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We aren't polarized on GM foods-- no matter what the result in Washington state

Voters in Washington state are casting ballots today on a referendum measure that would require labeling of GM foods. A similar measure was defeated in California in 2012.

I have no idea how this one will come out--but either way it won't furnish evidence that the U.S. population is polarized on GM foods.  Most people in the U.S. probably don't have any idea what GM foods are--and happily consume enormous amounts of them daily.

There are a variety of interest groups that keep trying to turn GM foods into a high-profile issue that divides citizens along the lines characteristic of disputed environmental and technological risk issues like climate change and nuclear power.  But they just can't manage to reproduce here the level of genuine cultural contestation that exists in Europe.  Why they can't is a really interesting question; indeed, it's really important, since it isn't possible to figure out why some risks become the source of such divisions without examing both technologies that do become the focus of polarization and those that don't.

But it's not hard--anyone with the $ can do it--for an interest group to get the requisite number of signatures to get a referendum measure put on the ballot for a state election.  At that point, the interest group can can bang its tribal drum & try to get things going in a particular state and, more importantly, use the occasion of the initiative to sponsor incessant funding appeals to that small segment of the population intensely interested enough to be paying attention. 

My prediction: this will go on for a a bit longer, but in the not too distant future the multi-billion/trillion-gazillion dollar agribusiness industry will buy legislation in the U.S. Congress that requires some essentially meaningless label (maybe it will be in letters 1/100 of a milimeter high; or will be in langugage no one understands) and that preempts state legislation-- so it can be free of the nuisance of having to spend millions/billions/trillions to fight state referenda like the ones in Washington and California and more importantly to snuff out the possibility that one of these sparks could set off a culture-conflict conflagration over GM foods--something that would be incalculably costly.

That's my prediction, as I say. Hold me to it!

Meanwhile, how about some actual data on public perceptions of GM food risks.

Most of them come from these blog posts:

Wanna see more data? Just ask! Episode 1: another helping of GM food 

Resisting (watching) pollution of the science communication environment in real time: genetically modified foods in the US, part 2

Watching (resisting) pollution of the science communication environment in real time: genetically modified foods in the US, part 1

These figures are in the first two on the list. They help to illustrate that GM foods in US is not a focus for cultural polarization in the public *as of now*.  I am comparing "Hierach individualists" & "egalitarian communitarians" b/c those are the cultural groups that tend to disagree when an environmental issue becomes a focus of public controversy ("hierarch communitarians" & "egalitarian individualits" square off on public health risks; they are not divided on GM foods either).

(y-axis is a 0-7 risk perception measure)


Now here is a bit more-- from data I collected in May of this yr:

The panel on the left shows that cultural polarization on climate change risk grows as individuals (in this case a nationally representative sample of 2000 US adults) become more science literate -- a finding consistent with what we have observed in other studies (Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012). I guess that is happening a bit w/ GM foods too-- interesting!  But the effect is quite small, & as one can see science literacy *decreases* concern about GM foods among members of both of these portions of the population (and in the sample as a whole).
Finally, an example of the "science communication" that promoters of GM food labeling use:

Inline image 3

Very much calculated to try to extend to GM foods the "us-them" branding of the issue that is typical for environmental issues.  But it didn't work. The referendum was defeated -- by the same voters who went quite convincingly for Obama!


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Reader Comments (3)

Love that "How much risk do you believe...." graph.

November 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

There are strong historic reasons why GMO's became so contested in Europe but not in the US.

They introduced in the US during the deregulation era or Reagan/Bush, but they hit Europe on the heels of the madcow outbreak. People were very skittish about technology and foreign substances in the food system. They were also seen through the lens of cultural and economic imperialism as a US import.

Supermarket chains were also seeing profit margins squeezed at the time and seized on these two strains of fear and introduced GMO free labels on their private label products to boost profit margins. GMO's disappeared in Europe before legislation could catch up.

See Lisa Weasel's excellent book Food Fray for the details.

November 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarc Brazeau

I was re-reading this post today in light of discussions on Matt Nisbett's latest post here:
In Europe, I agree with much of Marc Brazeau's analysis (above), which is similar to that given here:
In Washington State, this was an off year, low turnout election. This tends to work against progressive candidates and issues. It is harder to get people who move often and don't own their own homes to keep their voter registrations current. Voters in Seattle, did support GMO labeling, but there were not enough votes here to offset votes against labeling from rural areas of the state. Whatcom County, (Bellingham) had a key coal port related county council election which did energize "the base" and also votes for GMO labeling. As did several other urban counties. Rural counties were opposed. So the idea that strong Obama voters defeated this is simply wrong. The importance is in the position of the "swing" voters in the middle. To persuade those voters, the anti-labeling forces didn't so much argue against labeling (which the public, says it supports, at least in theory). The argument was framed on unnecessary regulation and expense. An approach designed for more conservative rural residents. See:
I agree that your proposed "solution" is likely to occur: "My prediction: this will go on for a a bit longer, but in the not too distant future the multi-billion/trillion-gazillion dollar agribusiness industry will buy legislation in the U.S. Congress that requires some essentially meaningless label" But I do not think that this will happen in order for corporations to avoid a “big conflageration over GMOs”. I think that this is not the overarching issue for all.
I do not believe that all of the corporations opposing have the same objectives. In my opinion, Big Ag is willing to fight this openly and relishes doing so. As I see it, they gain by making it appear that their opposition is a fringe extreme. Like that opposite extreme, they see benefits in continuing the battle on this GMO/not GMO line indefinitely. The fringe benefits from a “bigger than life” image gained in the battle. And supporters in “natural” foods producers and retailers get to bask in an aura designed to appeal to customers as purveyors of all that is wholesome and good. They may be losing the battles but they are winning in the war of steadily increasing market share. The Big Ag corporations gain by successfully making it appear that science is seamlessly on their side and that anyone raising any objections must be part of that fringe. This facilitates their efforts to avoid further regulation as new GMOs and other products are introduced. In cleverly co-oping the voice of “science” as their own they are effectively silencing scientific voices that ought to be expressing serious concerns about the effectiveness nutritional quality and the environmental sustainability of the products they are introducing and the manner in which those products are utilized.
In my opinion the driving forces for your solution are going to come from farmers, who are conflict adverse and want this issue to go away before it hurts sales, particularly exports. And from Big Food. In Washington, many of the Big Food entities that made donations in support of the anti labeling efforts did so via the National Grocers Association (NGA). They did so with the expectation that they could remain anonymous in so doing. They were “outed” by actions undertaken by the Washington State attorney general’s office which found the NGA’s actions to be in violation of state campaign law. I think that it is interesting to note that some of these Big Food entities actually benefit from both extremes. Kellogg’s owns Kashi for example.
I think that corporations are very deeply involved in the exploitation and control of "Big Data". The tens of millions of dollars spent to defeat this measure are, in my opinion, not merely due to the supposed expense of putting a “May Contain GMOs” on boxes. There is much about the control of food sourcing information, from commodities markets to consumer purchasing, that reaps profits for these corporations. They do not relish the idea of sharing. Granting access to information, as with food (or pesticide) ingredient labeling is something that these same corporations have only done begrudgingly and with a great deal of foot dragging, deliberate lack of clarity and obstructionism. The GMO issue is just another small skirmish in that ongoing battle.

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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