Do liberals oppose genetically modified organisms more than conservatives?

By Razib Khan | June 11, 2013 12:03 am

Credit: Puma

There has been recent talk about GMOs and political orientation recently. Keith Kloor has pointers to the appropriate places. The general impression on all sides seems to be that elite voices against genetically modified organisms are on the Left. To my knowledge this is correct, especially in the United States. But is this true more broadly? We can use the General Social Survey to explore this further. It has a series of questions relating to genetically modified organisms. All except one were asked in 2006 (the exception was 2010).

For replication here are the variables:


Column: POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;4″Moderate”;5-7″Conservative”)

There results are presented below (rows add up to 100% for each question).

Attitudes toward genetically modified foods by ideology in the general social survey

Lib Mod Conserv
Don’t care whether or not food GMO 15 16 17
Willing to eat but would prefer non-GMO 55 53 52
Will not eat genetically modified food 30 30 31
How much influence should group X have?
A great deal of influence 9 8 6
A fair amount of influence 30 32 33
A little influence 42 35 40
None at all 20 25 21
Business leaders
A great deal of influence 5 4 3
A fair amount of influence 17 17 17
A little influence 41 43 45
None at all 37 37 35
Medical researchers
A great deal of influence 48 41 44
A fair amount of influence 40 43 43
A little influence 10 12 10
None at all 2 4 3
Elected officials
A great deal of influence 8 12 9
A fair amount of influence 44 44 36
A little influence 38 34 41
None at all 11 11 14
Do group X agree on the risks of GMO?
Medical researchers
1 – Near complete agreement 13 6 11
2 26 19 22
3 40 55 45
4 13 11 14
5 – No agreement at all 8 9 8
How well does group X know risk of GMO?
Medical researchers
1 – Very well 33 34 34
2 36 28 38
3 16 22 17
4 8 10 6
5 – Not at all 6 5 5
Elected officials
1 – Very well 3 3 4
2 7 7 6
3 23 28 24
4 33 37 35
5 – Not at all 35 26 31
Business leaders
1 – Very well 3 3 6
2 13 5 7
3 27 27 24
4 27 37 35
5 – Not at all 30 29 28


What this tells us is that elite opinions matter a lot in public discourse. The gap between liberals and non-liberals is not really there on this issue at the grassroots. That could change, as people of various ideologies tend to follow elite cues. This is why the strong counter-attack from within the Left elite is probably going to be effective, as it signals that being against GMO is not the “liberal position.”

Addendum: Just so people who haven’t been reading me know, political moderates tend not to be very intelligent.

  • Patrick Wyman

    Great piece. I was certainly under the impression that the GMO issue was more prevalent among liberals; it’s nice to see the data showing the opposite. I suspect that the source or sources of discomfort with eating GMO food differs between conservatives and liberals, though.

    I’ve been growing more and more frustrated with the amount of misinformation that’s floating around about GMOs. There are highly influential figures within a lot of different communities who are espousing these views without the slightest understanding of the topic beyond an acute sense of fear. Anecdotally, it seems to be most prevalent among people who work in health-related fields, but not at the highest levels: nurses, personal trainers, physical therapists, relatively uncredentialed nutritionists, and professional athletes, but not doctors, scientists, PhD dietitians, and the like.

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    My concern about GMOs is how long it takes to see health effects. I trust evidence, not theory.

    As for the politics, liberals tend to dislike big corporations and conservatives dislike big government. Historically, they didn’t overlap much: conservatives thought corporations were ok, liberals thought government was ok. What’s going on today is that on more and more issues, including even immigration reform (!), the grassroots left and right are increasingly in agreement, while the political and business establishment are aligned against the people.

    • razibkhan

      My concern about GMOs is how long it takes to see health effects.

      probably it is the GMO part, not health effects, right? there are plenty of new technologies (cell phones) where we trust theory and not evidence.

      • RagnarDanneskjold

        I would put cell phones with the example from Chad about Roundup. I’m not blanket anti-GMO, I’m just skeptical. I worry about iatrogenics, not the GMO. The medical establishment couldn’t even get it right on the mix of carbs, fat and protein, why should I trust them to get it right on something far more complex?

    • Chad

      Lets take the most prevalent GMO, Roundup Ready crops.

      Roundup (Glyphosate) interferes with the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase….an essential enzyme in the Shikimate pathway which is necessary for the biosynthesis of the aromatic amino acids.

      Roundup Ready crops, which are resistant to Roundup simply carry a variant of 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase that is resistant to Glyphosate. You are talking about a gene that encodes the same enzyme found naturally in plants, does exactly the same thing, but differing by only a few amino acids so that it cannot be inhibited by Glyphosate.

      ……I honestly struggle to understand the fear and loathing people have of Roundup Ready GMOs because biologically it makes absolutely no sense that it would have any health effect. If Roundup Ready gives people cancer, then so will the native enzyme found in organic food.

  • Carl Zimmer

    Hard data are so useful! I just wish this survey was more recent. A lot has happened since 2006, and it would be so interesting to see how it has swayed people’s opinions.

    • Anthony_A

      Some of the (few) conservatives I know go out of their way to buy “organic” food, but as far as I can tell, that’s more a quality issue for them – non-mass-produced food generally tastes better, and pretty much the only way a small farmer can survive economically without using mass production methods is to go organic, so he can charge a premium. On the other side, my facebook feed (mostly liberal) seems to have a Two-Minute’s Hate against Monsanto and GMOs in general pretty much daily for the past few months.

  • Clear Food

    We have anti-science voices in both liberal and conservative wing fringes who drive debates like this over GMOs or global climate change. Sadly, we are seeing political parties seeking to use these issues (oddly in the U.S. more Democrat party pols appear pro-science when it comes to climate and anti-science when it comes to biotech crops) to stir up controversy and public angst for votes.

  • Chad

    Perhaps not at a general population level is there a difference, but in terms of which is most active against GMOs, it is certainly the liberals. Not long ago there were anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO demonstrations outside of work and I spent sometime talking to the protestors. In particular arguing against the horribly conducted Seralini study that was quite prominent at the event and also pointing out the basic biochemistry of Roundup and Roundup-Resistance.

    Overwhelmingly the group was liberal/anarchist. The number of V for Vendetta masks was amusingly pathetic. Many of the speakers espoused stereotypical communist/socialist/anarchist/leftist views.

    I think the real reason why this is a “liberal” position is because “liberals” are the ones who actively oppose it, while most conservatives do not… least they are not holding anti-GMO protests outside of University labs…..

  • AuntyMM

    the biggest danger i see from Monsanto GMOs is indirect, namely the danger to the soil ecology which plants depend on for health. the network of soil organisms has already been severely compromised by fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and various -icides, and other side effects of conventional fossil-fuel ag are equally problematic, like algal blooms, soil erosion and downstream sedimentation.
    if you like to eat, you better take care of the plants, because if the plants start to lose it, we won’t be far behind.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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