Anti-GMO Attitudes on the Left and Right

By Keith Kloor | April 3, 2013 9:25 am

If you follow public debate on genetically modified foods, you know that Monsanto is routinely portrayed as the devil’s spawn. The multinational agricultural company is the arch-villain in the GMO wars. In liberal and environmental media stories, Monsanto is the baddie that poisons the earth with impunity and monopolizes the global seed market. Indeed, as Michael Shermer wrote several months ago in Scientific American:

Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.

All this leads the conservative National Review Online to ask:

Whence the Left’s hate for Monsanto?

Well, it owes to a mishmash of anti-corporatist ideology, natural fallacy (GMOs are not natural!) and precautionary principle extremism. But here’s the odd thing. If you read through the reader responses to the NRO article, you’ll see lots of GMO-fearing conservatives who also hate Monsanto. What’s that about? Let’s look at a few examples.

 One commenter:

Oddly, on my FB feed, I have an equal number of lefties and righties who hate GMO and warn of its dangers. Lately, I’ve seen a noticeable uptick in posts about Monsanto and GMO from both sides of the political fence. Anti-corporatists and anti-crony-capitalists, neo-Luddites and survivalists seem to have found something upon which they can happily agree. Too bad for all those poor and foreign kids who will suffer for this if these two opposing political camps ever figure out they’re in agreement.

Another reader concurs:

Absolutely. I actually know more conservatives than liberals who buy into the anti-GMO hysteria. There is a common thread that links them with other anti-medicine, anti-vaccine, pro-organic and wacko diet communities. Most of them are part of all of these. I wish I could say it was just those crazy left-wingers, but that is not even close to being the case in my experience.

Another commenter:

“I am very much against GMO’s and yet I couldn’t be much more conservative/pro business/not one problem with legitimately run corporations and anti-enviro-hysteria.”

This one is interesting, too:

I am a libertarian and find the hysteria of the left annoying BUT on this issue of GMOs I find that I do not disagree with them. GMOs should be labeled. Any food that a consumer will put into their body that is manipulated IN ANY WAY should be labeled.

The blog Chicks on the Right notes that “the latest environmentalist cause, taken on by liberals and conservatives alike, seems to be GMOs.” And (presumably conservative) commenters there, too, express their suspicion of Monsanto and GMOs.

In his Scientific American piece, Shermer cites anti-GMO attitudes as being in the domain of liberals, and thus an example that the left is waging its own war against science. Rebecca Watson countered:

I’d like to see the evidence that they’re all liberal, because I’ve seen a bit of evidence to suggest that GMO concern is a cross-platform issue.

My cursory scanning of the web turns up evidence to suggest this is true, as shown above. But if we want drill down on this comparison, then Mark Hoofnagle makes an important distinction (my emphasis):

In terms of the liberal nature of anti-GMO movement, the data is mixed. Dan Kahan, studying risk assessment with regard to GMOs found liberals and conservatives reacted [I have added this link] with similar levels of concern over the technology. However, when it comes to where I find this nonsense being disseminated, it’s largely from environmentalist websites, liberal activism websites, and the quasi-libertarian wackiness of places like prison planet, infowars and natural news. My impression based on the source of the denialist arguments is that they consistently are starting from more liberal/environmentalist/anti-corporatist sources.

Conservative media doesn’t have a whole to say on the GMO issue, while liberal media is all over it, frequently distorting the science of biotechnology and skewing its coverage to play up uncertainties in a way that is completely out of scientific context. Kinda reminds you of how another big environmental issue is often covered in conservative media, doesn’t it?


  • Joshua

    Keith –

    If you want to know what it is about, you might want to take the time to read Kahan’s look at the data on the (lack of) association between political ideology and GMOs.

    You said earlier that you didn’t have the time to read Dan’s posts. Seems to me that if you took the time to write this post, on the very same topic that Kahan’s analysis examines, you should have the time to look at his work. In particular since you often promote his analysis.

    • Keith Kloor

      Don’t be ridiculous. I said–at that particular time–that I didn’t have the time–THEN–to read through all of Dan’s links that you were referring me to. So please don’t distort what I said, or you’ll reinforce my belief that you’re arguing with me in bad faith. And being a troll.

      And what point are you exactly arguing this time around? I’ve read his three part series of GMOs and science communications carefully (and by the the way, he positively cite me). I’ve read much of Dan’s work.

      So what point related to my post are you making?

      • Joshua

        You know my point: The association between anti-GMO, bad science, and political ideology is weak.

        The point of focus should be motivated reasoning, IMO. Links between anti-GMO, bad science, and libruls (or greens, or foodies) are fine to serve as an example of the phenomenon – but stopping there is a confusing the symptom for the disease.

        Apologies for the incorrect assumption. What more could you expect from a bad-faith troll?

        So then, what do you think of Dan’s findings? I think that they are solid evidence that the association between libruls, bad science, and anti-GMO rhetoric is weak – seemingly in contrast to a favored theme of yours. Do you have anything other than anecdotal impressions to support a different perspective? Any validated data that might control for confounding variables?

        • Keith Kloor

          Where in my post do I say that anti-GMO attitudes are connected to political ideology? In fact, I specifically link to Dan’s post (part 2) that discusses the survey showing GMOs to be of moderate concern to both liberals and conservatives.

          That said, motivated reasoning on GMOs on the left is grounded in cultural values that are very much part of an ideology, characteristics which I pointed out.

          The evidence is available for you to read every day on liberal and environmental media websites, which I have discussed time and again. Much of what I do on these kinds of issues is analyze media narratives, which by the way Kahan mentions in that three part series: the use of stock characters, certain tropes, memes, etc.

          I can’t help it that you don’t approve of this and would like to wave these narratives away as proof. There are social scientists that study media coverage in full–on concerns about climate change, wind turbines, cell phones, phones, cell phone towers, etc–that do a good job of demonstrating how these narratives form. I bet you could find them easily. Some I’ll be talking about in future posts.

          Motivated reasoning is just as much a factor in how liberal and environmental media cover GMOs et al. But then you have to go beyond that and ask what is prompting the motivating reasoning. When I do that, people like you don’t like it. That suggests to me that you don’t like the answer.

          • Robert Ford

            I called it! Ban him or else it’ll never stop

  • JonFrum

    I’ve said this repeatedly – probably in this blog, in fact. Anti-GMO paranoia has crossed over to conservatives, and is now a populist issue. Working class conservatives are not all Wall Street/Corporation supporters, and never have been. This does not change the fact that the propaganda comes from the Left – conservatives simply adopt the message to their own liking. The prepper movement is almost entirely anti-GMO and anti-corporate.

    As should be obvious, there is no one, monolithic ‘right wing.’ Go look at Youtube gardening and prepper videos – you’ll find gun-owning, Obama-hating conservatives who go to great lengths to grow only organic produce, and live in fear of buying GMO cucumber seed – in spite of the fact that no such seed exists.

  • Mark Hoofnagle

    I should have linked Kahan in my comment, I was just being lazy.

    Of course, this is just my experience with anti-GMO arguments. I have not done a systematic assessment of where the BS is coming from. I track a variety of “misinformation sources” from the more mainstream Huffington Post (left), and the Wall Street Journal editorial page (right), to the hard-to-determine left/right/libertarian wackiness of Natural News, Infowars, Prison Planet etc. It has been my purely anecdotal observation that my right-wing misinformers don’t make a big deal over this stuff.

    Additionally, look at right-wing associated denialist sites on topics such as global-warming (Junkscience in particular is notable) and you see periodic gloating over the failure to show a risk to GMO (see today’s post from crank Steve Milloy on safety of Bt corn on honeybees for example) or in general a hostility to the idea we are at risk from environmental pollutants. Left wing sites, and newspapers (like the Guardian) love to eat up any perceived environmental hazard from GMO to EM pollution, and then report if not favorably, at least with gullibility for the crank argument.

    While Kahan’s research clearly shows that perceived risk of the technology is more universal, on the media side, it seems to me to be largely a lefty problem.

    • Keith Kloor


      Thanks for stopping by. Been a fan of your blog for some time.

      “While Kahan’s research clearly shows that perceived risk of the technology is more universal, on the media side, it seems to me to be largely a lefty problem.”

      Yes, that is precisely the point of my post.

      • Mark Hoofnagle

        I just wanted to make sure people realized I don’t have any actual rigorous data for my assertion. Just observation.

        The anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, right wing crank definitely does exist. I have one infesting my blog as we speak.

        I think the difference is the mainstream right publications really do have a pro-corporate/business bias. They are not about to start lending credence to the Glenn Beck-style big banks/Obama/Monsanto/Agenda21/Obamacare/Common Core conspiracy nonsense that seems to have grasped the warped minds on the right. Hence it comes from the lower-tier wackaloon sites like WND, prison planet, Beck, that no one really takes seriously. You’ll know they’ve hit the big time when they get to FT or WSJ.

  • mem_somerville

    I don’t dispute that there are conservatives who are opposed to GMOs. But they don’t spawn the same kind (or volume) of hysteria and lies. There’s a separate strain of “food freedom” nuts who want unfettered access to a range of things, including the disease-causing raw milk. I think the “food freedom” and freedom from big pharma is where this wraps around to meet the other side.

    And the righties aren’t storming the state houses with poorly conceived label and restrictions laws (see what Hawaii’s AG had to say on theirs), or with court-clogging nonsense like the Goldfish lawsuit.

  • Joshua Turcotte

    Sigh; I am not intrinsically against GMO; hell… 1000s of years of hybridization is, in a sense, GMO by a different means. Still… Monsanto is definitely on my list of evildoers insofar as their tactics vs. small farmers and homeowners, the increasingly unilateral body of evidence of bee damage caused by their products; the devastation of local agricultural economies in nations (aka india, but coming to an iraq near you) where they’ve wrangled new laws outlawing the saving of seeds in lieu of selling theirs at many times the price (and, in the wake of that, seeing many times the suicide rate as farmers can’t get enough yield to pay off the loansharks needed to pay the annually too-damn-high rates for these pre-pesticided seeds.) By all means, study GMO… but at the very least operate with some sense of social/global responsibility.

    • Robert Wager

      A few myths there Joshua. first. the OSGTA v Monsanto shows clearly Monsanto does not hassle small farmers, does not sue at the drop of a hat and has not caused a single organic farm to lose certification.

      second. there is zip evidence GE products specifically harm bees, and a great deal of evidence showing Bt crops reduce insecticide use.

      Third. seed saving is quickly becoming a thing of the past as hybrids and GE seeds are the main type of seeds sold today. oh and there are 60,000 seed varieties available on the market today. Few are GE.

      Suicides are not the fault of GE as only 13% of Indian suicides are in rural (with 70% of population) while 87% are urban(30% of pop). further in the past five years rural suicide rates have dropped to ~10% while Bt cotton has increased to over 90% of all Indian cotton.

      Pushing myths in places where people know the facts will not help your position and only makes you look uninterested in the truth.

    • Robert Wager

      One last point Joshua

      This year saw the developing world pass the developed world in acres of GE crops planted. The developing world farmers are adopting this technology faster than any agricultural technology in history. over 12 million resource poor farmers want this technology.

    • Mark Hoofnagle

      Ack! The myth that will never die. Indian farmers are not committing suicide over GM seeds. This is a fabrication, that seems to rise up, zombie-like, no matter how many times it’s debunked. See Keith’s post on it.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    I think the big political difference in general in anti-scientific attitudes on the left & right is that mainstream publications with left of center editorial views (say, the New York Times and the LA Times) are much more devoted to scientific rigor than are corresponding mainstream right-wing sources (anything owned by Rupert Murdoch). For example, the LA Times editorialized against California’s prop 37, and the NYT has similarly editorialized generally against labeling initiatives — precisely on the grounds that they’re not motivated by scientific evidence. On the right, on the other hand, climate change denialism is completely mainstream.

    Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has made this point (as well as himself coming out against prop 37).

    • Buddy199

      Many on the left have taken up AGW with the dogmatic fervor as a sort of anti-capitalist pseudo-religon. “Denialism” as they call it is simply skepticism of the leftist political agenda that has opportunistically attached itself to climate science and stretched and distorted the science.

      • FosterBoondoggle

        Thank you for so effectively supporting my point.

      • Mark Hoofnagle

        Except that we that write about denialism routinely criticize the left wing sources when they engage in it on paranoia about environmental toxins, GM, vaccines, what have you. While these are not the exclusive domain of the lefts (no denialism is truly partisan) they are readily available from left wing sources such as Huffpo. Denialism is not unilaterally applied to right wing ideas. Denialism is the use of specific tactics in a debate. They are conspiracy theories, cherry-picking, fake experts, moving goalposts and logical fallacies. Denialism is wrong whether or not it comes from either the left or the right (and it does from both) and even if it’s being used to argue a valid point. Denialism is not debate. It’s crooked, dishonest rhetoric designed to sway by misinforming.

  • Tom Scharf

    Well here’s something you are going to love:

    Apparently weeds and insects developing resistance “proves” GMO’s are a failure. And even the only 2 GMO successes are failures, and there is no scientific consensus, and GMO’s are 100x more expensive, and Monsanto has hijacked the constitution, and no evidence that genetically engineered plants are harmful doesn’t mean…they…aren’t…harmful.

    And my favorite part: GMO’s, like nuclear power…may…someday…be safe.

    The experts from the UCS were consulted so we know this info is accurate.

    Sounds pretty compelling. You get the picture. In reality he does throw a few caveats in there among the blistering propaganda in this piece.

    • Emily Kane

      “and no evidence that genetically engineered plants are harmful doesn’t mean…they…aren’t…harmful.” i totally agree with that. we have to wait for more research in this area, but I bet they are much better (harmless) methods to gain bigger yield, than gmo seeds.

      take a look at this article:

      • Robert Wager

        So Emily after 25 years of research even the EU says there is no unique risks and no evidence of harm How much time and how much more research will satisfy you?

    • Amber Sherwood K

      Weeds and insects eventually develop resistance to everything. It’s called evolution. We can’t stop it, only try to stay a step ahead of it. By his logic, antibiotics are a failure. I know several billion *alive* people would disagree.

  • Kevin Bonham

    Please don’t buy into the rhetoric that equates Monsanto with GMO as if the two are interchangeable. I profoundly dislike Monsanto’s corporate practices and litigious nature, but I’m a supporter of GMO technology.

    When you starts quoting the question “Whence the Left’s hate for Monsanto,” and then posts a bunch of comments related to GMO’s, you’re enhancing the false equating.

  • Nicole DeLano

    Always political.

  • Dasya Petranova

    I am staunchly left, but I am getting my degree in biotech. I find it infuriating that the anti-GMO movement buys into such flimsy claims of hazards. There are so many benefits, I currently work of driving up the production of PAH in sugarcane so that we can cut back on oil use. My thesis will be on phytoremediation so that we can use plants and bacteria to clean superfund sites.

    What are my other leftist friends doing? Rabidly denouncing my work as funded by the Koch Brothers, fueled by greed, and destructive to the environment.

  • F Hazzel

    I want to argue political views have zero impact on where one stands in the GMO “issue”. Example: Me :)
    I’m from Sweden and (therefore) I’m probably more left than any (well,,,most) left-wing Americans. I see this as a non-issue, at least scientific wise.

  • onelordwon

    GMOS are killing people, animals and the planet. Period.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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