Political Ideologies and the Anti-GMO Movement

stockvault-ear125307The Anti-GMO movement has been around since before GM technology first walked across the world stage. The mere hint of it initiated the creation of activist groups against it, and the ideology of anti-GMO began before the public really knew anything about the science. The pervasive question here is why?

It should come as no surprise that the majority of anti-GMO sentiment comes from the left portion of the political spectrum. The common thought process is that the right supports GMOs because they support big business. This may be true to some extent, but I don’t think the causation is supported. I think that the right, because they don’t automatically hold a dislike for big business simply doesn’t have a reason to buy into the fear mongering about the science in this case.

Let’s look at the left wing ideology and how it relates here. In the political landscape of today, the left is very much aligned with environmentalism. Concerns about the environment, especially given the realities of anthropogenic climate change, are valid and necessary in the world. The problem, I believe, is the baggage that comes with that environmental awareness.

The environmentalism, or green, movement is complex, to say the least. There are many aspects that range from feeling great about recycling all the way to eco-terrorism. The aspect that we need to look at here is the middle class left wing “green.” This ideology is often what becomes popular and filters down to the rest of those who subscribe to the left wing political ideology. These are the trend setters.

There is a distinct movement amongst this demographic to live in the embodiment of the naturalistic fallacy. Everything natural is good and everything “unnatural” or modern is bad. They apply this especially to diet, medicine, and how they raise their children, while spreading the word on their new iPad, using the WiFi at the new school they’re picking their children up at, sitting in their brand new SUV. Irony abounds, yet there it is.

From this mixture of beliefs we get a strange mix of anti-vaccination, anti-modern medicine, and anti-GMO sentiment. The idea is that these things are unnatural, and therefore, bad. This is impressively done while forgetting that before things like vaccines and other modern medicine, the average lifespan was around 30 years old.

Occupy Irony
Occupy Irony: Guy Fawkes mask factory. Source

Alright, so let’s take a look at the current post-Occupy left wing ideologies. The primary thing that we need to look is the anti-corporation angle. This has moved beyond the cry for fairness and turned into a mantra. The idea is that anything that can be construed as a “big business” is inherently bad, and so, anything they produce is inherently bad. We see this pretty constantly in the greater political discourse today.

Now, let’s take a look at the anti-GMO movement. This is a perfect marriage between the faux environmentalism that pervades the suburban landscape and the anti-corporation mantra recited in the streets, regardless of the actions of any specific corporation.

So how do GMOs fit in here?

Monsanto is moderately large corporation by the standards of this movement. Because they have managed to get in the public crosshairs, they’ve been turned into the monolithic evil representation of GMO technology.

Since then, people have fabricated countless home “studies” and compiled anecdotes to “prove” their stance, contrary to the fact that science doesn’t work by starting with a conclusion and attempting to prove it. When you engage an anti-GMO activist, the debate will almost inevitably come to them citing arguments against Monsanto, and not GMOs.

This is because the science overwhelmingly supports the technology, so the only thing left to do is hold to political ideology and attack the corporation.

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Robert Sacerich is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes. You can find his other writing at http://rationalityunleashed.net/ or follow him on twitter https://twitter.com/Rationalityunle.

  • StrangerInAStrangeLand

    Nice summary of the ideological background for many of the common arguments against GMOs.
    I think one aspect that adds to it is the fact that most GMOs only benefit the producer, i.e. through lesser requirement for pesticides (= less production costs) but not directly the consumer. Golden Rice is one of the few exceptions that comes to my mind, and it is one where the benefit is not directly relevant to the wealthy people in the West which are the majority in the Anti-GMO movement. With this it is of course easy to claim that GMOs only benefit “big business”, even when this “big business” consists probably mainly of normal farmers and not large cooperations like Monsanto.

  • Justin P

    “science doesn’t work by starting with a conclusion and attempting to prove it.”

    Money line right there. That applies to any political ideology. I think that left-wing environmentalism does this in a way that make it seem like it is using actual science when it isn’t. We can make a quick judgement and see BS from the Right when some, not all, use the God angle. We know that isn’t science because science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god.
    The Left wraps it’s message in faux-science. It’s sounds like science, what Hayek called Scientism but is a “confused adoption of a false understanding of the actual methods and nature of science.” When you have a lay public that has very little understanding of actual science, the environmentalists and their ilk actually do think they understand science and do think that their methods are perfectly valid. That’s why you have people believing Mike Adams (both Left, Right and Libertarian) because he has an ICP. It’s a scientific instrument so it must be science! There in lies the problem.

    Environmentalism, at least activist environmentalism, will be and is the detriment of actual science. It creates legions of followers who think they are smart but are too dumb to know better, Dunning-Kruger on a massive scale.

  • I’m told by people who study this that the issue isn’t polarized to the extent that other issues are, and that GMO-hate isn’t actually weighted to the left. I can accept that the data they have shows this.

    My issue isn’t that it’s exclusive to the left. It’s that the mainstream left claims to rely on science and evidence on vaccines, climate science, women’s reproductive health, gay parenting, and a whole legion of other things–but stops cold on this issue.

    It’s the hypocrisy of denying the facts and data of the plant science in ways they never would on climate science. But I agree that they do this in part because of their Monsanto-mania and corporation hate. Another part is their naturalistic fallacy.

    • Right. I’ve been unable to find any statistical data published regarding the actual mix of political alignments for anti-GMO. I’ve seen a few articles and blogs regarding it that show a bit more diversity in the anti crowd, however, they tend to be observations much like mine. The last I had heard was that while the anti-GMO sentiment in the US was more to the left, when you break it down globally it becomes more evenly distributed, which makes a bit of sense. When you consider that the American left wing is still pretty right of center, and more in line with the right in other countries, then that dynamic fits really well.

      But yes, the concept of touting a single discredited study and the insistence that “this one scientist here agrees that GMOs are harmful” is reminiscent of the climate change denialist arguments. The “right to know” argument for labeling sounds an awful lot like the “teach the controversy” argument of creationists. So, the mindset is very similar.

      • Lumen

        I think the take away of the most recent studies is that the general public is less sharply divided than one might realize in the area of conspiratorial thinking. At least that’s my interpretation. Generally speaking, belief in one conspiracy theory is more likely to lead to belief in others.

        http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0075637

        http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/politics-science-rejection-and-conspiracy-thinking/

        I think the general perception that the anti-GMO focus is primarily left wing is based on the undeniable fact that the vast majority of anti-GMO rhetoric is coming from left leaning media. But the fact that when you start looking at the general public you will find anti-GMO views held by conservatives and libertarians shouldn’t be all that surprising. Mistrust of science and “egghead” scientists and “ivory tower academics” are points of view that support the whole “we just don’t know enough, we have too much hubris, Science has been wrong before” angle that the anti-GM movement trades in. Let us also not forget that there is a lot of anti-GMO rhetoric aimed at the FDA and EPA as well. So the rage is not solely focused at Big Corp and if your personal bugaboo is Big Gov, then there is plenty of scare mongering and misinformation streaming from the anti-GMO forces that is tailored for just you.

      • Robert,

        I find your comments here and elsewhere are generally spot on.

        Dan Kahan at Cultural Cognition (and Yale) has quite a bit on political ideology of anti-GM that empirical based.

        Eg

        http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2014/1/21/mapkia-episode-31-answer-culturally-programmed-risk-predispo.html

        There more to be said on fashionable food trends and anti GM. I’d suppose a lot of the popularity of Omnivore’s Dilemma is elitist driven rather than political. Avoiding GM fits with reinforcing a self image of being someone with discerning sophisticated (=non-redneck) tastes.

        • James1967

          I found Kahan’s paper illuminating. It does back up the findings by Pew on gun issues. A very large majority of those advocating more gun control believe gun murder is up, when it has plummeted.

      • Lisa Tsakos

        The Seralini study was republished in 2014 with additional material and raw data.

  • Michael Femia

    Political spectrum aside, as far as I know, Groupe Danone trumps Monsanto financially any year, but a lot of people still trumpet Stonyfield (subsidiary) as a refuge from “Monsanto Milk.”

    In this case, I think it’s about more than just another corporation. It’s the one that “brought us agent orange, sues farmers, contaminates organic farms with rogue genes” etc. etc.

    Looking forward, to solutions to misunderstanding and outright slander: I don’t see a lot of brands (ag or consumer) engaging in consumer-oriented dialogues about biotechnology and modern agriculture. Until that’s addressed, I think the loudest story will be a bad one.

    The companies in question have dropped tens of millions of dollars to counter labeling campaigns (the commercials on either side are equally obnoxious in my opinion), but do consumers know any more about biotechnology as a result?

  • Alan

    I agree with Justin that the key line is “science doesn’t work by starting with a conclusion and attempting to prove it”.

    That may not be how science works, but that is how politics works. And the anti GMO forces are a political movement, doing what any political movement does: Finding ways to convince others of what they have already concluded is true. Questioning what one thinks is true through careful and scientific analysis is more accurate and honest, but doesn’t make a particularly good political campaign.

  • I think there is something important missing in the analysis here, which is that the traditional left/Marxism was never opposed to technology, nor is it the origin or sponsor of naturalism: this comes from the Ultra-conservative traditionalists, and it is these ideas that are certainly driving most anti-GE activism, not leftish ideas at all. Many Green ideas in Europe originate in eco-fascism- eg Rudolph Bahro, one of the founders of the German Green Party, who called for a “Green Adolph” and saw Nazism as an early expression of environmentalism. Biodynamics and Organics have strong connections with Nazi ecological mysticism, and the legacy of these ideas today can be clearly found in homeopathy, anti-vaccination, and I think anti-GMO as well. One view is that what had been the “traditional” left- progressive, secular, humnanist- kind of got swept away after the collapse of the USSR and hi-jacked by the equally anti-capitalist traditionalists with all their woo. Some background here http://skepteco.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/ecofascism-revisited/ For an analysis of the confluence between cultural post-modernism (with its demotion of science to a patriarchal western narrative) and far-right Hindu Nationalism in India- and to see where Vandana Shiva fits into all this- see Meera Nanda Profits Facing
    Backwards. So I think it is right that anti-science is not specifically confined to Left or Right, but it is certainly a strong defining feature of the Darker shades of Green.