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).

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:

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!

Leave a Comment