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Student debate in Valparaiso provides some food for thought

Chestertsenior Hannah Vasquez presents her argument against using GMOs. | John Robbins~For Sun-Times Media

Chesterton senior Hannah Vasquez presents her argument against using GMOs. | John Robbins~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 21, 2014 5:51PM



A crowd of about 70 people filled the chambers of the Porter County Administration Building in Valparaiso on Monday night to hear four student debaters — Valparaiso High School junior Luma Khabbaz and senior Troy Borlick, and Chesterton High School seniors Jessica Ratel-Khan and Hannah Vasquez — debate the safety and risks of genetically modified foods in a policy debate setting.

High school debaters typically meet each other behind closed doors in front of a judge, with no audience. This, instead, was a rare event in that a large audience was present, but no judge to decide the winning argument. The debate was sponsored by the Valparaiso Chain of Lakes Watershed Group.

Audience members included parents of debaters, who rarely get to see their children perform; classmates to lend moral support; the student’s debate coaches, Chris Lowery, of Chesterton, and Chris Waters, of Valparaiso; local environmentalists, scientists and many others interested in the question of the safety of so-called GMOs.

The Valparaiso team argued in favor of GMOs, and Chesterton argued against their use.

Khabbaz opened the debate by citing the support of GMOs by Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom.

“Every international scientific body in the world confirms GMOs are safe,” Khabbaz said. She identified an Italian report that reviewed more than 1,700 GMO studies that support the safety of GMO food and she noted that GMOs have been studied for 30 years.

Among the benefits Khabbaz cited for the continued use of GMOs were reduced use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides; increased crop yield, reduced food costs, and reduced soil erosion.

Ratel-Khan took the floor to argue that GMOs are harmful. She opened by stating that more than 60 percent of the food on grocery store shelves has at least some GMO ingredients and that barely a majority of the population (52 percent) is even aware that genetically modified foods are sold in grocery stores.

Ratel-Khan argued that due to the lack of long-term studies, nobody can confidently conclude that GMOs are absolutely safe and cited the unintended consequences associated with the use of DDT (an insect repellent) in the past that only became known after long-term use and subsequently led to an outright prohibition of its use.

Ratel-Khan stated that GMOs could lead to obesity and widespread species extinction, especially in butterflies and honeybees.

One takeaway from the debate was that the issue is complex and unsettled, and that the clear winners were the audience members who were treated to a rare debate performance.



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