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The GMO controversy: Time to move on?

Corn ear on glassCorn ear on glass

Is it time to retire the debate over whether GMOs—genetically modified organisms—are the devil’s spawn or the best thing that’s ever happened to agriculture?

It may be—not because it’s not a legitimate debate, but because obsessing over it has slowed progress on so many other fronts. That was one surprising conclusion of several of the participants of the “Sustainable Food Revolution” panel at Fortune Brainstorm E, the annual energy and technology summit in Austin, Texas.

The debate began as a more classic version of the pro-con GMO fight, when Anthony Zolezzi, a private investor and founder of companies including the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Pet Promise pet food, challenged Kerry Preete, Monsanto’s EVP for Global Strategy, on his contention that biotechnology was the best tool to help feed a growing population. “I’ve been anti-GMO for 25 years,” he said. “Just give me a couple reasons why I can now flip and say we are all wrong.”

Preete countered with the usual, noting that GMOs have been actively used for some 20 years. “I think the safety issues can be put aside,” he said. That may or may not be true, depending on who you ask, but the group, collectively, expressed exasperation with the notion that so much of the debate around sustainable food gets reduced to this argument.

“It is really time to move on,” said Ignacio Martinez, a partner at Flagship Ventures. “I am really tired. We have been talking about it for 15 years. We need to learn so we don’t make the same mistake in the biological space.”

Even Zolezzi, the longtime GMO opponent, seemed to agree. “I think we need a new dialogue. We can’t keep screwing around. There’s not just one alternative energy; we’re going to need lots of [new ideas].”

With that, the discussion turned to some of those ideas for addressing food scarcity, including the harvesting of insects (!) as a source of protein (Aspire), and the creation of energy out of food waste (Harvest Power). GMOs, to the apparent relief of everyone in the room, don’t play a part.

Click here for more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference.

For more on genetic modification, watch this Fortune video: