Rejection of Science Not Unique to Climate Change

Opposition to biotechnology carries consequences in a warming world.

The science of why we believe what we believe is in full media bloom. It’s a science that, when applied equally, doesn’t favor one political party over another. It’s a science that doesn’t declare who’s right and who’s wrong on issues related to climate change.


This last point was made by one commenter on a previous post:

Once you allow that political or ideological considerations determine which side of a scientific controversy you choose … you must allow that BOTH SIDES are potentially overstating their cases.

In their “cultural cognition” studies, Yale University’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues have found that “respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.”

Kahan’s research provides much insight into how particular worldviews shape our positions on global warming, nuclear power, geoengineering, and other hot-button issues. His findings have been used by journalists to mostly explain why greater efforts to inform the public on climate science don’t lead to greater acceptance of climate change, much less reduce the heated politics surrounding it.

But the full implications of Kahan’s “cultural cognition” findings also speak to another important aspect of the climate debate that gets less attention: The ideological biases that shape attitudes on agriculture.

For example, there is growing concern about food security in a warmer world. This issue was raised by the American Association of Advancement of Science (AAAS) President Nina V.Fedoroff in her plenary address at the 2012 AAAS conference. She discussed, in this context, the importance of genetically modified (GM) crops, and the role they could play in feeding a global population expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century.

Some quick background: The advantages of GM crops are indisputable. They have been shown to require fewer pesticides and less land, are cost-effective, produce greater yields, and can be engineered to contain additional nutrients and be drought and flood resistant. This seems like the kind of technology that would be embraced to improve food security in a warmer world.

Yet, as this EU commissioned report on GM crop studies between 2001-2010 stated:

In spite of the potential benefits, the development and use of GM crops has faced significant opposition, prompted by fears of adverse social implications and health and environmental risks. The latter, which have been debated at length, focus mainly on the concept of modern biotechnology and the genetic engineering techniques used to develop these crops. The fact that humans can “engineer” a gene from a species of one kingdom to produce a species of another has fuelled imaginations and frightened the public.

But what about the scientific basis for this fear? Fedoroff, in a New York Times op-ed last year, wrote: “Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny.”

In her AAAS speech several months ago, Fedoroff lamented the negative public opinion that she says is holding back biotechnology research and keeping regulatory barriers unduly stringent. She also dinged her fellow scientists: “I suspect that if I polled even this sophisticated audience, more than a few hands would shoot up to protest their use.”

How, she asked, could attitudes remain so negative when a quarter century of biosafety research (since the first genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were introduced) “has not identified a single new risk? Why are GMOs such a hard sell, even though they increase yields, are better for the environment, and better for human health?”

She then answered her own question: “The explanation probably lies in our own psychology. Belief systems, especially if they are tinged with fear, are not easily dismantled with facts. This isn’t a new problem but it’s an urgent and growing problem.” Fedoroff said GMO opposition was cut from the same mental cloth that has led some people to deny the reality of climate change and others to insist that autism is still linked to vaccines.

In this 2009 Seed magazine roundtable, Pamela Ronald, a University of California plant scientist, offers a different take on anti-GMO sentiment:

My overwhelming sense is that public skepticism about GM crops, and the foods derived from them, is not about the science — it is about U.S. corporations. Some consumers have not forgotten that Monsanto was a producer of Agent Orange for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Others worry that corporations will control the global seed supply.

Still, consumers … need to distinguish between a scientific process (genetic engineering) and corporations. The misdirected protests are an unfortunate diversion from the obvious: We need to feed more people on less land with less water and do it in a way that reduces environmentally harmful inputs. This is a critical environmental issue of our time.

The anti-corporate angle that Ronald notes is, indeed, widespread, particularly among green groups. But as Mark Lynas writes in his new book The God Species:

The idea that there is something inherent in genetic engineering [GE] technology that makes it beneficial only to big corporations is illogical but very persistent among environmental campaigners, many of who are extremely suspicious of big business in principle … But being against GE per se because it has been promoted by big companies is a bit like being against word processing because much of the most useful software is produced by Microsoft — irrational and self-defeating.

Lynas concludes his chapter on agriculture and biotechnology on this note: “There can be no more important task than feeding people while protecting the planet. We must use the best of science and technology to help us achieve this vital aim.”

To do this, however, we will have to first overcome the heavy mental barriers that thus far prevent the potential of biotechnology from being realized.

There are important lessons here for those focused primarily on climate change.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Rejection of Science Not Unique to Climate Change

  1. Mary says:

    I have some hope that we are finally getting traction on the scientific facts of this issue–the science, not just the flailing about the business model (yet I’m sure we’ll be hearing about that in 3…2…1…).

    I’m seeing more pushback from supporters of plant science around internet and civic discussions. More enviro players are saying “GMO” out loud. And we are poised to have some real wins from projects like the bean developed by the Brazilian government that will benefit small farmers with a culturally-appropriate plant. It’s going to be very hard for the usual suspects to make the same claims on that bean once it’s feeding people. A few more projects like this will change the tenor of the discussion. And generally science wins in the long run.

    • DaveD says:

      I would just like to know the products are either GMO or that they are not GMO. Can this information be made available to me as a consumer? I want to be able to make an informed decision about what I put into my own body. Thank you very much.

      • crf says:

        David, you can buy countless products that carry certification of being GMO-free. So consumers like you that actually care about this can buy what they want.

        Prejudice isn’t any good reason to label every food as to whether it contains GMO. Because it would require every manufactured product to track its sourced ingredients for the sole purpose of deducing their degree of certain genetic modifications, it would carry real costs to consumers for absolute zero proven benefit.

  2. RickA says:

    I am in favor of GMO.

    Whether the world will be warmer, cooler, saltier, etc. GMO can adapt a plant to grow better in a wide variety of conditions.

    We just have to make sure we don’t reduce the genetic diversity to such an extent that a disease wipes out one crop worldwide.

    But that can be managed.

    I read recently that planting different crops in alternating rows in the same field can dramatically reduce the spread of disease, and increase overall yield.

  3. Eli Rabett says:

    Cost effective is an interesting issue. No doubt that in fully mechanized western agriculture (the process of turning oil into food in some descriptions) they are, but in general they are too expensive for subsistence farmers who gather their own seed from their crops. Given the gathering, study and use of traditional crop seeds by the ag companies and their aggressive prosecution of unauthorized use, these trends are concerning.

    This discussion of the Rice-Tek basmati rice patent and other linked cases is a good start to become aware of these issues

    • Mary says:

      The public and non-profit projects haven’t really had their impact yet–partly because of the hurdles put in place by food activists. But as more of those projects get online (like the rice, cassava, bananas, and beans specifically for the developing world), cost won’t be the same type of issue.

      But that said, as farmers get better access to lots of technology–not just plant science, they may choose to buy higher quality seed stocks.

  4. Matt Skaggs says:

    Once again we get a study that starts with the assumption that if you are skeptical of GMO or climate change, you are irrational and suitable for a study of irrationality. I question whether these views are irrational. I am a skeptic of catastrophic climate change not because it conflicts with my worldview (which is decidedly environmentalist and politically far left of the current American administration), but because I read all the important papers and find the scientific case wanting. (As an aside, I also believe that the veracity of the climate change argument is irrelevant to the question of sustainability). Similarly, I want to see a full, rigorous and objective hazard analysis of GMO, and I cannot find it. From my engineer’s perspective, the statement that “a quarter century of biosafety research (since the first genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were introduced) “has not identified a single new risk” is a huge red flag that tells me that no one is earnestly looking for new risks. With my skepticism of two issues that were supposed to represent opposite sides of the irrationality spectrum, how do I fit into the worldview meme? And for those that will just consider me a crackpot…I do like my water fluoridated!

  5. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Similarly, I want to see a full, rigorous and objective hazard analysis of GMO, and I cannot find it. From my engineer’s perspective, the statement that “a quarter century of biosafety research (since the first genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were introduced) “has not identified a single new risk” is a huge red flag that tells me that no one is earnestly looking for new risks. With my skepticism of two issues that were supposed to represent opposite sides of the irrationality spectrum, how do I fit into the worldview meme?”

    The problem with doing a hazard analysis of GMO is firstly that it is not a well-defined problem. Which GMO? Under what circumstances? Some may be safe and some may not be. It’s like asking whether engineering is ‘safe’. Is there any risk to allowing people to practice engineering? In a sense, the answer to the question is trivially ‘yes’, in a more sophisticated sense ‘it depends’, and is at the same time the wrong question.

    But taking an engineering approach, we can answer the hazard question in a much more simple way. It’s actually the same problem as climate change, in that the artificial/natural distinction is artificial, and gets in the way of understanding.

    Is climate dangerous? Yes, obviously. It’s dangerous now, it’ll still be dangerous after it changes, and of course it’s changing all the time. Whether people are to blame doesn’t change that. Likewise, we can ask whether eating other organisms for food is dangerous. Again, the answer is obviously ‘yes’, as people die every year from food poisoning. Every plant contains natural pesticides, chemicals manufactured by its own biology to try to stop things eating it. The low-level, long-term effects of most of these chemicals is unknown. Fungi and bacteria do the same. And pest resistance evolves all the time. The background risk is quantifiably non-zero. Whether people are to blame for the changes doesn’t alter that.

    The problem for so much of the public perception of risk is the lack of context. If you don’t know how much the climate varies naturally, a fraction of a degree change can be made to sound very alarming. If you don’t know how much organisms engage in chemical warfare, or how much genetic change is brought about by ordinary breeding programmes or even by natural selection, genetic engineering can be made to sound scary. Artificial additives with those long polysyllabic chemical names are feared because people are told about them, when they’re not told about the natural ones. Is 3-methylsulfinylpropyl isothiocyanate or neochlorogenic acid dangerous? They’re perfectly natural – but there’s no rule that says natural is safe.

    The new and artificial (rightly) get much more scrutiny, and people therefore hear about it more. But rather than understanding that this makes them safer, they come to believe that because the only dangers they hear of are associated with technology and the artificial, that they are therefore dangerous.

    Our distorted risk perception leads to us spending time and worry on the wrong things. Natural climate shifts, and natural organisms give much greater reasons for concern. At the same time, all of life is risk, and we normally live with a significant background level. These issues are only worth spending our time and resources on if there is reason to think the risk may be comparable with the background level that we normally tolerate – that’s the practical engineering approach. But in the overheated public debates around these health scares, this is rarely done.

  6. David Tribe says:

    A recent article (at GMO Puntit blog) about raw milk in Italy and its harmful effect on children’s health provided some fascinating insights into the traditional cultural beliefs that determine European attitudes to food and modern food technology.
    One of the documents uncovered in this article was written by Dr Dominique Angèle Vuitton to explain the cultural tradition that embraces the idea of foregoing pasteurisation of milk products.
    Admitedly this article is about dairy pasteurisation technology, but it provides real understanding about the French cultural beliefs that influence acceptance or rejection of modern genetic technology when it is used in making food.
    From Risk versus benefit of raw milk consumption
    Through their activities, the dairy farmers that wish to sell raw milk and the SMEs that are producing raw milk cheese defend a European cultural reality, promote the development of European regions that cannot be involved in other types of industry, contribute to attract tourism and to protect environment and, from land use to production units, are fully involved in the organisation of the territory in rural areas. Besides the safety of the products, other numerous aspects are worth considering such as quality of landscape, biodiversity, environment and sustainable development, multi-functionality of agriculture, employment and economical activities in difficult regions, other aspects of health (e.g. prevention of chronic diseases) and above all pleasure and happiness of consumers.
    by Dominique Angèle VUITTON
    WHO Collaborating Centre; University of Franche-Comté;25030 Besançon, France
    The way I read this, rejection of foreign GMO crops in France is definitely not about food safety. It is all about the defence of French rural culture, under economic threat from (a) more cost efficient broad-acre farming in North and South America and elsewhere, and from (b) changes in technology made possible by science.

  7. John says:

    Virtually all of our domesticated plants are the result of a kind of genetic engineering. For example, members of ancient tribes picked the biggest apple, whose seeds ended up in, um, compost. Being naturally fertilized, these apple trees were selected, and I’m sure these ancient peoples saw the connection. Somebody way back when also discovered a variety of pea who’s seeds stayed in the pod rather than being expelled, which has no benefit to the pea plant itself. The same goes for wheat; the seeds stay on the plant. Most scientists, I think, who have examined the issue, have no trouble with GMO’s. The tools are different, but plant breeding and genetic modification amount to the same thing.

  8. Eron says:

    “is not about the science — it is about U.S. corporations.”

    For me that hits the nail on the head. If say a non political/ non corporate entity took over GMO production I would sign on with out a second thought. How ever there is no way I will support reducing nearly ALL of our world food sources to a handful of corporations, several of which have to say it nicely have a track record of ethical and moral “issues” (and you don’t need to go back to Vietnam to find them).

    People talk about “water wars” being the hot new thing in the 21st century, good God could you imagine what would happen if a nation or company cut off seed stock to an entire nation?

  9. Indulis says:

    “Is climate dangerous? Yes, obviously. It’s dangerous now, it’ll still be dangerous after it changes, and of course it’s changing all the time. Whether people are to blame doesn’t change that.”

    The issue is that we are seeing climate change happening much faster than it does with most natural forcings (e.g. orbital changes), and it is happening globally. The logic of saying “change has always happened so it is OK to do nothing” is like saying “everyone will eventually die so no need for us to have hospitals.”

    Unfortunately we have global climate change caused by increased CO2 and warming, it is occurring more rapidly than a society that relies on massive immobile infrastucture can move/adapt, and it is happening globally so there is nowhere to move/escape to.

    The sciences that provide evidence for human-caused global warming and associated climate changes (hot/cold/acidification of oceans) provide clear evidence as to where the culprit CO2 comes from (isotopes show it is from oil not from volcanoes), and that many of the factors that have caused climate change in the past are not in effect (e.g. orbital changes or changes in solar output), and that other factors claimed by deniers as being responsible for warming really only contribute a very small amount at most (e.g. cosmic rays, which the geological record shows never caused climate change in the past even when the earth was bombarded by massive quantities of cosmic rays).

    If the only human inhabitants of earth were nomadic, there were not a lot of us so everyone could just “move with the weather” to an uninhabited suitable new home when crops start failing or flat areas near the coast flood, then it would all be fine.

    Moving our farmlands, airports, ports, cities etc- all the thing which our technological economy relies on- is not easily possible in the short timeframe required. Even the 1m minimum sea level rise will cause massive costs. Just one of the costs of not doing much to prevent climate change.

  10. Bruce says:

    How ironic to see the headline on an article about confirmation bias ruined by confirmation bias.

  11. George says:

    “The advantages of GM crops are indisputable. They have been shown to require fewer pesticides and less land, are cost-effective, produce greater yields, and can be engineered to contain additional nutrients and be drought and flood resistant.” and goes on … “are better for the environment, and better for human health?”

    Really? There is evidence to support for those conclusions?

    Where are the health studies that demonstrate long term safety in animals and humans? I would like to see them. Or the in depth analysis on new protein formation. Does our understanding of epigenetics enable us to predict (or even begin to understand) how the modified genome will behave in regard to nucleotide and protein formation?

    “Greater yields” has also been refuted by Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Pesticide use depends on the crop. A large proportion have been modified to produce herbicide resistance allowing far greater use and application of pesticides.

    The environmental effects of weed resistance, the destruction of non-pest organisms as collateral damage from insecticides producing plants and the pursuit of monoculture are not “good for the environment”.

    Where are the drought and flood resistant crops? These have formerly been bred through conventional techniques.

    The GM picture is nothing like Climate change. It would be a grave mistake for those claiming we have the same sort of scientific understanding and evidence to conflate the two.

    The urgency and evidence for anthropogenic climate change is compelling and the potential consequences wide reaching and severe to warrant immediate action to change our course.

    Population growth, environmental degradation and problems with industrial agriculture do demand a change to our food production to improve food security. But the role of GM technology is nothing like as clear and one sided as Federoff opines. In fact it can be seen as the equivalent of geo-engineering or trying to solve our problems using the same flawed industrial thinking that we used when we made them.

    • Bruce says:

      Whether they produce increased yields or not I’m against GM crops simply because they place too much power in the hands of just a few corporations. When we’re talking about something as vital as food supply, how can it make any kind of sense to give corporations this much control. Can we trust these companies, whose allegiance is to shareholders, with our food supply? Wish I could say yes.

  12. The title of this article, “Rejection of Science Not Unique to Climate Change” is false and misleading. The UN-IPCC inquiry into global warming is not, as implied, “scientific,” for it fails to reference the statistical population by which claims made by the associated theory might be falsified.