History laughs at the losing teams whose scientific theories crumble under the weight of evidence. The Sun orbits the Earth. Continents stand still. Surgeons can’t spread germs between patients. Food and crops grown from genetically modified or engineered seeds do not, in any way, harm human or ecosystem health. Or do they, in some, tiny, yet-unknown way?

Last autumn, I stood in front bright and mostly eager — there were occasional stage whispers, like, “I’d rather be talking about basketball!” — middle-schoolers to discuss three letters that seem to inspire either vitriol or respect: GMO. We opened up the discussion with Bt cotton, familiar, but not necessarily safe, ground. (Please see If you are interested… links below.) Yet we could all grasp the fact that Bt cotton has been used for many years to no reported detriment to human or animal health. We did, of course, solemnly and briefly discuss The French Study On Rats.

And then I opened up the floor to questions. One question repeatedly cropped up, modified slightly with each different group of kids: “How do we know what we know about GMOs to be true?” It was the circular reasoning question I hoped would be asked. At the time, I secretly wished for a definitive and final answer. But, outwardly, as the umpire of the discussion, I was careful not to quash arguments on one side or the other. I wanted everyone to question all of the scientific data they could find and ask questions researchers haven't asked yet. “If GMOs are safe, then why did Germany ban them?” asked one particularly worldly student towards the end of the last meeting. I shrugged my shoulders. (It would have been nice to have had on hand a detailed essay by Diethard Tautz of the Max Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Munich.)

By the middle of the afternoon, the students and I reached two conclusions shared by many thoughtful science writers, scientists, researchers, farmers and policymakers:

1. GM technology is far too nuanced to refer to simply as one catch-all term; and

2. Biotechnology will likely be a tool in our approach to feeding roughly 9 billion people in 2050.

Meantime, history, with its 20/20 vision, will tell us the winning team.

If you are interested…

My collaboration with the middle-school students took place at Mount Vernon School in Atlanta. The school runs quite innovative programs like the Center for Global Competitiveness. My guest lecture was part of an initiative within this Center.

One of the most detailed treatises on Bt cotton I’ve ever seen is written by Dominic Glover of Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Development and Change 41(6): 955–981. 2010.

David Biello, environment and energy editor at Scientific American, has weighed in on pros and cons of Bt cotton (published June 15, 2012).


Credit for title inspiration goes to comedian CK Louis.