs or when a farmer is trying to achieve an “organic” certification. And this also is the last one:
- The difficulty of getting USDA “Certified Organic” (non-GMO, among other things) status: Some argue that the certification is overly arduous to achieve and to maintain.
Various case opportunities
With problems come opportunities! Thus, some of the above issues should be ripe for cases. Here are some examples:
- Have the government (FDA) test GMOs, rather than rely on the companies that make the products to test them. (However, I should point out this could have solvency issues, as people may ultimately end up not trusting the government)
- A prominent case would be to establish regulations discouraging/banning the practice of mono-treatment with pesticides and herbicides. So, it would require that farmers use multiple types of treatments and/or that they rotate their treatments. Overall, I think this has great potential for a case.
- Reopen/resettle the issue of “patenting life,” or create legislation to protect farmers that have GMO seeds drift onto their property from IPR violations. Perhaps one could even make seed technology a sort of public good (like water)? This would avoid the costly issue of legal exclusion (finding and suing farmers who use the seeds) since the people are all allowed to own the seeds, among other benefits.
- Reform our “Certified Organic” certification requirements to decrease bookkeeping and oversight burden.
These are just a few examples of the many topics available to explore. However, for the rest of this I will primarily focus on the biggest case: mandatory GMO labeling.
“But wait, isn’t that case dead?”
Actually, perhaps not. There is disagreement as to the new law’s effectiveness (i.e. the inherency is up for debate), as the bill does not necessarily require the manufacturer to print “made with GMO,” on the label; the manufacturer must choose among printing a URL link to product information, a scannable QR code that links to product information, or printing the notice directly onto the label. The bill is also very contentious because it supersedes state law, which in Vermont, for example, would have required it to be printed on the label.
So, the short answer is still actually “No,” this case is not dead. A case would require it to be printed onto the label, and would not limit state law. Despite this, however, from my research I would advise against this case for a number of reasons:
“But obviously it’s topical… right?” Wrong. I am not a fan of “difference of definitions” T presses, but even without making such a distinction, this is arguably non-topical. In reality, it is almost definitely not food safety. Only possibly does it fall under agriculture policy—specifically the “…in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products,” might suggest this. But of course, it even says “in varying degrees,” and this is just for agriculture, not agriculture policy. You may be able to convince people it’s topical “enough” (whatever that is supposed to mean), but just know that you will likely run into the issue about every other round.
On the issue of danger
(Continuing a previous section) Even if I devoted this entire article to discussing the safety of GMOs, I couldn’t satisfy many of the most ardent critics. Still, I will attempt to address the most popular studies, and hope that one can recognize a pattern among the studies.
Indeed, the “science” behind the anti-GMO movement largely circulates around three “questionable” studies: the Seralini (“Causes cancer in rats”) study, the Carman (“Stomach inflammation in pigs”) study, and the “Bt in pregnant women” study. (Again there are other studies, but the three mentioned are the most commonly cited, from my research.) I will just be summarizing the problems, but I have included links for you to further dive in.
Seralini Study (see here for an overview):
- The study was retracted by its initial publisher, generally a sign of bad science (although of course touted as “proof that Monsanto is trying to silence the truth.”).
- The kind of rats used tend to have a high rate of natural cancer at old age. Now, although this may sound like an obvious flaw, in itself it actually doesn’t disqualify a study’s findings. However, it requires that a large number of rats be used to make sure to avoid false positives resulting from random chance. Analyses have stated this number should have been 65 per group, whereas Seralini only used 10 per group.
- It only makes sense that using a higher dose of something toxic would cause more toxic results, rather than less, right? Well, in the case of the Seralini study, the opposite happened: with higher doses of the substance in question, some groups had fewer tumors (than groups with smaller doses)!
Carman study (see here for an overview):
- The data is recorded in a way that is inappropriate for the actual results: a measure for stomach inflammation is not binary-categorical data (“none” “mild” “high”), yet the authors try to force it into such a measurement.
- With things like the difference in uterus weight (and also to some extent the stomach inflammation), Professor David Spiegelhalter explains it well when he remarks that “There are also 19 other reported statistical tests, which means we would expect one significant association just by chance: and so the apparent difference in uterus weight is likely to be a false positive.”
Bt in pregnant women (see here for an overview):
- The assay method (i.e. method for measuring) for Bt levels was not validated to work for humans—only plants.
- The authors do not demonstrate that the GM foods would actually have been the source of the protein, since they do not record the subjects’ diets.
- The fact that there might have been Bt in their bloodstreams would be unexpected, but even the study didn’t suggest that such a thing was harmful.
As you go into this, you find that someone will always have some new study or reason why GMOs might be dangerous. You may want to investigate them all, but I have found that eventually you have to accept that you can’t research them all…
What you can do, on the other hand, is consider that studies have repeatedly led to the contrary conclusion: GMOs are safe overall. In fact, one study did a study of 1,783 other studies, concluding GMOs are safe. And with that, we’ll move on to other popular affirmative arguments.
Responding to “Right to know”
The people don’t have a right to know whether GMOs are in their food, just like they don’t have a right to know a company’s secret ingredients. There is no “right to know.” The only thing people have is the right to choose: do they want to buy a product that isn’t labeled? It’s just that the companies cannot deceive their consumers (They can’t say “GMO-free” and have GMOs), since this violates the right to choose.
Responding to “The people want this”
Affirmatives will probably say that “The people have consistently stated that they want mandatory labeling.” Although polls universally do show such support, note three things:
- Polls suggest 80% of people also support mandatory labeling for… DNA. Yep.
- People have signed petitions to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide.
- People of course are going to say “yes” to such a question if they don’t understand the consequences.
And that is the next section:
Most people think a main problem is labeling costs. The short answer is maybe… but not really. In reality, the cost estimates vary widely, with some publications directly attacking other analyses. What is likely the more expensive aspect of labeling is not printing costs, but logistics management: trying to determine whether or not there are any GMO products in your supply chain. Still, I don’t think this will be very impactful.
Rather, the more impactful disadvantage will be that of slowing GMO development. The link is that labels scare people, decreasing demand for the products. This is multifaceted and deep, but I can briefly say it involves economic, health, and environmental damage, among other things.
Additionally, you can argue that it violates private property rights to require labeling. (But, as you’ll read in the article, an affirmative can point out that it is not very impactful)
The new case opportunity
As mentioned, this controversial new policy of mandatory labeling has presented a new case opportunity: repealing the federal requirement for labeling.
The primary benefits to this plan are straightforward: you avoid the just-mentioned consequences. Simple.
There are, however, some weaknesses to this. For example:
- Judge bias will not be on your side…
- It may face insolvency due to state laws (like Vermont)
- This case is still arguably not topical…
And so on… All in all, this would certainly be something that could catch someone unprepared by surprise. It is viable as a standard case, but is it worth foregoing other cases instead? That is the question…
However! There is no question that this case presents a rare opportunity to explore an interesting, advanced aspect of theory: the CDAPC!
(Disclaimer: if you are scared by theory, you may unfortunately want to skip this section)
CDAPC: Counter-Directional Alternative Plans Case. Let’s back up for a second. First, we should understand an APC (Alternative Plans Case). An APC is similar to a mini-case (AKA double/multi case, AKA alternative justifications case) in that it discusses multiple reasons to support the resolution, but is different in that whereas multi-cases cover multiple problems that each have a plan, APCs are different plans all to the same topic. For example, whereas a double case might look at solving problems in pesticide use and problems with agriculture subsidies, an APC might seek to solve our superweed problem by requiring rotation of treatments OR requiring simultaneous use of multiple treatments (or both, perhaps). This is legitimate for the same reasons that double cases are legitimate: as long as you show we should reform our ____ policy in at least one way, you prove the resolution true, regardless of other bad reforms.
Now, to add the “Counter Directional (CD)” part: this implies that the two plans would/could not be both done; that the philosophy driving the two alternative plans is contradictory at least in part. For example, let’s look at the CDAPC for this issue of GMO labeling:
- Alternative Plan (AP) 1: Revert to a “No national requirement” standard… OR
- AP 2: Require that producers actually label their products as “Contains GMO” on the label, not just through a QR code or URL link.
If you are confused by this, remember that people aren’t happy with the current labeling system, yet the mandatory labeling is also arguably disadvantageous. As you might pitch the idea to the judge, “We tried to appease both sides, but failed on both accounts, and now we are undoubtedly in a worse state than before, no matter which side you take.”
The great things about this case is that first, judge bias becomes a non-issue: if they support labeling, then they should still vote for the resolution! Second, if the negative isn’t careful in his approach, by attacking one plan they may end up supporting the other. Instead, they have to convince the judge that the status quo is just right.
Although it may sound complicated to run, it really isn’t once you sit down to think it through.
Coming back from theory land, there are some really solid, consequential cases to explore under this topic. The most notable case option (mandatory GMO labeling) may have been largely made obsolete, which I believe is good news since novices won’t fall for it… but the bad news is that, well, this policy in place in the real world! Thus, unless you want to go extreme and say the current legislation is just “designed to pacify the sheeple into complacency,” this primarily leaves us with the new case: repealing the national requirement.
Yet still, for those who enjoy deep thinking and/or theory, this case has presented an uncommon—but wonderful—opportunity for a CDAPC, and you should explore it!
But lastly, don’t forget that there are more case issues out there! Particularly in regard to pesticide/herbicide mono-treatment, and intellectual property of seed technology.