The Frothy Anti-GMO Stew

By Keith Kloor | February 10, 2014 11:49 am

Have you ever wondered why some people are fearful of GMOs? Even if you shake your head at this question, it is important to ponder because most discussions of genetically modified crops are shaped more by emotions than facts. This is why the evidence-driven search for truth by Nathanael Johnson was not appreciated by anti-GMO food activists.

So what’s driving GMO fears? For one thing, the science of agricultural biotechnology is still fairly new and poorly understood. As the journal Nature explained in a 2013 editorial:

Fears of the unfamiliar and ‘unnatural’, and concerns about health or environmental impacts, have frequently prevented approval and adoption of the crops, especially in Europe, where protesters have destroyed experiments.

To really grasp what’s behind this, you have to understand the underlying psychological reasons that lead people to be scared of GMOs. David Ropeik provides a great explainer in the current issue of Cosmos, as Australian science magazine. His piece is part of a package of articles that explores various controversial issues surrounding GMOs and more generally, agriculture. I’ll be discussing many of these pieces in this space over the next several weeks. (Disclosure: I’m a senior editor at Cosmos.) The stakes for agriculture, the environment and food security are considerable. There are unfortunate consequences to biotech opposition, as Cosmos editor-in-chief Elizabeth Finkel notes in her feature:

Paradoxically, activists are attacking precisely those technologies that are helping to reduce chemical use and lifting poor farmers out of poverty.

But it’s not just activists who are opposed to GMOs. As former Guardian reporter Leo Hickman wrote last year:

Polling indicates that, despite a small drop in recent years, opposition to GM food in the UK – and to a greater extent across the rest of Europe – is significant and rigid.

It’s important to understand why this is. Hickman next provided a succinct explanation:

There are many reasons for this – a complicated cocktail of emotion, psychology, politics, ideology and science – but the blunt reality for advocates of GM crops is that they still face a steep incline before them.

In my piece for the special Cosmos edition on agriculture, I examine the part of the stew that concerns politics and ideology, specifically the Monsanto factor. I write:

Once greens and anti-biotech activists settled on Monsanto as a target-rich enemy, they realized quickly how useful the company (and its history) would be as the poster child for biotechnology.

To learn more about how Monsanto put itself in this position, read the 2002 book, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, by NPR’s Dan Charles. To learn more about the humanitarian implications of anti-GMO activism, read the 2008 book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa, by Robert Paarlberg.

Meanwhile, if you want to learn how Monsanto thinks it can recast its public image–and the general perception of GMOs, read my piece.

Additional reading:

My main Cosmos piece includes a sidebar called, “Seeds of Deception.”

In my feature, I reference an odd exchange between Janice Person, social media director for Monsanto, and a person sitting next to her on a plane. Here is Person’s description of the encounter at her blog.

This 2000 New Yorker  piece on Monsanto, by Michael Specter.

“Why the Climate Corporation Sold itself to Monsanto,” a 2013 New Yorker post by Michael Specter.

An example of Monsanto Derangement Syndrome:

A protest flier.

A protest flier.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs
  • mem_somerville

    Ok, ok, I get it–the coffee shop discussion is not winnable on facts and evidence.

    But every time I read one of these pieces where we are once again told we are doing it wrong–I wait for the punchline. I wait for someone to show me how to have this coffee shop discussion. And it never comes.

    I would really have liked to see that specified.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Did you read David’s piece?

      • mem_somerville

        You mean the piece that covers the conversation that’s not working in the coffee shop–but then doesn’t show the same conversation with the other outcome? That piece?

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

          That’s a good thought experiment, but would make for a much longer story. Meanwhile, this advice will have to suffice, from end of his piece:

          “The good news is, we can apply all we’ve learned about the emotional nature of risk perception to the challenge of communicating about risk more respectfully, less combatively, framing information in ways that are consistent with rather than threatening to the values and feelings of those we are trying to persuade. We can stop criticising this behaviour as irrational or anti-science, labels sure to inflame more than persuade. We can use what science has taught us about how risk perception works to narrow the Risk Perception Gap and reduce the very real threat it poses. It would be dangerous not to.”

          • mem_somerville

            Yeah, I read that. And it’s precisely what looks handwavey and squishy to me. A bunch of “don’t do X, Y, Z”. I guess I value concrete + specifics.

            Show me a conversation that works. I’m willing to use points that aren’t “threatening to the values and feelings” of these folks, but someone is going to have to be a bit more explicit about what those are, and how you specifically approach that at the coffee shop and succeed. What are these points and how do you use them in conversation? It didn’t come with my training and I fully admit that. But you can’t just drop those apparent guidelines on the table and wave your hands about how much we know about how to improve, and expect me to improve my framing if I don’t understand their frame. I concede that I don’t grok the idea that we shouldn’t do this because God or because capitalism. But I honestly don’t know how to work with that.

            One time I thought I had it. I tried talking about the GMO mosquito projects. And I talked about how Rachel Carson was so eager to use modified mutant mosquitoes instead of chemicals. But that didn’t succeed. So obviously I’m not connecting on their frames. I’m just asking for specific guidance on how to do it. I’m willing to try. But I don’t feel like I’ve got what I need from that type of paragraph.

          • http://www.nd.edu/~dhicks1 Dan Hicks

            Thanks for bringing me into this discussion. The three take-home messages from my poster:

            1. Ignorance is playing a role, but it’s not the only factor.

            2. Standards of evidence are matters of convention, and this could explain persistent disagreements among experts.

            3. Social-political-economic concerns are just as important for GMO opponents as health and safety concerns.

            And some concrete science communications advice:

            1. Separate health and safety concerns from social-political-economic concerns. GMO proponents and opponents alike run these together, which is a mistake in all kinds of ways. For one thing, no amount of health and safety evidence can assuage worries about intellectual property!

            2. A lot of people on both sides of the GMO debate support “high tech organic,” smallholders and peasant farmers, food sovereignty, worry about intellectual property, etc. Focus on exploring this common ground first. When you do start to talk about GMOs, talk about how they do/do not/might/might not fit into this big picture of the future of agriculture.

            3. Listen for when opponents are raising social-political-economic concerns, and make a point of responding to them directly.

            Something I’ve noticed recently: proponents observe correctly that opponents have social-political-economic concerns, but then fail to engage on these points. Instead, they fall back into discussions of health and safety or feeding the world. Skimming the Cosmos pieces by Elizabeth Finkel and our host, Keith Kloor, linked up above, both appear to make this mistake.

          • mem_somerville

            The IP is a good example. I totally support open-source GMOs. Plenty of times I’ve used that as an opportunity for common ground. It came up a lot during the Bowman case. I would thank Bowman’s supporters for wanting farmers to grow GMO crops that they choose to use.

            But I find that as soon as I say that, they back off and goalposts move. IP seems to be just an excuse and they really don’t mean that if the patent issues are gone they would change their minds.

          • Tom Scharf

            Acknowledging the risks is a good start to temper defensiveness. Bad GMO’s could be designed and lead to a problem…we have designed bioweapons…

            How could a bad GMO outcome occur?

            How is this prevented from happening? Testing, regulation…

            What are the benefits? Well known…

            Are the benefits worth the risk?

            But as we all know this is trench warfare now. I think your goal should first be to get the other person to at least clearly understand your position (and be able to reflect it back to you), but not necessarily agree with it.

            Over time, they may move toward the light…

            The value of this opinion from the Tom Scharf Center for GMO Communication is zero, exactly what you paid for it.

          • mem_somerville

            Heh. I turned twitter back on to see this–and I think–YAY! Answers to the values stuff maybe?

            https://twitter.com/danieljhicks/status/432932540362391552

            I read the poster. It ends with the same question I have, I think. I don’t know where to go with that.

          • Gavin Deichen

            Part of the problem is that, as with so many public opinion issues, people don’t want to change their minds. A lot of people hate to be wrong. Anything that threatens their beliefs, from wherever they may have acquired them, makes them upset and angry. And opposing them? Scientists, a group with enquiring minds who typically love to have their preconceived notions challenged.

            I can only think, as has been touched on above, that starting with common ground and working towards the more touchy subjects is the only way to make a long-term impact on the antis. Information must be helpful, but as we can see from some of the comments on here, anything that appears to be coming from “BigAg” will be dismissed. The entirety of hundreds of millions of dollars of research is dismissed in a comment here as “science” because the poster doesn’t like the conclusions – or, more likely, has had their opinion handed to them by someone with whom they identify.

            I think there’s reason to be positive, though – the momentum is really on the side of science. People can think what they like about GM rice and cotton, but in the real world it’s actually working and being grown by real-life farmers out of choice. It’s a shame that it’s such a needless slog and that so many have to die while scientists wait for approval for life-saving crops, but slowly, I would suggest, progress is being made.

          • mem_somerville

            This is the kind of thing I’ve been hoping for on GMOs–I wish it wasn’t paywalled. https://twitter.com/MCNisbet/status/433280697638219776

            The link is flaky, the DOI you can search for is easier: 10.2190/TW.44.1.b

            I swear: I would try to adopt the frames if I could be told what they are. As I said, I’ve tried to hug Rachel Carson and stress how I’d like to see chemical pesticides reduced–this went nowhere. And I have clearly supported open-source GMOs, to no avail. But I am willing to keep trying. I just need some specific guidance.

    • Kevin Folta

      I think I’m learning this. I’ve been starting out with challenges to ag, down here in FL, citrus greening that is ravaging an industry. I talk about solutions- nutrition, management, etc. Then I turn to genetics. First, how to find genes and breed them in, how that’s tough and could take decades. But if you knew the gene and could add it… it could save the industry just 5-10 years after trees were made. Then I mention that such things would be in use today if public perception was different, that such solutions are safe, effective and should be used. Then I follow up with, “Isn’t that just stupid that we let ignorant activism stand in the way of farmers’ ability to make a living?” That seems to do the trick. It is important to take the focus off of the companies (none of them are doing citrus that I know of) and put the emphasis on solutions– and how they are being blocked by ignorance and fear. That resonates with Joe Six Pack.

      • JH

        Compliments, Kevin. That’s a great way to approach the discussion. Steer toward the practical relevance – how it helps people make a living.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

        Really all that is needed to win over “Joe Six Pack” is to add a couple of genes to hops that gives it a greater sense of well being (maybe from its cousin) and then viola half of America and most of Europe is won over.

        • mem_somerville

          Shhhh….this is my retirement plan. It has the added bonus of winning hippies.

    • RobertWager

      I find making the centrepiece of my talks is context, safety record and statements by world health bodies/food safety bodies and examples of products that help the poor.

  • J M

    That risk perception gap thing was interesting.

    I read something similar concerning the risks of new strains of diseases, such as BSE, Ebola virus, swine flu, avian flu. Lots of money has been spent into studying them and their prevention. On the global scale, however, these are the diseases where number of researchers per disease far outnumbers the number of people killed by each disease.

    At the same time, measles, Vitamin A deficiency, malaria, TB, tetanus etc. kill millions of people every year. No headlines, no panic, no money for research.

    Similarly, when an airliner crashes, it’s new all over the world for days. However, in 2012 just 362 people died in airline crashes ( a good year, back in 2010 it was 700). However, in 2012 over a million people died in road accidents.

  • RogerSweeny

    Why are people afraid of GMOs? Well, one reason is simply that they can be. Most people who are afraid of GMOs are not worried about getting too few calories. Quite the opposite; they are probably worried about getting too many.

    I am reminded of the early days of “test tube babies.” There had been a lot of fear and negative talk. Many people thought that technology-assisted (unnatural!) conception and implantation should be banned. But once the babies started coming, the opposition kind of deflated. The parents were happy and the babies were cute.

    But with GMOs all you have are hypotheticals. “Without GMOs, it is estimated that X number of people would have died of starvation or conditions caused by malnutrition.”

  • JonFrum

    An obsession with the ‘natural’ is at the very heart of contemporary environmentalism, particularly as it has evolved into a leftist ideology. Thus, the anti-GMO venom is not an accident, or a mistake. It is positively necessary to the green belief system. If ‘natural’ isn’t inherently better than man-made (and man-manipulated), then the justification for natural reserves goes away.

    • Don

      hehe. “venom” is an interesting choice or word there, Jon. Somehow “natural” has become synonymous with “healthy,” but that certainly isn’t the case. The 100% organically grown, 100% natural toadstools in my back yard are certainly not condusive to my continued well-being, nor is rattlesnake venom, funnel-web spider venom, or venom from any of thousands of other species.

  • Buddy199

    Any idea why Donald Rumsfeld and Rahm Emanuel are pictured in the Occupy Monsanto flyer? I get the zombies but that part really threw me.

  • docscience

    If greens had existed at the time of the discovery of fire, those few remaining humans today would be in the cold and dark.

    Good riddance, today’s self-hating greens would say in their contempt of mankind and the technological progress built page upon page by all those humans who came before us.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Larkin

    test

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Larkin

    Near the beginning (fifth para) the Ropeik article states:

    “You are right, of course. That argument about GMOs isn’t really about
    the facts, any more than the argument about whether climate change is
    real, or whether vaccines cause autism. The facts on all three are
    pretty clear. The world’s leading science panels agree that the evidence
    is overwhelming that GMOs pose no known risk to humans, that climate
    change caused by human activity is real, and that vaccines don’t cause
    autism. Yet some people, such as our intelligent, angry young man,
    continue to deny all the evidence and fear GMOs. Why? And why are his
    passions so highly aroused?”

    This para immediately inclined me to be suspicious and disinclined to read the rest. Why? Because my personal opinion is that CAGW is over-hyped and that “the world’s leading science panel” in that domain, the IPCC, is more interested in politics than science.

    My purpose isn’t to argue about CAGW, and of course anyone is free to agree or disagree with my opinion about that. No: my purpose is to point out that appealing to whether or not “leading panels” support a particular view cuts no ice.

    Actually, I don’t know that much about GMOs and am open-minded on the issue, but instead of engaging me on that basis, he tacitly labels at least some readers as likely not to be responsive to scientific arguments because they don’t automatically accept, across the board, appeals to authority.

    Different scientific controversies evoke different responses. Someone can be pro- or anti- CAGW, GMOs, HIV as the cause of AIDS, neo-Darwinism as an adequate explanation of evolution, electric universe theory, on and on, in any combination: in some cases agreeing with orthodox views, and others, not.

    GMO food as an issue should stand on its own merits, and Ropeik shouldn’t have mentioned other scientific controversies at all, nor made appeals to authority. It’s anyone’s guess how many readers he alienated with his statement, and those he retained might well have been only those who are inclined in principle to blindly accept scientific orthodoxy.

    This doesn’t mean that all of what he subsequently said was wrong: but it does mean that I, as one of those he alienated from the outset, stopped reading at that point.

  • Tom Scharf

    Had to laugh…

    “By putting biotechnology in the context of climate change and human betterment, might Monsanto’s and biotechnology’s image be recast? Fraley thinks so.”

    I don’t think doubling down on politically divisive subjects is probably a good idea. I understand why it should work, I just think it won’t. The greens will just dismiss it as corporate greenwashing, and hate them even more.

  • Tom Scharf

    Thought I was reading the Onion for a minute…

    European Union Moves To Approve U.S. Genetically Modified Corn
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/11/275526755/european-union-moves-to-approve-u-s-genetically-modified-corn

  • Jodi Koberinski

    “Paradoxically, activists are attacking precisely those technologies that are helping to reduce chemical use and lifting poor farmers out of poverty.” Neither of these are happening- they are the propaganda of the GMO lobby, and that, not “fear” of “Science”, is what has many of us in opposition to early commercialization fo a poorly understood, poorly regulated, and poorly tested technology- particularly when the UN says agro-ecology and not monocultural biotechnology will feed the planet.

  • Joshua

    Well, well, well… what have we here, in the article you linked…

    But to treat that young man as though he is irrational and deny the
    validity of his feelings is not only pointless. It’s counterproductive
    and will only fuel his passions. The subjective nature of risk
    perception is an inherent reality of human cognition. His feelings may
    not match the facts, but they are real and deeply rooted and as Kahan
    has found they are important to his identity and his sense of safety.
    Challenging his feelings as irrational makes him feel threatened. To
    defend himself, he hardens his positions.

    I wonder where calling people “loons” fits into that scenario?

  • JH

    Monsanto will never be able to recast its image. It’s a profit-making enterprise, and in that regard it will always be hated by a substantial segment of the population. Add to that that it’s a food company (what might the be putting in our food to CONTROL US????!!!!!), and the nutters will have an endless field day.

    People increasingly feel at the mercy of corporations, and increasingly blame everything on them. Why is Seattle’s bus system shitty? It’s because Microsoft runs its own separate buses for it’s employees! The nerve! Why are people struggling to make it? Why, it’s
    because corporations don’t pay them enough!

    Here’s some food for thought, Keith:

    There was a piece in the local paper today about doctors closing up private practices and joining corporate organizations because the cost of running a private practice is too high. Sound familiar? Look around you. There’s almost no small businesses left except restaurants and coffee shops.

    Several impacts: a) Cities and towns can’t control their own destiny by controlling their businesses; and b) since no one owns a business anymore, there are no voters that vote with businesses in mind – hence, the slow implosion of the Republican party and the loss of the center-right, which advocates for sensible business policy.

    But here’s another interesting aspect of the story. One reason small businesses can’t compete is lack of buying power compared to large corporations. But that shouldn’t matter to doctors, right? They’re offering services. So why can’t they compete? Regulation. The more regulations there are, the more it costs to comply. So here’s where the corporations get their cost advantage in services: by scaling up, they can afford a larger and more effective regulatory compliance apparatus.

    So the tragic thing about all of this is that as people become more and more afraid that corporations are controlling their lives, there will be increasing pressure to increase regulation of corporations. But that regulation, in turn, favors the existence of ever-larger corporations with ever less local control, which then drives people to push for more regulation.

    As far as Monsanto goes, beyond the general anti-corporate mentality, we also have a direct battle between the corporation and the idyllic small farmer, one of the last bastions of family businesses.

    I doubt Monsanto can change it’s image, now or ever. More likely, anticorporate sentiment will only get worse – particularly if the economy stays in it’s moribund state.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

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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