Kub's Den

By Elaine Kub
DTN Contributing Analyst

Local debate coach: "Elaine, can you come be a judge for our Public Policy debate competition this weekend?"

Me: "Sure!"

Local debate coach: "Great, be at Central High School at nine a.m. on Saturday."

Me: "No problem, see you there."

Local debate coach: "Oh by the way, the resolution being debated is: ‘On balance, the benefits of genetically modified foods outweigh the harms.’"

Me: "Ummmm … "

One wouldn’t ordinarily think that I would be the best person to be an impartial judge for those poor debate kids, but Reader, I want you to know I did my very best to keep an open mind and judge the competitors on the merits of their arguments, not on what I already know to be factually true. I even awarded wins to a couple of excellently-prepared teams on the Con side of the resolution. So there.

Overall, I was so impressed by the amount of research and passion the students brought to their debates, and it was actually really interesting for me to hear the same argument being fought over and over again throughout the day as each set of opponents approached the debate in subtly different ways. What follows are the insights that stuck out as the most successful approaches from either side.

First of all, the teams chose to debate either "pro" or "con" based on a coin toss, so I initially pitied any poor "con" team because (as you probably already know) the entire body of all scientific evidence is weighted in favor of the safety of GMOs. However, some teams actually willingly chose the "con" side, so they must have felt their arguments were strong.

The most successful "con" arguments I heard that day were: GMO crops encourage the overuse of one herbicide, which therefore leads to superweeds, which therefore leads to the use of more toxic herbicides, which end up in runoff. Some genetically modified crops don’t actually improve yields or farmer profitability. Expensive GMO seeds and inputs destroy the viability of small-scale indigenous family farms and change the makeup of rural communities. And finally, the most inventive line of reasoning I heard was: Unstoppable cross-pollination contaminates non-GMO fields and violates our human right to choose what we eat. Even if GMOs don’t need to be avoided for any documented health reason now, there is the potential for unsafe strains in the future to cross-pollinate and be impossible to avoid.

On the other side of the argument, the "pro" teams were backed up by lots of facts and science. But frankly, I have to admit it was a good strategy by cons to question the science that comes out of an entire system of research universities and approvals influenced by money from biotech companies. So here’s the stuff that really held up to scrutiny: Superweeds existed before and would exist with or without GMOs. Similarly, corporate farming influence existed before and would exist with or without GMOs. Transgenic modification is a modern and precise method, but is essentially no different than how humans have been influencing crops throughout millennia of agriculture. GMOs increased crop yield per acre, therefore requiring less land to produce a set amount of food, therefore making possible greater overall biodiversity. GMOs can grow in more difficult climates, making energy more accessible in areas that need it. Increased availability of food drives meal costs down, and there is the potential for particularly needy areas, like Africa, to benefit from this. And, in my opinion, the most unassailable "pro"-GMO benefits that were pointed out were: GMOs are better for the environment because they allow less pesticide use and, most importantly, no-till practices. These reduce soil erosion and reduce fuel usage and thus, greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, there are zero cases of documented harm despite GMOs being eaten in trillions of meals during the past two decades.

Now, that’s all just what the debate kids said. I myself am not trying to convince anyone of anything, necessarily, if they are inclined to be motivated by fear rather than by science. I’ll let other trusted sources (the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the FDA, the USDA, etc.) do the convincing. But pretty frequently I do get asked, "How does acceptance or fear of GMOs affect the markets?"

One thing about markets is that any inefficiency within a market is an opportunity for someone. In this case, the not-entirely-logical willingness of the public to pay more for organic groceries is an opportunity for farmers who are willing to go to some extra trouble. For instance, results from USDA’s 2010 Agricultural Resource Management Survey show that growing organic corn resulted in higher net returns than growing conventional corn.*

Customers’ perception is reality, and what our customers do or don’t perceive to be good can affect demand. The most obvious example of this is China, which intermittently decides to shut off its demand for U.S. corn with certain GMO traits. The other way the GMO debate can affect conventional farmers in the Midwestern United States is by potentially making seed more expensive if and as seed companies get limited to where they can breed and test new GMO seed, as is currently being determined in the courts in Hawaii.

But overall, I would guess that unless enough acres respond to the profit motivation of growing organic corn, and thereby ultimately reduce the available supply of conventional No. 2 yellow corn, it would be hard to say that the GMO debate affects the actual market prices on your futures quote board or your local elevator’s bid sheet. So this Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful we can grow whatever we think is best for our own fields, and maybe as we engage with family members over dinner, we may have some opportunities to help our customers and our customers’ customers feel safe about the food on the table.


Elaine Kub is the author of "Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made" and can be reached at elaine@masteringthegrainmarkets.com or on Twitter @elainekub.