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Lively discussion during the Great GMO Debate

The Great GMO Debate set the stage for a serious discussion on a controversial issue. Supporters and opponents of genetically modified organisms debated with each other and the audience on perhaps the most emotionally charged food theme of the moment.

After the Great Meat Debate and the Great Agricultural Debate, this year it was time for the Great GMO Debate. It is a complex topic and as such deserves a place at the Food Film Festival, explained YFM chairman Joris Lohman: "During a YFM project last year we discovered just what a controversial topic is. That's why we think it is time for a real discussion with all parties."

Surprisingly nuanced discussion

In contrast to the polarised topic, the debate was surprisingly nuanced. The six speakers expressed understanding for each other's viewpoints and examined the facts and misconceptions surrounding the subject.

"Genetic modification is the process of accelerating and improving traditional plant breeding by building specific characteristics into plants’ DNA, which would be impossible through normal cross-fertilisation or would take years," explained Bert Lotz, an agro-ecologist at Wageningen UR who represented the scientific angle of the debate.

Useful or not?

How safe and useful are GMOs? The procedure for approving GM crops is meticulous, according to Lotz. "If properly applied, the risks are similar to conventional plant breeding." At the same time, he is not keen on crops that have become resistant to herbicides with the help of GMOs. "In other cases GMOs are very useful, for example improving potatoes’ resistance to blight." He says that it is the application that determines the risk and danger, not the method by which it is made.

The audience was given every opportunity to participate in the debate, and some participants posed reproachful questions or put forward scathing propositions. These showed the role of emotions in the debate. "And we shouldn’t negate those emotions," said philosopher Frans Brom of the Rathenau Institute. He analysed the social debate surrounding GMOs. "It's difficult: ordinary citizens want to form an opinion on a subject about which there is so much uncertainty. Even experts don't always agree."

Syngenta vs Greenpeace

What problem do GMOs solve? Michael Kester from Syngenta and Herman van Bekkem from Greenpeace discussed this with each other. Kester argued that GMOs lead to better and more sustainable food production, which is necessary in order to feed the world in the future. Van Bekkem took the opposite view, saying that "there is enough food in the world, it is just not evenly distributed." He also said that we should work more closely with nature. "There are too many uncertainties about the long-term consequences of GMO techniques." Kester, who works for one of the largest GMO companies, responded: "Of course there are risks, that's inevitable, but the use of GMOs in the last 20 years has not resulted in major unforeseen problems."

What is problematic is the concentration of power in the hands of large companies. There are only five companies active in GMO – authorisation is so complicated that it is impossible for small companies to develop GMOs. Orlando de Ponti, former chairman of the International Seed Foundation, pointed out that new rules will make it easier for smaller companies to be active in the GMO world.

What kind of food system do we want?

Bas Eickhout, MEP for GroenLinks,  argued that the discussion should focus on the question of the agricultural model we want. "There is not enough discussion about this and it’s too important for us to leave it to the market. GMOs fit our desire for efficiency but I would rather consider sufficiency. Let’s all make a concerted effort to waste less food, for example.”

GMO crops are grown extensively around of the world, but largely GMO-free Europe is an exception. "By totally rejecting GMOs, Europe is alienating itself from the discussion,” argued Kester. Europe does, however, import large amounts of animal feed. "We have to ask ourselves why we import so much feed, rather than growing it here in Europe,” added Eickhout.

GMOs are not good or bad

No definitive conclusion was reached, although we all left the debate wiser. Moderator Ruben Maes summed up by saying that we are "more confused but on a higher level”. We have to accept that the GMO issue is not black and white. GMOs are not good or bad, but in some cases GM crops can help, we can cautiously conclude. And let us look less at whether we are for or against GMOs, but rather at the system and the conditions under which we want to use them.


Text: Nelleke Polderman

Photos: Saskia Lelieveld

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