Liberals and the Science of GMOs

If conservatives are wrong to be skeptics of climate science, why won’t liberals accept the science around the safety of GMOs?

Most of us learn in grade school that religious authorities in the 17th century condemned Galileo as a heretic for arguing, based on astronomical observations, that the earth revolves around the sun. One of the morals of the story is that those who oppose science end up looking foolish in history books. But that lesson has somehow failed to take hold in our modern politics. On scientific issue after scientific issue, it is not objective reality but people’s passions and biases that tend to color the debate.

Take the oddly contradictory issues of climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There is near-universal consensus among the world’s scientists that man-made pollutants are trapping heat in the atmosphere and wreaking havoc on the environment. Yet when pollsters ask voters whether they believe temperatures are climbing because of human activities, most Democrats say yes and most Republicans say no.

Democrats may wag their fingers contemptuously at this, but the pot would be calling the kettle black, because many of them are just as stubbornly skeptical on the issue of genetically improved foods, even though the scientific consensus about their virtues is no less universal. That consensus was further cemented last month by an all-star committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which issued a 400-page report concluding that genetically modified (GM) crops are safe to eat and do not harm the environment. Either way, such denials of scientific consensus read like newly discovered scenes from a 17th century play. Why is this still happening?

We face a host of economic and social challenges for which faster scientific and technological progress would be the surest and best solution. Blocking the way are “techno-populists,” some of whom reject any role for government while others demonize corporations.

The journal Nature of Climate Change recently published a meta-analysis of literature on climate change beliefs, and it confirmed that political affiliations, worldviews and values are the most significant predictors of a person’s beliefs on the issue. The analysis covered nearly 200 polls conducted in 57 countries and found that, among other things, those who support more liberal parties and lean toward communitarianism over individualism are more likely to believe in climate change. So if you’re an ideological conservative who believes fiercely in self-reliance and free enterprise, then you might also tend to deny climate change because the solutions to it, especially those pushed by environmental groups, involve more government regulation and less personal freedom. But if you favor group action toward shared goals — and are more inclined to trust in government — then you probably believe climate change is real.

Researchers have long been aware that similar dynamics are at work when it comes to GM foods. For example, writing a decade ago in the journal Risk Analysis, a pair of social scientists from Rutgers University noted that few Americans knew anything about the science involved. “Barely aware that the technology even exists, the public is forced to substitute trust for knowledge,” they observed. So they wondered, who does the public trust? They probed attitudes toward key players in the GMO debate, and they found that the general public lacked trust in many of the organizations with the greatest responsibility for ensuring the safety of GM food, including the federal government, industry and grocers. “Without trust in these organizations,” the researchers concluded, “people may misperceive the risks and uncertainties and be swayed by exaggerated claims of those opposing the technology.”

It was a prescient analysis. Since then, a growing phalanx of left-wing consumer and environmental advocacy groups has marched into the breach sounding dire alarms about GM foods. “The genetic engineering of plants and animals is looming as one of the greatest and most intractable environmental challenges of the 21st century,” warns a breathless Center for Food Safety, which advocates for organic farming. A panicky Greenpeace concurs, invoking the specter of “genetic pollution.” Meanwhile, a chorus of progressive media outlets, consumer brands and NGOs approvingly echo the sentiment. Coursing through all of this is a deep yearning for an idealized way of living — green, local, guilt-free — and a reflexive contempt for multinational corporations that sully the dream by operating at an industrial scale. So while the right’s skepticism toward climate change may trace to the well-documented erosion of trust in science among churchgoing conservatives plus a general animosity toward government, the organized left’s antipathy for GMOs is the product of its own, equally out-of-touch brand of liberal provincialism, marked in some cases by an overriding animosity toward big business.

This pattern of selective belief in science is illuminating, but also disheartening, because it persists at a time when we face a host of economic and social challenges for which faster scientific and technological progress would be the surest and best solution. We need government policies that will spur clean-energy breakthroughs to address climate change, and we need more corporate research and development to advance GM crops that will help feed the world and lift farmers in developing economies. Yet, at every turn, these and other innovations face staunch opposition from a loose amalgamation of techno-populist skeptics, some of whom reject any role for government while others demonize corporations.

It is time to either convert these skeptics or push them out of the way with a concerted policy agenda that embraces the roles of both government and business in supporting scientific and technological innovation. More than 100 Nobel laureates last week blasted Greenpeace in a sharply worded letter urging the group to drop its opposition to GMOs and get onboard with the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies. Hear, hear! It and other partisans need to stop acting like citizens of the 17th century. If we don’t put aside political passions and open up our minds to objective reality, then history will surely judge us to be fools.

Randolph Court

Randolph Court is chief operating officer of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a leading science and technology policy think tank.