If only they'd had a blight-proof potato ... or an end to British occupation?

If only they’d had a blight-proof potato … or an end to British occupation?

Debate over the infiltration of the Republican party by anti-vaccination ideas has naturally led to the resurrection of that old Shibboleth, the idea that the left is also “anti-science” because left-wingers and environmentalists are opposed to GMOs, despite the available evidence that they are safe. I think the GMO issue is a good example of why the “anti-science” label is not a good way to approach debate on science communication. The growth of anti-GMO ideas in the environmental movement is a good example of how motivated reasoning arises from genuine political and economic concerns, and later takes on a (usually tattered) cloak of scientific justification in order to give it mainstream respectability. In this post I hope to show that the pro-GMO crowd can themselves be irrational and “anti-scientific”, and that motivated reasoning isn’t in and of itself “anti-science.”

Is Opposition to GMOs left-wing?

First though, let’s put to bed the idea that opposition to GMOs is a uniquely left-wing attribute. Dan Kahan has a blog post on this topic, in which he explores risk perception by political orientation for a variety of issues. In this post he identifies no difference in level of concern between those who we might broadly define as left-wing and right-wing. In his survey right-wingers were much more worried about fiscal policy and immigration, while left-wingers were more concerned about nuclear power, global warming and guns; but they were all equally unconcerned about GMOs.

If we go a little further, and step into the cess-pit below the line to this National Review Online editorial on GMOs and the left, we can find plenty of evidence that right-wingers distrust Monsanto and approach the GMO issue with very similar motivated reasoning to the left: distrust of big corporations, vulnerability to the plutocracy, and informed personal choice.

I think opposition to GMOs appears left-wing because it is primarily articulated (surprise!) by environmentalist organizations like Greenpeace, and community organizations that tend to have a stronger history in left-wing movements than right-wing movements. But this is just appearances, and in fact there is a strong response to issues of unrestricted corporate power, profit-making from the food chain, and tampering with “traditional” foods that crosses party political lines. This makes the GMO issue very similar to the vaccination issue: opposition is broad-based, but articulated through leftist voices because community organizing tends to be a leftist thing, environmental and consumer choice organizations are often vaguely left-wing, and (by coincidence) in the case of anti-vax ideology, the wealthy and photogenic voices tend to be California liberals. I guess Buddha would say that critics are focusing on the pointing finger, and missing all the glory of the heavens.

Motivated reasoning and opposition to GMOs

Reading the comments in the NRO piece it should be fairly obvious that, while people’s scientific concerns might be articulated through worries about effects on the food chain and human health, the real well-spring of their discontent is economic and political. Right-wing people are worried about consumer choice, about increased power of big corporations in a very important market (food), and about the damage that vertical monopolies and plutocratic cosy relationships do to free market ideals. Left-wing people are worried about unrestricted influence of big corporations on food markets and the environment, about an increase in pesticide use, and about whether GMOs will really achieve what their backers say they will given the distributional inequities in world food markets. Right-wingers want to see more market diversity and believe that food prices and production levels can be improved through economic (market) changes rather than technological magic bullets; left-wingers think that the primary reason for world hunger is mal-distribution and not weak production.

In my opinion the “frankenstein foods” stuff and health concerns, and ecological worries, are primarily a gloss over these deep-seated and real concerns about inequity and inefficiency in our food markets. But there is no way that the big agribusinesses are going to be interested in debating distributional justice in a world market whose inequities deliver them huge profits, so they and their media friends make sure the debate remains firmly focused on narrow health and scientific concerns that can be easily dismissed. This in turn forces opponents of GMO to resort to weak scientific arguments within this restricted domain, rather than the broader issues of food security and inequality, or systemic farming practices that are clearly damaging the environment and which GMO crops will not necessarily improve.

In my opinion, if GMOs were around at the time of the potato famine, their backers would be claiming that the potato famine could be solved by a blight-resistant crop. Opponents of such an extravagant move would point out (rightly) that the famine is caused by maldistribution and colonialism, but their complaints would be dismissed as Chartist rabble-rousing. So then, not able to debate on the real issue, they would be forced into debating the issue as framed by the GMO backers: as a conflict between food safety and famine. Of course, history tells us that the potato famine was a political issue, not a technological one. Given its political origins, it’s unlikely that a GMO solution would have worked.

What is different with malnutrition today?

The Underpants Gnome thinking of the pro-GMO lobby

In my view the pro-GMO crowd are infected with a type of Underpants Gnome style of thinking. This thinking goes like this:

  1. Invent technologically advanced food
  2. ?
  3. Solve world hunger

This is not how the international food system works. A good example of this style of thinking is in my old post about GMOs, where I explained in detail why Golden Rice is not the panacaea its backers claim it to be, but my interlocutor continued to argue that Golden Rice would somehow solve Vitamin A Deficiency against all the evidence.

Malnutrition in the modern world has several inter-related causes, and a lot of them have nothing to do with an absence of food. Diarrhoea and unimproved drinking water lead to stunting and malnutrition even where food is abundant, as does poor diet and insufficient breastfeeding. Many low- and middle-income countries are experiencing simultaneous epidemics of obesity and under-nutrition, primarily due to inequality within and between nations, and again often related to open defecation (in South Asia) and unimproved water. Where malnutrition is directly related to an absence of food the causes are often either war and conflict (e.g. South Sudan) or maldistribution of food. Much of the food produced in some low- and middle-income farming communities is shipped out to the rich world to feed meat crops, and many countries devote a large amount of their productive land to cash crops for export, not to food crops for local production.

None of these problems will be solved by GMOs. Availability of drought-resistant crops won’t save South Sudanese families in refugee camps due to war; Roundup Ready corn won’t reduce diarrhoea in countries of sub-Saharan Africa with polluted water sources; improving the production of plantains won’t reduce stunting if the cause of stunting is inadequate breastfeeding and poor nutritional choices in countries like Ghana or Zambia where food sources are readily available but stunting still common. Increased production of wheat in the USA for feedlots won’t help reduce poverty in Africa.

Yet solving world hunger and improving the lives of poor farmers is one of the most often cited benefits of GMOs. To me this is evidence that the pro-GMO lobby – especially the scientific leftists and moderate right wing commentators who most strongly attack the environmental movement on this – are using the same motivated reasoning as their opponents. Despite the abundant evidence that malnutrition is easily fixed through infrastructure changes and shifts in the international food economy, backers of GMOs want to focus on their magic bullet argument for solving an ages-old problem through modern technology. The “green revolution” of the past 30 years has failed to solve the problem of world hunger, but they think another 10 years of further green revolutions will make all the difference. This is not scientific thinking, any more than claiming flounder genes in tomatoes will kill you.

I have yet to see any evidence that the pro-GMO lobby have seriously taken on the real causes of malnutrition and poor nutrition in low- and middle-income nations, and I have never seen any supporter of GMO argue that they won’t improve food security in these countries, or that changes to the international food system are more important than work on GMOs. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the environmental and consumer choice movement’s silly and bogus claims about health risks. I think this is because they are suffering from the same motivated reasoning as their opponents: they are presenting the world hunger argument because the real, underlying reason for these GMOs – to improve corporate profits – is not something they can talk about. But their arguments about world hunger are woefully weak, and they have to cleave closely to Underpants Gnome logic in order to defend a technology they genuinely believe is safe and beneficial.

Is the anti-GMO movement different to the anti-AGW movement?

Often the anti-GMO movement is pointed to as the left’s AGW denialism. I think this is fundamentally flawed for two reasons: first, because the underlying issue the left is attacking, food security and global inequality, is real and serious; and second, because of the difference in origins of the movements. Anti-GMO ideas, like anti-vaccination ideas, arose largely organically in response to real concerns about the product itself. AGW denialism, on the other hand, was created by a small group of activists endowed with money from Big Tobacco and energy interests, and is maintained by these interests in order to slow down essential responses. I think this difference is important, because it speaks to the fundamental honesty of the intellectual underpinnnings of the movement. Anti-GMO and anti-vaccination groups have genuinely-held concerns about the product they are attacking, and though these may be real and serious or may be misguided and ignorant, they are intellectually honest in their assessment of these risks. On the other hand, the monied interests at the heart of the complex web of AGW denialist organizations are fundamentally dishonest – they know that the science is against them, but deploy deliberate techniques to poison the science well in order to support their interests. I don’t think you can say someone is anti-science if they are honestly misusing weak science to defend a position that might have developed from other, unspoken concerns; but I do think someone is anti-science if they are funding a movement with the specific intent of attacking science and scientists to protect their financial interests. The idea that these monied interests know the science is against them but fund attacks on it anyway might seem conspiratorial, but we know this is what Big Tobacco did for about 30 years, when they knew tobacco caused cancer but attacked any public scientific studies that showed this – and Big Tobacco was behind the original AGW deniers.

Although I’m not fully convinced by my own thesis yet, I think the anti-AGW movement is unique in the pantheon of modern “anti-science” movements (anti-nuclear, anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-fluoridation, anti-AGW) for being a created movement, rather than one that grew organically out of real (though often misguided) concerns about the product in question. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people with a financial interest in these other movements (see e.g. Andrew Wakefield); but the anti-AGW movement is unique for the level of corporate funding it has received, and the order in which the money-making grifters and the concerned public figures arose. Regardless of whether its origins are important, I think it is distinct from those other movements in that there is no valid underlying concern that is being blown out of proportion in this movement. There is no nuclear waste issue, no side-effects issue, no global inequality issue underlying this movement that can get the fixation of some lonely blogger who starts a movement – just a need to protect the profits of a particularly dirty sector of the economy. While the motivated reasoning of an anti-vaxxer might be “I’m concerned about the side-effects of these drugs, so I’m going to minimize the danger of the diseases and write a children’s book about how great measles is,” the motivated reasoning of an anti-AGW funder is “I need to protect my industry from mitigation efforts so I’m going to fund multiple organizations to attack the science.”

Those are fundamentally different things, and confusing these movements doesn’t help us deal with either.