GMOs: Are They the Liberal Equivalent of Climate Change Denial?

(For the record, I eat organic fruits and vegetables when available and I am practically a vegetarian—although I occasionally eat fish. I also accept the argument that Monsanto and other corporations are interested in profit alone. However this doesn’t mean that everything they produce is bad for you.)

GM Crops 

I was introduced to the issue of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while teaching a few years ago. Looking dispassionately at the pros and cons it became apparent that there was a broad scientific consensus that GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional ones. 1,2,3 It was also obvious that the opponents of GM crops were generally modern-day Luddites who opposed technology. The pro side of the argument won handily as best as I could ascertain. (I’ll leave aside the issue of GM animals, and the issue of the means by which companies like Monsanto get (force) farmers to use their products.)

Some students were surprised that I advocated strongly for vegetarianism—for environmental, moral, and health reasons—and for organic food—for health reasons—but that I didn’t mind my food “engineered genetically.” I responded that I would ingest whatever was healthier, whether that was organic plants or a magic nutritional pill. (Ideally, this pill would also prevent death and disease too! Yes I’m serious.)

GMOs, Climate Denial, and Politics

There is a perception among some that opposition to GMOs among so-called liberals is higher than it is among so-called conservatives. There is also the perception that such opposition from liberals is ideologically driven, similar to how climate change denial is among conservatives. I argue that both claims are mistaken.

The perception that opposition to GMOs is higher among self-described liberals rather than self-described conservatives one can be refuted by the data.4 The perception probably exists because of the publicity given to certain events. For instance, efforts to ban GM crops in Hawaii were led by so-called liberals who disregard the scientific evidence for GMO’s safety.

But even if so-called liberals did oppose GM crops more than so-called conservatives, the latter are generally more anti-science, as has been carefully documented in numerous well-researched books.

Opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change and reverence for the Bible are virtual litmus tests to be a Republican in America today. Or to take another example, only 32% of Republicans believe in evolution, while 66% of liberals do. (Although to be fair, there is scientific illiteracy among all Americans as even this latter percentage reveals. In fact, only about 1/2 of all Americans know that the earth revolves around the sun and that it takes a year to do so!)

There is also another difference regarding the extent to which ideology drives the debate. So-called conservatives seem to wear climate change or evolution denial as a badge of honor. Even Republicans who know the truth of climate change–like Mitt Romney or John McCain have to fall in line. No doubt ideology drives so-called liberals too, but hardly to the same extent. Liberals may be mistaken about the harmfulness of GMOs, but they don’t generally wear this as a badge of honor. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, something of a liberal icon, has recently stated that GMOs are not harmful.9 And in the hearings over banning GM foods in Hawaii were heard this: “These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill banning GM foods.

Hopefully, some educated conservatives will speak this way about climate change, evolution, opposition to vaccines, and similar scientific illiteracy.

The Most Important Issue

The most important issue in all this, as I have stated many times in my writing and teaching for almost thirty years, is that truth matters. We should all have a truth fetish. We should follow reason and science wherever it leads and we ignore scientific truth at our peril. For in the end scientific truth does not depend on us, it depends on what is true.

    1.  American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Board of Directors (2012). “Legally Mandating GM Food Labels Could Mislead and Falsely Alarm Consumers
    2.  A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010)(PDF). Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Biotechnologies, Agriculture, Food. European Union. 2010.doi:10.2777/97784ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9. “”The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” (p. 16)”
    3.  Ronald, Pamela (2011). “Plant Genetics, Sustainable Agriculture and Global Food Security”Genetics 188 (1): 11-20. doi:10.1534/genetics.111.128553.PMC 3120150.  PMID 21546547.

3 thoughts on “GMOs: Are They the Liberal Equivalent of Climate Change Denial?

  1. The topic of GMOs had arisen in my biotechnology class, about a year ago. There were debates on the topic and in the end, the class agreed that the team rooting anti-GMO gained more support and popularity. I was particularly interested in this topic because my mother, being a health nut, pushed all natural, no GMO fruits and vegetables. I had agreed on my own terms that GMOs are fairly new and unknown to the nation (supported by statistics about those who do not know how much and what foods are genetically modified), and although there are no short term risks to the modification, it has not been around long enough to see the long term effects. I think that is definitely something to watch for in the future of our food.

    For your last remark on, “truth matters” I completely agree. I do also see how large corporate companies and growers who are using genetically modified organisms to grow crops in mass and efficient manners may skew our perception of GMOs and our health. This relates to this one video I watched regarding marketing skills in order to persuade consumers that what they are eating is actually healthy. I have attached this video, I think you might find it interesting.

  2. I contemplated such questions when I worked in a yarn store, and customers came in with strong prejudices about “natural” fibers versus synthetics. By “natural,” they usually meant, “wool because it comes directly from an animal.” But knowing something about the 20,000-year history of textiles, I used to reply jokingly, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing natural about a modern sheep.”

    Sheep used to be hardy wild animals with a cover of coarse hair. After eight to ten millennia of genetic modification via breeding, sheep are now frail, stupid, compliant animals that grow huge fleeces of soft wool. They cannot exist in the wild; they need human care — shelter, birth assistance, and regular shearing. I don’t really see the difference between modification through selective breeding and modification through laboratory work.

    My main problem with GMO’s is their ability to give manufacturers like Monsanto too much leverage over growers — if your field is planted with Monsanto seeds, you can only maintain them with Monsanto products. Once you commit, it’s hard to switch out.

    But then, a few hundred years ago, when Spanish farmers developed the breed we still recognize today as the best of all wools, they wanted a monopoly just like Monsanto. It was a capital offense to smuggle a Merino sheep out of Spain.

  3. Naomi – thanks for your perceptive comments. As for GMOs, the evidence is overwhelming that they are safe. As for Monsanto, I am not a fan of theirs at all, they only care about profit. But of course that doesn’t mean that their products are always bad either. JGM

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