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Is the world better off with or without genetically modified food?

It's a question that has become central to the marketing strategies of organic food brands and supermarkets, such as Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM). The company has even set out to abolish and label all food products containing ingredients sourced from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, using broad arguments and emotion to support its initiatives. Seed and trait manufacturer Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) is often placed on the other side of the conversation, although it does support consumer choice and a national labeling initiative, just not fragmented state-by-state laws that would hurt farmers.

It's also a question that has all the potential to set off a nasty, emotional debate that would likely end up going nowhere. Unless of course, you pose the question on a national stage to a well-respected panel, stream the debate live over the Internet, and ask the audience to cast their vote on the issue both before and after hearing each side's lengthy arguments and discussion. Well, that's exactly what Intelligence Squared accomplished last night -- and the results were stunning. 

Who represented the panel?
The panel consisted of two individuals for the use of genetic tools in food production and two against. Arguing for were Robert Fraley, CTO of Monsanto, and Alison Van Eenennaam of UC Davis. Arguing against were Margaret Mellon, formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists and now a consultant for the Center for Food Safety, and Charles Benbrook of Washington State University.

What was the argument for each side?
Well before the nearly 2-hour debate took place, Intelligence Squared listed three main arguments that could have been used to support each position during the debate. Not surprisingly, the six points are often repeated by Monsanto and Whole Foods when talking to investors, farmers, and consumers.

The arguments supporting the use of genetic tools:

  • GM crops have been safely in our food system for nearly 20 years. There are currently no known harms or risks to human health.
  • GM crops benefit farmers and the environment by increasing crop yields, reducing the use of pesticides, and reducing the need for tillage.
  • Food security will be improved through the development of crops that can fight disease, resist pests, improve nutrition, and survive drought.

The arguments against the use of genetic tools in food (oddly, the two hyperlinks seem to provide counter arguments):

  • The current regulatory system does not adequately assess the safety of GM crops, and we cannot be sure of what the long-term effects of consumption will be.
  • The environmental threats include the possibility of cross-breeding with other plants, harm to non-target organisms, and decreased biodiversity.
  • The world already grows enough food to feed everyone, but it doesn't get to the people who are hungry. Genetic engineering moves focus away from public policy solutions.

What were the results?
Intelligence Squared asks the audience to cast their vote before each debate, and then again after to determine which position made a stronger case. The winner is decided by tallying which side saw the largest positive change in votes, not necessarily the side that won a majority of the overall votes.

Before the debate, the audience was generally split in thirds for, against, and undecided. After the debate, however, there was no question which side changed the most minds:

Source: Intelligence Squared.

Interestingly, this seems to show that those indifferent to either side of the GMO conversation overwhelmingly decide in favor of using genetic tools to improve yields and health and reduce costs and risks rather than limit the rewards because of potential and unsubstantiated risks. Similarly, it shows that those going in with their minds already made up are already dug into their positions. 

What does it mean for investors?
This debate demonstrated an important reality for investors in the 21st century, an era that increasingly relies on technological gains to drive positive changes in the world and top and bottom lines: that emotion and fear are no match for facts and reason when effective communication takes place. For investors in Monsanto or other next-generation biotechnology companies, the debate demonstrated once again that the majority of consumers enter the larger conversation indifferent to either side (already displayed in GMO labeling law votes in several states).

We hear too often from the loud and vocal minority from each side of the argument, but rarely do we stop to consider what the largest group, those in the middle, actually thinks. It's probably the place where most companies should focus their marketing efforts moving forward if they want to extract the most value.

Monsanto investors haven't actually felt much pain from the heated national conversation about the use of genetic tools in food. After all, the company's 10-year total return stood at 485% entering the debate.

MON Total Return Price Chart

MON Total Return Price data by YCharts.

Whole Foods investors haven't had much to complain about, either, with the stock returning 149% in the last decade compared to just 114% for the S&P 500 when dividends are included. Shareholders today are more concerned about what growth potential lie ahead, though, and the conversation about biotech crops and labeling requirements will play a big role in determining the effectiveness of the company's marketing strategies. 

However, Monsanto admits that while it mastered the communication channel with farmers (its customers), it botched the opportunity to effectively, if at all, communicate the benefits of GM crops to consumers. Failing to address consumers for over 10 years after the first commercial biotech crop was planted in 1996 allowed public fears and misunderstandings, rather than facts, to shape the conversation.

Of course, while the outcome of the debate may not have any impact on Monsanto stock, it does hold promise for less fortunate development-stage companies that can be severely affected by similar PR missteps or pressure from activist campaigns. It shows that open, honest, and effective communication with consumers can in fact help products and novel biotechnologies gain market share and consumer acceptance. 

John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors.

Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolioCAPS pageprevious writing for The Motley Fool, and follow him on Twitter to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology field.

The Motley Fool recommends Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.