Kloor, Frauenfelder, and Hiltzik on Attitudes Toward and the Politics of GMO Foods

Keith Kloor has an excellent article at Slate on how scientific denialism is not the exclusive province of the Right: GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.

This hit home for me, because I’ve been following this issue for a while. People like Dan Kahan (whom Kloor quotes in his article) have been (gently) taking people like Chris Mooney to task for their willingness to paint science denialism as a conservative-specific thing.

It also was kind of depressing for me to see how Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, a site I like a lot (obviously, since I repost stuff from there all the time) was willing to run a really propagandistic piece attacking the No on 37 campaign (the campaign to defeat California’s Proposition 37, which would require labeling of [some] genetically modified food). It especially saddened me to have a couple of comments (including my own) that I think were quite civil and reasonable, but criticized Fraunfelder for doing that, quietly deleted from the comments there.

Anyway, links for that stuff:

The thing that bugged me about Frauenfelder’s original piece, even after he updated it to acknowledge that the “GMO corn gives rats tumors” study was problematic, was the glib way he seemed to assume that by simply looking at the budgets and list of donors on either side of the Proposition 37 campaign, he could determine which side was the Good Guys and which were the Bad Guys. Here’s what he said:

When I visited the site I was impressed by processed food conglomerates’ desperation to defeat this bill. Monsanto is one of the corporations spending money to defeat 37 (According to Yes on 37, Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, BASF and Syngenta have donated $19 million to No on 37).

Big food companies are indeed pushing to defeat Prop 37. And somewhat smaller organic food companies are pushing to pass it. In each case, the financial incentive of the people trying to influence the outcome is clear. But the reality of whether GMO foods are, in fact, dangerous, and whether the public interest will be served by mandatory labeling, has nothing to do with how you feel about the companies that stand to profit if the measure passes or fails. It’s a scientific question, and it’s true or not based on how the universe actually works.

Michael Hiltzik had a good piece about this in the LA Times last week: Prop. 37: Another example of the perils of the initiative process.

16 Responses to “Kloor, Frauenfelder, and Hiltzik on Attitudes Toward and the Politics of GMO Foods”

  1. knarlyknight Says:

    just skimmed this and wonder, whether or not GMO foods are good or bad, why not allow labelling so the truth be known to all?

    The discussion should be about the merits of GMO, not about whether to keep GMO products secret from consumers.

    I understand if public sentiment is misplaced (e.g. if GMO is good but consumers think it is bad) then it would be in the public interest to hide the GMO content, but that stinks. If the merits of, as in my previous example, GMO foods are valid then Monsanto and the promoters should be able to stand on their laurels (i.e. the facts) and eventually win the public opinion.

    If not, so what?

  2. jbc Says:

    Yeah, it would be nice if the world worked that way (so whichever side had scientific truth on their side could simply cite the science, and win the debate). But it clearly doesn’t work that way.

    What we have in this case is an electorate that is prone to be fearful of GMO food, despite the abundant scientific evidence that it’s actually okay. That creates a tilted political playing field, where one group of monied interests (the organic food industry) can spend a relatively small amount of money and reap a big win in the marketplace (because they can cause taxpayers and their non-organic competitors to bear the burden of putting scary labels that lack a scientific basis on their competitors’ products). Meanwhile, the companies selling GMO-including food have to spend a much larger amount in an effort to avert this scenario.

    The point isn’t that food labeling is a bad idea. It isn’t. It’s a fantastic idea. But it’s a fantastic idea only in so far as it is done on the basis of real risks and benefits to consumers. To let it be hijacked by rent-seeking businesses in order to mandate labeling that lacks a scientifically-justified benefit is bogus, and undermines those benefits.

  3. knarlyknight Says:

    That’s helpful, thanks for explaining your position. With a disclaimer that I’m cautious of GMO (i.e. biased against), not because of distrust of the science but because much of it is relatively new and the long term effects on humans specifically and other species generally are yet to be fully known, I observe that your thinking here appears to be pedagogically of the “either this” or “that” variety. For example, those selling products with GMO ingredients do not have to be burdened with the cost of labeling. One alternative is mandating the proper labeling of “organic” to include non-GMO products only so as to place the burden on the organic producers whom you say have the most to gain.
    Also, I do not buy the argument that GMO producers need protecting, especially not by stealthily sneaking their products into staples foods. A little advertising of their own and some creative positive marketing will convince most people that GMO is not something to fuss about (hell, most Americans eat an amazing array of junk fully aware of the myriad chemical ingredients anyway.) Develop some real revolutionary GMO foods – eggs that make you smarter, milk that makes your skin actually glow, juice that kills harmful bacteria, bacon that dyes your hair – and they’ll crush the organic food industry.

  4. enkidu Says:

    If Monsanto is for it, we should be agin it?

    If that GMOed Golden Rice is so numful, healthful and such-like, I would love to see a note on the front, big “Engineered to contain 300% more vitamin A! Buy a pound and we donate a pound to the poor and hungry!” Or maybe “Now contains GMO super seed to reduce use of pesticides and herbicides (scan this Qcode to visit the web pages and papers!)

    We buy a mix of organics and conventional, there are reasons to avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and so forth. Not that the label ‘organic’ is somewhat mutable. We buy straight from a CSA and the stuff just tastes better (some hit or miss of course). My wife always kids me that I’m a sucker for the conventional eggs 18 pack 2for1! this week only. Another point to consider is ‘organic’ doesn’t mean ‘biodynamical neo-paleolithic’. They use ‘natural’ pesticides and fertilizers that aren’t all that different and maybe not as well tested? We also started a huge school garden last year and pull 0% pesticide/herbicide/fertilizer food in at a pretty amazing rate. Our home garden is also full of ‘naturally’ mutated foodstuffs.

    Assume everything in the processed food section contains at least some GMOed something in there (corn, soy, seed oils). Fat, processed carbs, sugar, cochineal and >3% insect bits n pieces. Avoid.

    I am surprised and disappointed to hear you say that bb removed your postings and others. I thought their new comment system showed removed messages, but left a ‘comment removed’ notice? Mark did say he mostly thought the ad was borked, but maybe that’s a bit of an ass-covering maneuver. I recall a recent thread on bb where the OP eventually came to realize he had it wrong and in short order updated the original post to reflect the new info. Which is the way it is supposed to work, right?

  5. knarlyknight Says:

    I understand the Canadian “Organic” label is stricter than the American one, so that may affect our thoughts on this.

    I’ve still got food squirreled asay at the back of my fridge from before there were any GMO products available, so I should be safe for a while yet.

  6. knarlyknight Says:

    Okay, I looked a little closer at the links. Just as JBC dislikes Frauenfelder’s opposition based on his classification of those opposed to porposition 37, I dislike the anti-no to prop 37 Michael Hiltzik article that bases much of its emotional argument on ad hominem attacks on pro 37 supporter Dr. Mercola.

    There are other issues at play too, like e.g. Monsanto suing farmers over unintentional patent violations… http://www.organicgardening.com/living/monsantos-tricky-plan-to-defeat-gmo-labeling

  7. Anithil Says:

    I was pretty neutral when it came to this topic, until those arguing against GMO’s turned me off to their side (I hesitate to use the word “side”, but I guess that’s what we have here). I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard Greenpeace workers stop me on the street and say things that were just completely untrue about GMOs. It was like they were going for complete shock, and most of the people they were talking to immediately responded with, “what NO?! There’s no regulation at all for those scientists putting jellyfish genes in our potatoes?? No wai imma never buy those potatoes ever again and no one else should either. Yeah, yeah, we should boycott this Vons. Sure I’ll donate”. And when I disagree with their science they say I must not like dolphins.

  8. knarlyknight Says:

    Sorry to hear you had those experiences with such idiots. That’d colour my views too.

  9. enkidu Says:

    Basing your opinion on GMOs on what some know-nothing greenpeace 20-something hipster says seems perfectly reasonable to me. I bet you hate otters too. Better to stand up to nonsense and say, ‘that is nonsense!’. If it is bullshit, just say bullshit and walk on if they can’t back it up.

    Better yet say something like “Did you know that nature induces more genetic variation in every new generation than the changes made to GMO organisms?” Science! It blows away bullshit.

    knarly, one interesting thing about your link is I learned that to be labeled “Organic” in CA, a product cannot – by law – contain any GMO anything. Good to know.

  10. knarlyknight Says:

    yes, that surprised me, I thought CA went the other way on that “Organic” decision, probably got it confused with Kansas or some other red state.

  11. knarlyknight Says:

    Enk, your comment on genetic variation is true, but there is a huge difference in that natural variations are variations on an specific type of organism’s DNA, whereas GMO can , and to be useful usually does, involve utterly radical combinations of DNA from dissimilar organsisms. Natural variations are like a new artist doing a cover of an old classic, GMO can be like playing Hadel’s water music using construction machinery for instruments.

  12. enkidu Says:

    playing Hadel’s water music using construction machinery for instruments.

    That sounds awesome!

    reminds me of these guys from back in the day

    Actually, I agree to some degree with what you are saying about the exact changes, lack of long-term testing, possibility for unintended consequences, synergistic effects. But random mutations produce more variation than the GMO slicers and splicers (bloody splicers! a free plasmid to anyone who gets this reference). Our natural world is full of redundancy, junk genes and… what’s that? oh so the ‘junk genes’ are actually full of instructions and critical info! Good to know.

  13. knarlyknight Says:

    For the record, I doubt Handel’s water music would sound very nice on construction machinery. just sayin’. :-)

    Re: “random mutations produce more variation than the GMO slicers and splicers” – I doubt that; however when I start to research genetics nuts and bolts, I recall how complex the subject can get despite a couple of years biosciences at University. Funny then that the subject is so ameniable to convincing sound bites – plenty for either side to use. That’s a long way of saying I don’t think you and I could agree on this under any apporach to discussing this that I can imagine.

  14. enkidu Says:

    I support GMO labeling. I bet we agree on that. I also buy mostly organic, grow my own food and occasionally succumb to el cheapo conventional foods (those eggs are just too cheap! and our friends with the backyard chickens are hoarders!)

    But the cat is well and truly way out of the bag already.

    If we are what we eat, I’m mostly beer, corn chips and sharp cheddar cheese. If I drink American beer like say Sam Adams or (shudder) Bud, I bet the wheat, barley, and rice might have some GMO inputs. The el cheapo bag of corn chips, GMO corn. The cows may not have bovine growth hormone, but I bet they ate GMO corn as well. Most of my inputs are organic, but not all. We also try to eat lower on the food chain (too many toxins and so forth accumulating in the higher animals – beans are good for you =)

    We try not to follow fads: carbs are fine as long as they aren’t refined, a doughnut isn’t a sweet potato. When I need to lose weight, I eat less and exercise more. The Atkins diet doesn’t make sense to me even tho I understand the ‘chemistry’ of it, I just don’t like the idea of exclusively eating that high on the food chain (red meat is also a lousy carbon – and water! – intensive food). That’s just crazy ol me: ymmv. Viva la difference!

  15. knarlyknight Says:

    okay, you surprised me we do agree on that much.

    But I meant very specifically the comparisons between natural mutations vs laboratory genetic manipulations. My position is that the laboratory variety is quite different.

    BTW, I get most of my B vitamins from beer.

  16. shcb Says:

    I’m not sure that I know enough about this subject to care that I don’t care to know enough.

    That said, the initiative process is just totally backward to our system of government, shoot, even our HOA doesn’t use an initiative process. A couple years ago they put up a decision to a community vote that was strictly their obligation to make and guess what… it was a tie, they had to make the decision anyway. Of course it wouldn’t have mattered since there is no provision in our bylaws to have this vote. Oh well.

    But when governments like California and Colorado legally give up their rights and responsibility to a small r republican government in favor of a small d democratic form of government, no good will come from it.

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