The Tricky Terrain for GMO Communication

By Keith Kloor | January 16, 2015 10:31 am

Several years ago, the Boston Review published a forum called, “The Truth About GMOs.” Nine viewpoints were represented. All the authors, a number of them scientists and scholars, had different perspectives. Some were enthusiastic biotech supporters, others staunch opponents. Several had staked out a middle ground, acknowledging the technology’s benefits and risks. The truth about GMOs, it turned out, meant different things to different people.

To complicate matters, the science of agricultural biotechnology is a proxy battleground for many people with political or cultural objections to GMOs, much in the way climate science is a proxy for those who associate it with implied political and economic changes they view as a threat to their way of life. For example, activists and advocacy groups vehemently opposed to GMOs continue to emphasize food safety concerns that have no evidentiary basis. Nevertheless, enough doubt and fear has been sown among a subset of consumers that numerous countries require GMO foods to be labeled and a campaign to do so in the U.S. has gained momentum in recent years. Meanwhile, the issue of food security in a warming world has fueled anew the controversial potential of GMO technology.

Which brings me to a workshop held this week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. Its focus is on how to communicate about GMOs to the public. Thursday’s speakers were excellent, with many of them drawing on the findings of social science to show the tricky communication terrain that has to be navigated for charged issues like vaccines, climate change, and yes, GMOs. To get a sense of the take-home points, scroll through the Twitter hashtag #NASInterface. If you want to watch Friday’s panels, go here for the streaming video.

A few nuggets jumped out at me as I was listening intermittently to Thursday’s talks. Dan Kahan, near the end of his fascinating presentation, said that “people misinform themselves.” What did he mean by this? Well, people have go-to sources for issues they don’t have time (or the inclination) to research. Your go-to source on a contentious issue–such as climate change or GMOs–is likely to share your values. That affinity is what makes the source trustworthy to you. But that doesn’t mean your trusted source is necessarily going to provide you with correct information.

By the way, this is why I often focus on well known information brokers who influence the GMO debate. Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. Greenpeace is a major player on the environmental stage. Pollan has the ear of foodies, Shiva is the patron saint of socially-conscious greens, and Nye is the geeky science hero that takes on creationists. Does it muddy the science communication environment for GMOs if a big environmental group and beloved thought leaders  traffic in inaccurate information? Given their reach, I think so.

Dominique Brossard, in her Thursday talk, said that “messages and frames from the media can have an important role” in science debates. This is certainly true, though some people tend to overestimate the media’s importance, especially when an issue like climate change is “wicked” and laden with political and cultural meaning.

But to Brossard’s point, consider one popular frame that I looked into closely: The GMO/Indian farmer suicide tale. In my piece from last year, I laid out Vandana Shiva’s role as the primary architect of this false narrative. There were others who played supporting roles, but she is the one who stayed on message with it for years. She is a prime example of an influencer creating and shaping a popular media frame that has undoubtedly polluted the GMO discourse.

Finally, some thoughts about one thing Tamar Haspel said in her NAS talk. Haspel, as I have previously noted, writes a terrific, thoughtful food column for the Washington Post. Yesterday, Haspel suggested in her presentation that perhaps the “biggest thing” anyone could do in the GMO debate is reach out to someone who sits on the opposite side of the issue:

This goes back to the idea [discussed by her and other speakers] that we evaluate credibility based on the extent to which people agree with us. So if you are a staunch GMO supporter, you are not going to have much luck persuading a staunch GMO opponent. But if you take someone from that person’s cultural affiliation, who may agree on other issues, like fracking and climate change, and nuclear power, and if you can reach over to an influencer who is more closely aligned with GMO opponents, and you can have a conversation, then that person can persuade their constituency. So I am pretty convinced that the key to peace in our times on this issue is getting people with various points of view all in a room together.

This sounds like something worth doing just as a means to become more tolerant of views that differ from our own. We should all try to break out of our mini bubbles and echo chambers. But I am dubious about this notion of opponents joining hands aboard the peace train. My sense with issues like climate change and to some extent, GMOs, is that lines in the sand are drawn for those with very fixed views. People who are dug in stay dug in (with rare exceptions, such as Mark Lynas).

To me, the real battle for hearts and minds, the real target audience is the fence straddler, the person who is noncommittal about GMOs. Not that we shouldn’t engage with GMO critics and those who reject genetically engineered foods. By all means, let’s do. But  my own experiences with friends and family who reject GMOs has opened my eyes to the communication challenges for the broader public discourse.

When the GMO subject has come up with people I know well–and who share my cultural and political values–time and again their strong feelings trump anything I say. There is no amount of scientific evidence I could present that would persuade them that GMOs aren’t harmful to their health. This happened again recently over New Year’s Eve, when I was at a dinner party with a bunch of smart and successful friends. Somehow, the subject turned to GMOs and one person raised his discomfort with the technology. The frankenfood meme had penetrated his consciousness. I tried to disabuse him of his concerns, but nothing I said mattered. “You can be a science experiment,” he finally said. “I’ll stick to organic food.”

You can count on the organic food industry exploiting this sentiment to increase its market share. As Marc Gunther noted in his piece for that Boston Review roundtable, large U.S. corporations (other than Monsanto) “have helped fuel the anti-GMO movement.” He writes:

Some brands seek to capitalize on consumer anxiety about GMOs, while others simply steer clear of GMO-related controversies. Both positions stand in the way of biotech innovations that, at least in theory, could make agriculture more sustainable.

How to reduce consumer anxiety about GMOs? Perhaps this week’s NAS workshop will offer some constructive approaches I can try out with my friends and family.

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  • bobito

    You say: “some people tend to overestimate the media’s importance”
    Then: “the real target audience is the fence straddler”

    Where is the fence straddler going to get their information? First impressions are huge, and it’s likely the first one will hear about something is in the media.

    If you meant that the media’s importance to the actual nuts and bolts science debate is overestimated then I understand, but for the average person, they are just going to trust Dr. Oz, Nye, etc…

  • Tom Scharf

    You should probably wonder about the effectiveness of taking advice from the social sciences. In an already left leaning academia world, the social sciences has fallen off the left cliff. Beyond the nutty stuff that they put out along the lines of “Republicans are brain damaged”, they seem to be totally unconcerned that there are almost no conservative voices in their ranks. Their entire profession is almost void of ideology that half of the nation has. I’m sure there are some who can better deal with this than others, but I have seen some theories from them on how to communicate with conservatives or libertarians that showed clearly they have no idea how these people think.

    Is Social Psychology Biased Against Republicans?
    http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/social-psychology-biased-republicans

    One of the humorous examples that comes from one of the linked articles from above is a peer reviewed paper that had people answer the question from 0 to 10: Does hard work pay off? They then used this answer to scale a person’s “rationalization of income inequality”. I hope I don’t have to explain why this is humorous.

    • Joshua

      Interesting article, Tom.

      Did you follow this link?

      http://edge.org/conversation/the-bright-future-of-post-partisan-social-psychology

      interesting discussion, imo

      • Tom Scharf

        Yeah that was pretty good. “violation of the moral force field”. We can all easily identify the moral force fields….of the opposing side.

        The comment from Gilbert is a fine example of the moral force field in action. “Liberals may…just be more intelligent”. How safe do you need to feel in your profession to make a public statement like that? Ironically the president of his university was fired for making a similar statement comparing men/women. He won’t get any professional blow back from that statement because….

        The diversity issue here isn’t very surprising. ESPN reporters aren’t very diverse with the group of people who don’t like sports. It goes with the territory. The problem comes when studying the political influences on society when your group has a monolithic viewpoint. Even if it was all straight up non-partisan, it still won’t be trusted.

    • Rebecca Pointer

      Hard Scientists running down social science just shows the danger of a society run by scientists…. no understanding of how society works, but nevertheless fishing those who’ve studied it!

  • Tom Scharf

    A bit off topic, but I found this really long article on tolerance to be very informative and I actually learned a few things (which anyone who reads my comments knows is an exceedingly rare event). Recommended:

    I can tolerate anything except the outgroup
    http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/

  • Bearpants112

    The question of GMOs will be solved through crisis. When people are starving to death and the economy is crumbling, we won’t have the luxury of worrying about unknown unknowns of the unknown.

    • hyperzombie

      What about the Known Unknowns or the unknown knowns?

    • Rebecca Pointer

      The reason people are starving already is precisely because of the monopoly corporate ownership of the food system. GMOs only aggravate the problem, because the problem is a distribution problem, a power problem, not a scientific one. There is already enough food in the world to feed us all, the problem is that the north consumes and throws away too much, while the south can’t afford it (being simplistic, but basically the case).

      • shes_got_a_way

        It may be true that technically, we could have enough food in the world if we took the excess food from the US and gave it to the starving people in Africa. But this is a terribly inefficient and unsustainable system versus the Africans just growing their own food. And the current low yields and crop loss due to plant disease/insects/drought in the “global south” are a problem that science can help.

        • Rebecca Pointer

          A lot of food is shipped out of Africa to Europe, so it’s not true that Africa can’t produce enough food. That’s a distortion of the situation. For example, in South Africa, one fruit producing region exports 80% of crops grown there, but the farmworkers are starving. Land is increasingly being given over to high value crops for export to the north, taking away land for food production. For example, Kenya it’s increasingly becoming a flower producing region, Tanzania and Mozambique are giving over land to biofuel crops etc these all have an impact on Africa’s access to food.

          While I agree that science can help, if scientists arrogantly assume that they know all, they will ignore the very real systems of inequality that scientific advancement feeds into. Therefore, we need to be alive top the fact that while some fears about GMOs are paranoia, others are very valid: if in communicating about GMOs you don’t address the valid concerns, and just ridicule them, as I’ve experienced here, being called a flat earther etc, then you will fail in changing hearts and minds.

          So my challenge to you it’s to think about how we can use GMOs to enhance food system equity.

          • shes_got_a_way

            I agree that simple science-based problems like drought/plant disease are only part of the problem, and that socioeconomic-based hunger is also real. If regulation of GMOs is focused on avoiding adding to the type of non-biologically based hunger you talk about (like somehow regulating corn so that more of it ends up as food vs. biofuel in an area with a lot of hunger), I’m fine with that. My only issue is that the valid concerns you mention often lead to regulation that is misguided and can exacerbate the science-based hunger I talk about, without actually decreasing the socioeconomic-based hunger you talk about. For example without changing the underlying land use regulations, banning GMO corn will just mean lower yields, and won’t necessarily switch the proportion of land on which food vs. biofuel is grown.

          • Rebecca Pointer

            My point is somewhat different: you can’t expect people to embrace GMOs when they feed into and aggravate existing inequity. There are rational concerns and you cannot expect to communicate effectively about GMOs if you cannot speak to people’s real concerns about multinationals in Africa, btw, in South Africa GMO is so widespread that I don’t think a single citizen can NOT have eaten them. I definitely have. So the health concerns may be bogey men, but that is not the only issue GMO communication needs to address. It is the unwillingness to engage with politcs of policy that hinders GMO communication.

  • http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcollege/plantpathology/people/vincelli.htm Paul Vincelli

    Yes, this entire topic is so terribly divisive. I have done outreach on scientific aspects of both climate change and GMOs (both risks and benefits), and I have been surprised to find that the latter is even more of an emotional “minefield” than climate change.

    While all technologies, including genetic engineering, must be used with caution and wisdom, I fear we may blindly abandon all uses of the technology, including many that may help to improve human lives and/or reduce the environmental impact of food production.

    • kkloor

      “I have been surprised to find that the latter is even more of an emotional “minefield” than climate change.”

      Really?? Wow, I’d like read to hear more about that.

      • http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcollege/plantpathology/people/vincelli.htm Paul Vincelli

        For starters, on the subject of climate change, I’ve never had a fellow professor call me a liar, a shill for multinationals, or ignorant of the science. This has happened in the topic of GMOs. To my knowledge, I’ve never been put on “watch lists” over climate change (though that may happening without my knowledge). In contrast, on GMOs, I have been explicitly told that a group of professors was watching me and my statements, as if the free expression of evidence-based positions on this topic were somehow a public threat. I want to stress that all I am doing is providing my professional judgements and the bases for them in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

        I have had dear friends attack me unexpectedly and in public over GMOs. That has never happened on climate change (though that may be because I have few friends who deny the basics of climate science).

        I have met thoughtful people who don’t share my viewpoint on GMOs, and I respect them for their reasons, even when I disagree. But I have learned that this topic is an “emotional minefield,” much more so than I expected and more so than I personally have experienced in climate change.

        • JaimeIslandGuy

          Paul, Sorry but simply positing that not all of global warming is anthropogenic, or that having some faith in future tech such as CO2 scrubbers maybe more effective than the most massive tax and bureaucratic scheme in human history, gets lots of people attacked by people less familiar with the data and facts.

          I don’t have many anti science friends and colleagues who are in denial and who posit all of global warming is anthropogenic but there are a LOT of them out there.

          I would say there are a LOT of issues, in both directions where this occurs. I was at a gun control issues meeting with our Congressional Rep in my area recently. Literally ever single person advocating increased gun control insisted US gun murder was up. When i said it was down I was accused by quite a few otherwise educated people of being “anti science.” In fact gun murder in my a state plunged 54% in the past two decades.

          I would posit that even the view that these things only occur in one direction is itself a bias. Anecdotes are anecdotes. The data show people on the left and right, including people educated in science filter the data though their political culture subset bias

          • http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcollege/plantpathology/people/vincelli.htm Paul Vincelli

            I don’t deny anything you say. I just know my own experience. I’ve experienced many more personal attacks, surprisingly including from professionals, in the subject of GMOs than in climate change. Couple that with the fact that I’ve been doing outreach on climate change for three years vs. barely over six months for GMOs. Both are emotionally treacherous, but the GMO topic seems tougher. I wish it weren’t so. I don’t like conflict. I simply like sharing credible scientific findings, so that my fellow citizens can make informed choices.

    • Buddy199

      The passion surrounding both isn’t fueled primarily by the science. Anti-GMO folks have a strong visceral distrust of large corporations. Climate skeptics feel the same way about liberal central planning types. Both are more accepting of facts that support their pre-existing emotional framework. But that’s nothing new. Try to think of any controversial issue where that dynamic doesn’t exist: heart > head.

    • Tom Scharf

      Genetic engineering of humans isn’t divisive, almost everyone is against it. Primarily for vague moral reasons. I suggest there is some carry over here from the “don’t mess with Mother Nature” crowd. A lot of people hide their moral objections behind a false science argument.

      • http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcollege/plantpathology/people/vincelli.htm Paul Vincelli

        In case this is not clear, I am discussing genetic engineering of crops, not humans. The only discussion of genetic engineering of humans I have seen is with respect to therapy for genetic diseases and possibly cancers, using CRISPR-Cas9 and related technologies, although this is not an area of expertise for me. I have not seen evidence of widespread opposition to these potential therapies. I do hope we are wise enough to thoughtfully explore future therapeutic uses without dismissing them outright, as they are likely to provide for improved longevity and quality of life. Indeed, they may personally benefit the two of us.

  • mem_somerville

    Shiva was also a major pusher of the “terminators seeds” claims. That used to appear in every single comment thread when I started out looking at social media on this issue. But that’s rarely pushed now, in my experience. Only the truly unhinged try to use that nowadays.

    I think some people were ashamed to find out they had been pushing bad information. And also, it became to easy to debunk that I have even seen Shiva walk it back. So with enough pushback some of the worst misinformers can be forced to change the message. But it just mutates, and the damage is already done.

    Still seems to me there’s a ton of navel-gazing and tut-tutting ur doin it rong among scientists, and there’s still little we can do about the chronic misinformers with megaphones.

  • Buddy199

    When the GMO subject has come up with people I know well–and who share my cultural and political values–time and again their strong feelings trump anything I say. There is no amount of scientific evidence I could present that would persuade them that GMOs aren’t harmful to their health.

    —–

    How can they consider themselves “liberal” with such closed, illiberal minds? Do they not see the irony?

    • JH

      No. “Liberal” is a social group, not a political or ideological position.

      IMO, most people’s political persuasions are akin to the music they grew up with. There’s a certain period in their lives when they form their main ideas and then it’s 60 years of Classic Rock.

      That’s why old fossils like Ehrlich still sing the same tune, and why they have a fan base that still buys their music.

  • Joshua

    ==> “Perhaps this week’s NAS workshop will offer some constructive approaches I can try out with my friends and family.I’m curious –

    So when you’re talking to your friends and family – do you use the approach of calling people “loons?”

  • JH

    So here’s a different approach to how people form their ideas and why they stick to them:

    People form the main themes that outline their entire lives between the ages of, say, 16 and 24. As long as they remain in stable social groups, those theme don’t change much, or at best they evolve with the social group. The only thing that can really shake people out of these predictable patterns is an event that knocks them out of or rattles their position in their social group.

    That’s why you get this generational turnover in the way people view things: because they lock into their views at a certain age.

    The generational control on ideas is also influenced by peaks and valleys in population growth: hence the boomers have controlled American policy for 60 years and probably will continue to do so until they die, simply because they’re a large population group.

    • Rebecca Pointer

      Is this a scientific study? I only became an anti capitalist after the age of 25….

      • JH

        No, not at all. It’s a suggestion. One that has some merit IME, you’re developmental and comprehension delays not withstanding.

  • Irena

    I know something from experience & that’s about Nestle, precisely coffee grains. If you put a drop of water on some & stir, you’ll find some mass like a motor oil. Then I imagine it in my stomach. That’s enough to me. IRA

  • Rebecca Pointer

    The reason to worry about GMOs is not scientific but economic: the increasing ownership of food by multinational business conglomerates…. this only makes economic sense of you believe capitalism is the answer to our woes…. if you recognise capitalism as the failure that it is, you dread GMOs…. it has nothing to do with science and everything to do with political economy….

    • JaimeIslandGuy

      So in other words you feel comfortable using a flat earth anti science movement to advance a political agenda?

      • Rebecca Pointer

        You’re quite comfortable promoting GMOs capitalism; that’s a political position. I quite agree that GMOs are probably not harmful. But power must be a consideration, as it is multinationals that are creating hunger, not relieving it with GMOs. I am not a flat earther, but science should never be the only consideration. The impact of a concentrated food system on poverty is already devastating, and with the increased concentration that comes through GMOs, it will only be more devastating. We must consider what type of food system we want, and who it should serve, and all of us should have a stake in determining that, not just multinationals, and not just scientists. Touting science as supreme is in itself a political position that you are promoting, as though science can ever be used in politically neutral ways. Take nuclear, it can be used to heal or to harm … most people who are anti nukes are not anti chemotherapy or other radiation therapies. However, recognizing the danger and wanting to limit those dangers is a perfectly rational response. I see the danger in multinational corporations owning the food system, and I will resist that. However, in South Africa, where I live GMOs are already widespread and I eat them. I do however actively work against corporatised food systems.

        To call someone a flat earther because of rational concerns is not very scientific, it is certainly anti science as there is a whole body of scientific literature showing the damage that corporate food systems are already doing.

        • shes_got_a_way

          Personally I have no problem pointing out the flaws of capitalism. I just don’t see any alternative that would be any better. For example, let’s say you had a system where rural farmers in the “global south” had their own little plots of land without a corporation or corrupt government taking it from them. Would there be any less hunger in a given year if a plant fungal infection was going around that killed their crops? Or if there was an extended drought? No- in fact I’d argue that hunger would be increased in those situations, relative to if farmers had access to seeds engineered to resist the drought or the infection.

          • Rebecca Pointer

            You and a lot of other people who are hard scientists…. that’s the problem with hard science standing alone without social science…. the social scientists have done a lot of work on how to build a more equitable world, and are equally bad at communicating about it lol

          • JH

            Scientists – social or otherwise – don’t and never will run the world.

            Human society has a natural economic system. It’s that system – competitive markets – that “runs the world”. Competitive markets generate products that provide benefits to both the buyer and the seller. That’s why they work, and that’s why they exist everywhere where humans exist, regardless of the economic system that is superposed on top of them.

    • JH

      Rebecca, your economic concerns are unfounded. “Multinationals” (by which I assume you mean Monsanto or Sanofi or Dow) do not “own food” – they never have and they never will.

      Just the same, they do own the technology that delivers the best – not the only – producing crops. And this is nothing new: they’ve been doing that already for 50+ years. The fact that you weren’t aware of it before is not really relevant. And, of course, their ownership of any technology is for a limited time.

      Moreover, their continual investment in generating higher-producing crops is a massive benefit to society. Who else has the money to invest in developing these crops.

      My only economic concern is that there be more competition in the biotech business.

      • Rebecca Pointer

        I never said multinationals own food, I said they owned the food system, including supermarkets, distribution channels etc. I was well aware of food& seed corporate dominance before GMOs. Stop attributing ignorant ideas to me. You setting up straw men.

        The economic system produces poverty in Africa, and I should know, I live here. Corporate take over of local African good systems is drastically impoverishing Africans as land grabs push people of their land with nowhere else to go.

        The fact that you think capitalism is helping just shows that your position it’s not scientific but political, based on your vested interests, and nothing to do with science. Social science has shown over and over that inequality is increasing as a result of capitalism. But you think you know better because you are so scientific as to be able to ignore what social scientists are finding.

        I work for a southern research institute which looks at land and agricultural issues, and again GMOs ate not harmful in and of themselves, but they AGGRAVATE an already existing inequality in the social and political system; instead what we need is science that can overcome inequality, not one that promotes multinationals.

        Incl Monsanto, Nestle, Tesco, Walmart etc etc this concentration of ownership is the cause of increasing inequality, and the biggest good problem is not crop production but food distribution controlled by multinationals.

        • Rebecca Pointer

          Excuse typos… Damn autocorrect….

        • JohnDoe

          Monsanto isn’t as big as you think it is. There are plenty of chemical companies in the fray – DuPont, Dow, BASF, Syngenta, Bayer, some smaller players. They don’t own the farmers – the farmers can always buy open-source seeds and use off-patent pesticides. The corporations that sell seeds are not the corporations who grow the food who are both not the corporations that own supermarkets and distributors.

          Organic is not synonymous with small-time either. Lots of organic farms are run at industrial scales.

  • Conor Flynn

    Keith, I don’t think that is exactly the point Dan Kahan was trying to make. Or if it is, its just the tip of the iceberg from the science of science communication standpoint. Kahan likes to say that “critical reasoning is being used opportunistically.” And he goes on to point out that more proficient people (i.e. more proficient at value-neutral numeracy tasks) are more polarized than less proficient people, not because they read biased media, (although this may be true) but because they are better at fitting any available evidence to their existing ideological biases. http://weltanschuuang.blogspot.com/2015/01/dont-read-this-if-you-trust-me-pitfalls.html

  • Judith C. Pérez

    There is a quote I read once that says “The problem with communication is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” Your paragraph one people’s feelings trumping anything you say reminded me of that. Modern mass media is the largest influence on public opinion today. I think that holding a televised, heavily advertised discussion/debate on GMOs between people just slightly on either side of the fence would not be counterproductive to reaching some form of a consensus.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

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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