Over at Slate Will Saletan has a very long piece Unhealthy Fixation: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer. The survey is useful if you are unfamiliar with the topic, though it will be sadly familiar to the rest of us. Saletan makes two observations which I think need highlighting. First, he asserts that “the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies.” Basically it’s a shell game, and the reason is that those who oppose GMO obfuscate the fundamental roots of their objections (consciously or subconsciously). Saletan notes:
Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.
The concrete and coherent objection to GMO which lies just under the surface of the arguments put forward by activist groups like Greenpeace is that the technology is part of the agricultural-industrial complex. But as many have observed, if the problem with GMO is their connection to big agriculture, then why aren’t the arguments simply recycled from those used against industrial agriculture? There are two dynamics at work. First, there is broad popular suspicion of “genetically modified organisms.” Using GMO as a hook, and engaging in FUD, is more effective than arguing against corporate agriculture. Second, as Saletan implies in the piece, even anti-corporate considerations aside there are genuine concerns rooted in the idea that there is something “wrong” with genetically modifying organisms (in fact, with the emergence of cheap CRISPR, we’re potentially at the precipice of a revolution of small scale agricultural innovation, though right now it is unlikely to happen because of regulation).
This sentiment is very broad, and, it is not ideological. Or at least it wasn’t as of 2006, when the EATGM question on for the GSS was put to over 900 respondents. It asks:
Which statement best describes your own view about eating foods that have been genetically modified? 1. I don’t care whether the food I eat has been genetically modified. 2. I am willing to eat genetically modified foods, but would prefer unmodified foods if they are available. 3. I will not eat food that I know has been genetically modified.
As you can see, there’s no ideological difference. The slightly greater skepticism of Democrats can probably be attributed to socioeconomic variables. The less educated, the poorer, and women, are all more skeptical of GMO on the whole. These are groups more well represented among Democrats, and some of these are the most liable to vote and identify Democrat despite not being particularlly socially liberal (e.g., poorer minorities).
But that’s nearly 10 years ago. I’m not sure that the lack of ideological polarization will be so evident now. As documented by Saletan, and earlier in Slate by my friend Keith Kloor, the really high octane activists and public intellectuals behind the anti-GMO push are on the cultural Left. Last year Oregon had a GMO food labeling ballot measure. It lost narrowly. But as you can see in the scatter plot to the left there is a very tight correlation between a county being Democratic and favoring labeling. Second, there was an earlier attempt to pass such a ballot measure in 2002. It was destroyed at the polls. If trends continue it seems entirely likely that labeling will succeed in Oregon in the next go around. Americans intuitively are biased toward transparency as a good.
The fact is that the majority of the public remains skeptical of GMO foods. And large majorities support labeling. Which prompts one to ask: why did the labeling measures not pass in Oregon and California? I think the critical aspect here is that attitudes of skepticism toward GMO are wide but shallow beliefs. Only a small minority of the population has very strong views on the topic. Those opposed who have very strong opinions and engage in activism on the topic tend to come from the liberal intelligentsia. Anyone who has been involved in science and policy around this topic (I have friends who work on GMO crops) will vouch for this. Similarly, those enthusiastic about the potential of GMO tend to be a small number of plant scientists (who also, are be politically liberal on the whole, as they are mostly academics). It is true that large agricultural firms are notionally pro-GMO, but here’s the reality: big ag is making money, it doesn’t need GMO. In fact, because of public sentiment and preference big ag naturally sees organic labeling as a profit center! The regulations are such that really only large firms have the resources to overcome the hurdles put in front of research in this area in terms of safety and oversight.
Once the issue of GMO become salient, as in the ballot measures here on the West coast, then people become more cautious. Anti-labeling arguments start to be more persuasive, and those with business interests that might intersect with agriculture might come to different opinions, as the precautionary principle starts cutting in other directions. GMO has not become culturally polarizing. Yet. Most peoples’ opinions are inchoate and instinctive. I believe they derive from folk biological intuitions about essences. Ultimately it’s about the fact that people don’t understand genes in any prosaic sense, but they think that they’re somehow magically involved in the nexus of who we are in a deep and fundamental sense. That’s why the translocation of fish genes into tomato is so uncomfortable for people; they imagine that the essence of the fish is somehow being mixed with the essence of the tomato, and that just feels wrong. Genophobia of this sort is comprehensible in a cognitive anthropological framework. Just as we are likely wired for Creationism, I think we’re wired for being very skeptical of the concept of GMO, because of the implicit connotations of muddling categories which we view was fundamental. And, just like Creationism, we can overcome these deep intuitions. Much of natural science in the modern world consists of overcoming and updating of deep intuitions.
But, the deep intuitions can be harnessed toward political movements. In the United States Creationism is not just a sentiment and intuition, but a formalized social-political project which fuses some elite suspicions of scientific naturalism with populist skepticism of common descent. Modern Creationism has a particular intellectual pedigree, but it works with the raw material of gut human feeling. Creationist sentiment is old, as old as our species. But Creationism as a potent political movement is new, and its affiliation with the edges of American conservatism is actually a feature of the past generation. It has a history of how it got from where it was, to how it got to where it is. In American Grace Robert Putnam and David Campbell report data that political and religious affiliation co-vary and influence each other (with the former often effecting the latter!).
I am mildly optimistic that this will not happen with GMO, and that is because scientists are anti-anti-GMO, and, politically liberal. It seems very likely that a GMO food labeling measure will pass in the near future. And I believe that this will galvanize a backlash among scientists on the whole. Something similar happens on the Right with Creationism. Whenever the movement actually scores a victory, elite Republicans, who invariably accept the science of evolutionary biology, become alarmed and roll back gains made by Creationists. Unlike evolution, GMO are not just abstractions in a laboratory. When GMO becomes pervasive enough, or at least the knowledge of how pervasive they are becomes more common, then the public will likely make peace with their reservations, just as they have with in vitro fertilization.