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Anti-GMO Attitudes on the Left and Right

By Keith Kloor
Apr 3, 2013 6:25 PMNov 19, 2019 8:57 PM


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If you follow public debate on genetically modified foods, you know that Monsanto is routinely portrayed as the devil's spawn. The multinational agricultural company is the arch-villain in the GMO wars. In liberal and environmental media stories, Monsanto is the baddie that poisons the earth with impunity and monopolizes the global seed market. Indeed, as Michael Shermer wrote several months ago in Scientific American:

Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.

All this leads the conservative National Review Online to ask:

Whence the Left's hate for Monsanto?

Well, it owes to a mishmash of anti-corporatist ideology, natural fallacy (GMOs are not natural!) and precautionary principle extremism. But here's the odd thing. If you read through the reader responses to the NRO article, you'll see lots of GMO-fearing conservatives who also hate Monsanto. What's that about? Let's look at a few examples. One commenter:

Oddly, on my FB feed, I have an equal number of lefties and righties who hate GMO and warn of its dangers. Lately, I've seen a noticeable uptick in posts about Monsanto and GMO from both sides of the political fence. Anti-corporatists and anti-crony-capitalists, neo-Luddites and survivalists seem to have found something upon which they can happily agree. Too bad for all those poor and foreign kids who will suffer for this if these two opposing political camps ever figure out they're in agreement.

Another reader concurs:

Absolutely. I actually know more conservatives than liberals who buy into the anti-GMO hysteria. There is a common thread that links them with other anti-medicine, anti-vaccine, pro-organic and wacko diet communities. Most of them are part of all of these. I wish I could say it was just those crazy left-wingers, but that is not even close to being the case in my experience.

Another commenter:

"I am very much against GMO's and yet I couldn't be much more conservative/pro business/not one problem with legitimately run corporations and anti-enviro-hysteria."

This one is interesting, too:

I am a libertarian and find the hysteria of the left annoying BUT on this issue of GMOs I find that I do not disagree with them. GMOs should be labeled. Any food that a consumer will put into their body that is manipulated IN ANY WAY should be labeled.

The blog Chicks on the Right notes that "the latest environmentalist cause, taken on by liberals and conservatives alike, seems to be GMOs." And (presumably conservative) commenters there, too, express their suspicion of Monsanto and GMOs. In his Scientific American piece, Shermer cites anti-GMO attitudes as being in the domain of liberals, and thus an example that the left is waging its own war against science. Rebecca Watson countered:

I’d like to see the evidence that they’re all liberal, because I’ve seen a bit of evidence to suggest that GMO concern is a cross-platform issue.

My cursory scanning of the web turns up evidence to suggest this is true, as shown above. But if we want drill down on this comparison, then Mark Hoofnagle makes an important distinction (my emphasis):

In terms of the liberal nature of anti-GMO movement, the data is mixed. Dan Kahan, studying risk assessment with regard to GMOs found liberals and conservatives reacted [I have added this link] with similar levels of concern over the technology. However, when it comes to where I find this nonsense being disseminated, it’s largely from environmentalist websites, liberal activism websites, and the quasi-libertarian wackiness of places like prison planet, infowars and natural news. My impression based on the source of the denialist arguments is that they consistently are starting from more liberal/environmentalist/anti-corporatist sources.

Conservative media doesn't have a whole to say on the GMO issue, while liberal media is all over it, frequently distorting the science of biotechnology and skewing its coverage to play up uncertainties in a way that is completely out of scientific context. Kinda reminds you of how another big environmental issue is often covered in conservative media, doesn't it?

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