GMO Politics Go Down To The Root

In a lengthy exploration of the battle over GMO labeling, Molly Ball touches on how ideology injects itself into the debate:

The GMO debate has a frustrating quality, with one side decrying big corporations out to deceive us and the other pointing the finger at unscientific fearmongering. Both of these lines may be true as far as it goes; what the debate comes down to is politics. Though opposition to GMOs has its roots in the liberal environmental movement, an increasing number of environmental writers and thinkers have begun to take the industry’s side in the debate, pointing to an overwhelming scientific consensus—based on hundreds of independent, non-industry-funded, peer-reviewed, long-range studies—that GMOs are safe. …

And yet GMOs are the subject of widespread fear and antagonism.

University labs accused (not always accurately) of conducting GMO research funded by Monsanto have in the past been burned down by eco-terrorists. This type of sabotage has been rare in the past decade, but it may be making a comeback: Last year, a field of GMO sugar beets in Oregon was destroyed by vandals. Scientists and journalists who voice pro-GMO opinions are accustomed to being dismissed as industry shills, personally vilified, and even receiving death threats. Headlines on food blogs warn of“mutant GMO foods.” In the D.C. area, a car topped with a giant half-fish, half-tomato—the “fishy tomato”—roams the streets; the car’s hood reads “LABEL GMO FOOD.” In the popular imagination, GMOs are scary.

Freddie deBoer reads Ball’s article as an example of the culture war – not between left and right, but between the media’s elite readership and the masses:

Ball quotes an organizer, “I talk to Tea Party people, Occupy people, churches, everybody. Everywhere I go, people want labeling.” What unites the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, the religious? They are all groups that are typically treated with derision by media elites. They’re too grass roots, too passionate, too uneducated, too defined by cultural and social signifiers that are anathema to the bourgie, educated, arty-but-not-pretentious-about-it, smart-but-anti-academic types who write the internet. The anti-GMO movement ticks the right boxes: associated with both crazy Christian homeschool types and crunchy Whole Food liberal types, conveniently labelled as anti-science with all of the pretenses to objectivity and intelligence using that label brings, and generally not a threat to your professional or social standing if you criticize them. They’re an easy target and a risk-free one, if you’re a professional journalist or political writer.

If anything unites the presumed readership of our national newsmedia, it’s not ideology, but rather cultural and social positioning– the ideology of the elite. And the anti-GMO labeling position unites liberal journalists and writers, conservative journalists and writers, and libertarian journalists and writers in a shared distaste for the political machinations of those who they don’t deem up to their cultural standards.

Freddie prefaces this by saying that he doesn’t “really care about this issue” and is “perfectly willing to listen to an actual anti-labeling argument, rather than a pro-GMO argument, which is a separate thing.” Adam Ozimek attempts such an argument against labeling:

The information being conveyed to consumers is not simply the facts the government mandate says they must display, but THAT they say these facts must be displayed. In other words, when a consumer is confronted by what appears to be a mandated label they reasonably presume a few things:

1) direct content: a particular fact or set of facts about the product

2) implied content: the fact or facts are important for consumers to know for some reason

It can be the case that the direct content is absolutely true and implied content is absolutely false. For example, a food may be factually labeled as containing GMOs in a way that provides consumers truthful information. This is truthful direct content. However, the consumer is also likely to take from the existence of this label that “this food containing GMOs is important information that you should know”. This is the implied content, and from it consumers may reasonably conclude a few things.

One is that the GMO content of foods is something the government believes consumers may want to consider in their consumption decisions. This means that even if consumers had an accurate appraisal of the safety of GMOs coming in to the decision, this government message may change their beliefs. The GMO safety debate is in large part about whether or not a food containing GMOs is something consumers should consider. The label mandate sends the signal to consumers that the government believes the GMO critics are correct and have won this debate.