Is GMO Aversion a Left-Wing Phenomenon?

Amy Harmon recently had another excellent story on GMOs in the New York Times - focusing particularly on Papayas in Hawaii.

The story had the following passage:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

From time to time, I've received some push back on some of the claims in my book, The Food Police, that food technology aversion, and willingness to regulate and restrict food technologies, has roots in the progressive left.  This is, of course, a generalization, and it doesn't not hold in every instance or for every person.  In this particular instance, it appears Harmon supports my claim.

One challenge is that many popular food books (by folks like Pollan, Moss, Warner, etc.) often refrain from specifically mentioning much about policy in the book.  But, then when your see these authors out on the interview circuit, they often talk a lot about policy and advocate all kinds of things.  This has the consequence of their writing appearing more centrist and “ideologically neutral” than is actually the case, and it also lets the authors off the hook by rarely putting them in a position of having to seriously defend their policy proposals.  

Indeed, I did an interview with Minnesota NPR on the Food Police, and I told the host that I didn’t so much disagree with Pollan’s eating advice as his policy advice regarding local foods.  The host (who had previously interviewed Pollan) told me something to the effect that Pollan doesn’t have policy proposals with regard to local food.  Well, that’s just false.  Yes, the Omnivore’s Dilemma or Cooked don’t specifically make policy suggestions, but all you have to do is listen to Pollan’s speeches or watch him on Bill Maher or Bill Moyers, and he has all kinds of policy suggestions (or just read some of his other writings, which plainly offer policy advice).  

It is a mistake to narrowly evaluate Pollan, Moss, et al. strictly based on what they write in their books without also viewing their writing in the larger context of the polices they advocate outside their books.  One also has to pay attention to what they choose to write about and what they choose to omit, and I would argue much of their writing errs by omission.   

I should note that several commentators on the web have chimed in on Harmon's claims of a link between left-leaning politics and aversion to GMO science.

Isaac Chotiner in the New Republic writes:

This story, a news piece which is also pleasingly one-sided (as the evidence demands), is appearing in the most important liberal publication in the country. The liberals who rant about genetically modified food may be pushing a point of view that is objectively as crazy as believing carbon emissions are not causing global warming; but liberals are still more likely (and willing) to get their news from places that tell them the truth. For conservatives who like to claim that Fox News is just a conservative version of The New York Times, ask yourselves this: Could you imagine Fox News running a big, one-sided piece that overwhelmingly discredited global warming deniers? Of course not. (The Times ran another excellent genetically modified food piece last year, also written by Amy Harmon.)

This probably goes some way in explaining why the modern Republican Party and conservative movement frequently seem so much crazier than mainstream liberalism. It's not that people are simply and inherently crazy; they also operate from within crazy bubbles, which is arguably just as dangerous. For this reason, my guess is that over time liberal opposition to genetic engineering will fade away. 

He makes a good point about this piece appearing in the NYT.  One distinction, which I think is missing, is the greater willingness of those on the left to regulate on economic issues, such as GMOs, than those on the right.  Stated differently, there are questions of science: what are the risks of climate change or eating GMOs.  And then there are more normative questions: given said risk, what should we do about it?  Even if the left and the right agreed on the level of risk, I don't think we should expect agreement on political action.  Some (but certainly not all) of the aversion to climate change policies on the right aren't a result of "global warming denialism" but rather skepticism about the government being able to efficiently solve the problem.  My studies on the issue don't reveal huge left-right differences in acceptance of GMOs per se, but rather the difference come in when one gets to the willingness to regulate GMOs.  

In a defense of GMOs from the European left, Leigh Phillips, makes some interesting observations about the politics of the situation:

In the end, what is going on here with opposition to genetic modification is the import into left-wing thinking of the logical fallacy of an ‘appeal to nature’ – the idea that what is found in nature is good and what is synthetic is bad. The origins of this scepticism of science, industry and progress can be found in romanticist counterrevolutionary thought that emerged in the 18th Century in opposition to republican movements. It is a cuckoo’s egg in the nest of the Left.

Transferred to human ecology, the inherent conservatism of this should quickly be revealed: Everything, or everyone – peasant, lord and king – has his place within the ‘natural order’. It is a defence of the status quo against the ‘unintended consequences’ of social programmes by interventionist governments. How alike are the arguments against genetic engineering and ‘social engineering’!