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Environment

How the GMO Debate is Framed

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The business journalist Marc Gunther has a really good article at the Guardian on yet another battle brewing on the GMO front. It's about a food advocacy group's campaign to stop McDonald's from using new strains of a genetically modified potato, which as Gunther writes,

are designed to deliver both environmental and health benefits. They reduce black spots from bruising, which cause a portion of each year's potato crop to go to waste as unmarketable. They are also intended to make fried potatoes safer by lowering levels of asparagine, a naturally occurring amino acid that reacts with sugars at high temperatures to produce acrylamide, a potential carcinogen.

I kinda doubt that the self-appointed consumer watchdogs who oppose this potato eat at McDonald's, much less care about improving the quality of fast food.

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So this is surely part of the broader anti-GMO campaign, which the food movement has hitched its wagon to In his discussion of this latest battle, Gunther makes an important point about a main facet of the GMO debate:

It gets emotional very quickly and often comes down to questions of trust. Here the anti-GMO forces have an advantage. They can position themselves as consumer advocates – public interest groups, if you will. By comparison, the companies that favor GMOs are seen as self-interested and lacking credibility. Government regulators also, generally, don't inspire trust.

This positioning benefits the anti-GMO forces: Drawn from environmental and other socially-concerned/politically active ranks, they are perceived as selfless guardians of the public interest, battling profit-driven corporations and keeping government bureaucrats accountable. That's why you see independent critics of anti-GMO rhetoric and tactics frequently dismissed as tools of industry (or, more specifically, Monsanto shills). It plays into this larger good guys/bad guys frame. That's why pro-GMO environmentalists like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas are branded as sell-outs and heretics. This works as a form of delegitimization--the aim is to shrink their status in the green community by depicting them as no longer trustworthy. This narrow, simplistic good guys/bad guys framework governs much environmental conversation. It handcuffs forward-thinking groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund when they start to inch away from groupthink. It stifles constructive dialogue and keeps fresh ideas from gaining traction. A good example is the GMO debate. The issue is percolating, with some green groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth remaining steadfast in their opposition to GMOs. They also routinely scaremonger and peddle disinformation. But most environmental organizations, despite the obvious ecological and agricultural angles--steer clear of the issue altogether (thus ceding the conversation to their more extremist brethren). Why do you suppose that is? UPDATE: In fairness, I should have mentioned several instances where The Nature Conservancy (TNC) lead scientist Peter Kareiva and TNC president Mark Tercek have spoken about the environmental rationale for GMOs (in some cases). Thanks to Dan Majka for reminding me of this on Twitter. He also pointed out TNC's stance (as of 2009, anyway):

the Conservancy is essentially agnostic about biotechnology.

Interestingly, the scientist who articulated this-- and the context for that statement--mentioned how TNC's position seems to please no one.

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