How the GMO Debate is Framed

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.

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.

75 Responses to “How the GMO Debate is Framed”

  1. mem_somerville says:

    Oh, we were just joking about the capes and tights. But I can get them from a local guy: . There’s a bunch of sci-themed ones.

    But why do the moderate enviros not speak up? I don’t know. I’m guessing fear is a better fundraiser. And that the donor pool is on the I-hate-big-M team for the most part.They can see what happened to Lynas.

    But I am unencumbered by any data on that.

  2. Angela says:

    If I had to guess I suppose it would be because they’re scared of losing any of their supporters. You can’t upset anyone by staying out of the discussion.

    It is pretty disappointing though, in an era where we embrace technology as part of our lives it baffles me that how afraid people are of GMOs. If you take basic biology and genetics classes you should know this isn’t something to be afraid of! But fear is easier and more interesting to latch onto, for example, you can tell someone they’re pretty or great a thousand times and they may remember, but if you tell them something negative, it will stay with them forever.

  3. Joshua says:

    “…I kinda doubt that the self-appointed consumer watchdogs … care about improving the quality of fast food.”

    Yeah. That’s the ticket. They probably don’t care about McDonalds serving unhealthful foods. They probably don’t care about childhood obesity, about public health in general also.

    So much for your “concern” about “character assassination,” eh Keith?

  4. Kirk Holden says:

    Because reducing my very own carbon footprint is a damn difficult chore and Monsanto!!!!!!!!! changes the subject away from my profound failure to make a real, measurable difference. The smug is thick on this one.

  5. First Officer says:

    It’s really a wonder that, given how these activists denigrate McDonald’s at every chance they get even when McDonald’s had backed away from GM potatoes before, that McDonald’s still gives them the time of day.

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    Because if they really cared, why would they focus on the GMO potato, which as has been pointed out, has an important health upside for the consumer? There is no legitimate scientific reason to oppose this.

    Joshua, do you have a substantive comment to make that pertains to the thrust of the post, or did you just want to tickle your trolling itch for today?

  7. alykatma says:

    I think the next time I crave french fries I will stop at a place that sells freshly cut real potatoes like Five Guys. That or make my own. Didn’t even know there was a GMO potato. Modified so it doesn’t turn brown? Come on! Fresh potatoes don’t turn brown. That is like making a GMO apple that doesn’t turn brown. Totally useless!

  8. Joshua says:

    Keith –

    To imply that they are wrong about the health impact of GMOs is one thing. To say that they are indifferent about public health is another. This is like when “skeptics” say that “realists” want to starve children in Africa so they can impose a one-world government in their attack on capitalism.

    I think that pointing out the likely counterproductivity of your rhetoric is substantive.

    To the extent that the thrust of the post is that the opposition to using the GMO potatoes would be counterproductive, I think your post is useful. Same for your point about the narrowness of good guy/bad guy perspectives. That usefulness is undermined by your over-the-top rhetoric, IMO, and ironically your good guy/bad guy (those bad people that don’t care about public health) rhetoric.

    The connection to your “character assassination” post was, er, maybe a tad gratuitous. Just a tad.

  9. Joshua says:

    BTW – Keith,

    As I recall, you were going to respond to Kahan’s data that show that here is no left/right breakdown, of any significance, w/r/t GMOs – data which run counter to one of your themes

    I don’t recall you ever writing that post. Did I miss it?

  10. Keith Kloor says:

    I wrote (obviously in snark): “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.”

    You assert:

    “To say that they are indifferent about public health is another.”

    So you’re extrapolating and generalizing, which is why I don’t like wasting my time with you anymore. I didn’t say they are “indifferent to public health.”

    Still, you acknowledge my post contains some “usefulness” but which “is undermined” by “over-the-top rhetoric”–meaning the sentence you take issue with.

    So you’re just tone-trolling me today?

  11. mem_somerville says:

    If you would rather eat the acrylamide, that’s fine. Nobody’s stopping you.

  12. Buddy199 says:

    For once, I’d like to see

  13. Keith Kloor says:

    No, you did not miss it. I have a big feature coming out early next month that relates to this. I thought I would hold off until then, as I want to elaborate on the theme of the feature in a post.

    My recollection is that Dan’s data spoke more to the public polarization–or lack thereof–on the GMO issue.

    Joe sixpack may not care about GMO food–I won’t take issue with that– but that doesn’t mean that the public dialogue–as shaped by vocal minorities and interest groups, don’t effect biotechnology politics and policy. This is what I speak to when I write these posts–the public dialogue as it is framed by influential thought leaders and interest groups.

    I think most readers have caught on to this by now.

  14. Judy Cross says:

    So, did they do long-term multi-generational feeding studies on these potatoes? Nice that there is less acrylamide….but what else may there be? You can’t find what you refuse to look for.

  15. Joshua says:

    I didn’t say they are “indifferent to public health.”

    Of course you didn’t. But that is the implication of what you said. If they don’t care about the quality of fast food, then they don’t care about the health impact of what millions of Americans eat daily.

    Of course they care about the quality of fast food. You can defend by calling it “snark,” but I’d guess that Dana could say the same thing about saying that RPJr. “misinformed” the public about extreme weather.

    Why don’t you just leave that kind of nonsense out of your posts?

  16. Joshua says:

    I didn’t say they are “indifferent to public health.”

    Of course you didn’t. But that is the implication of what you said. If they don’t care about the quality of fast food, then they don’t care about the health impact of what millions of Americans eat daily.

    Of course they care about the quality of fast food. You can defend by calling it “snark,” but I’d guess that Dana could say the same thing about saying that RPJr. “misinformed” the public about extreme weather.

    Why don’t you just leave that kind of rhetoric out of your posts?

  17. Joshua says:

    So you’re just tone-trolling me today?

    So you were just “tone-trolling” Dana the other day?

  18. Keith Kloor says:

    His indiscretion went beyond tone, as you well know. It was good to see that some people recognized that other than me:

    So now you’re hijacking this thread with your response to a previous post of mine. Unacceptable. If you have a bone to pick with that post, there is a thread there for you to register your disapproval.

  19. Dwight E Howell says:

    The simplistic position that GMO=BAD is wrong. It may in fact be better but some of the things people are trying to do clearly can be harmful to consumers, growers, and the food chain so whom do you trust?

  20. theLaplaceDemon says:

    “did they do long-term multi-generational feeding studies ”

    Have they done them for regular potatoes? Or starfruit? Or guava?

  21. Judy Cross says:

    That’s a nonsensical retort. “Substantial Equivalence” is a meaningless designation after the Seralini 2 year study which replicated Monsanto’s 9 week study for FDA approval. Problems started showing up at the 7th week

  22. Joshua says:

    “Hijacking” “Troll.”

    Ho hum. Call it what you want. I call it disagreeing with you.

  23. theLaplaceDemon says:

    Judy, you are aware of the methodological problems that make the Seralini study utterly useless, yes?

    And my point was just that there is no reason to inherently fear human-made genetic modifications more than run of the milll genetic modifications. There is no reason to do a multi gen feeding study of GMO potatoes when you wouldn’t do the same for other foods.

  24. Judy Cross says:

    They replicated the Monsanto study, just extended the time. It was a Chronic Toxicity Study, not a study designed to detect cancer…that’s just what happened.

    Your arguments are specious.

  25. theLaplaceDemon says:

    Yes, and the study design is such that it is not adequate to draw any conclusions about cancer.

    It doesn’t matter what the study was designed for. The methodology is such that you cannot draw conclusions about cancer from their data.

  26. Judy Cross says:

    Just look at the tumors on the rats and tell me that they don’t make any difference.

    Surely, the appearance of tumors raises the need for more carefully done long-term feeding studies. They can’t be dismissed on such chickenbleep grounds.

    Conclusions maybe not, because at this point we don’t know whether it was the GM itself or the Round-up which produced the tumors.

  27. Jonah says:

    The GMO battle is a social/political/economic struggle where both sides employ strategy and tactic to achieve objectives. ‘Discover’ is techno-solutionist and Pro-GMO, and no matter what the downsides, it won’t be honestly presented here because, I guess, that would be bad strategy and tactic. We get it (over and over).

  28. Calamity says:

    I think most have missed the point. GMO’s are largely untested. The song and dance we get from Monsanto and the ex-Monsanto plants in the FDA are that “they’re safe: We tested them:trust us” . The same song and dance as big tobacco. the same around Thalidomide. The same about asbestos.The same about all those highly profitable products that we now know kill us by the tens of thousands.Folks, there is national healthcare. It has to be paid by us all. Get fat: we pay for it. Get diabetes: we pay for it. THEY introduce untested and unsafe foods: we pay, big time. They get the profits and we all pay in money and lives. 50% of all stocks in the country are owned by 1% of the people. That’s 1% getting the profits and calling the shots. You can bet they eat organic.

  29. Rob Bairos says:

    Judy, you are aware that both gmo-fed and non-gmo fed rats both grew horrendously large tumours, as that is what the unfortunate critters have been bred for?

  30. FosterBoondoggle says:

    Judy, you do realize that this breed of rat gets tumors regardless of what it’s fed, right?

    So those grotesque pictures of cancerous rats could be of the controls just as easily as of the various test groups. And if you look at figure 1 from the Seralini paper, you’ll see that the “control” males had higher mortality than either of the male groups treated with the two higher GMO doses (22% & 33%). That’s an example of why this paper is just total nonsense, even if the FCT editors were too polite (or afraid of legal consequences) to say so directly.

  31. FosterBoondoggle says:

    Trifecta! I see from your other Disqus comments that not only are you an anti-GMO’er, you’re also an anti-vaxxer and deny anthropogenic global warming. Did I leave any other good ones out? Fluoridation? Smart meters & cellphones causing cancer?

  32. FosterBoondoggle says:

    “The GMO battle is a social/political/economic struggle…”

    Why? This sounds kind of grandiose. Or is everything a “S/P/E struggle”? Like whether farmers can use internal combustion engines or should be forced to go back to ox-drawn plows. What makes GMOs a “S/P/E struggle” while farmers’ use of internal combustion engines is just a ridiculous analogy?

  33. carolannie says:

    This is interesting.

  34. Judy Cross says:

    Yes, but the GMO fed rats did it faster.

  35. Judy Cross says:

    The study was NOT a cancer study. It happened to FIND cancer….which in a normal world, would be a signal to do the cancer studies.

  36. Judy Cross says:

    You keep missing the important point…the study wasn’t designed for a carcinogenicity study…that’s just what happened. that should be grounds for a carcinogenicity study, as any reasonable person would agree.:

  37. theLaplaceDemon says:

    No. You cannot reasonably conclude that based on the data. Some GMO groups did, some didn’t, in a fashion that pretty much exactly resembles random noise in a line of rats prone to getting tumors.

  38. bobito says:

    The opening line of that article: “People need to stop falling for the constructed myth that Seralini’s study was a flawed carcinogenicity study, says a scientist.”

    Nowhere on the article does it say what the scientist’s name is…. isn’t that interesting?

  39. Judy Cross says:

    If you want names try “Scientists support Seralinni” at

  40. J M says:

    In Finland , Skepsis Association gave their annual Huuhaa Prize to GMO-Free Finland organization for distorting scientific information and arousing baseless fears:

    [Skepsis ] yearly confers a Huuhaa (= humbug) -prize to an individual or organization who has diligently promoted pseudo- and fringe science and a Socrates-prize for work promoting socratic, rational, thinking

  41. Cairenn Day says:

    There are extensive studies done on GMO crops, The entire genome is sequenced and checked for know allergens.

    Hybrids aren’t check out the stories of the poison potatoe, for what can happen with just normal breeding.

    I eat GMO, I will not buy organic produce because I do feel that is tested enough for contamination.

    and what a Gish Gallop, even had to get healthcare didn’t you? I wonder why other developed countries already have tax supported health care? By your reasoning, that would mean that they had to because of unhealthy food.

  42. Cairenn Day says:

    so you admit that it was fishing expedition,–good. That is not how science is done.

  43. Cairenn Day says:

    disqus doesn;t like any links.

  44. Layton Register says:

    Science at The Nature Conservancy is for the most part lip service. Profit at The Nature Conservancy is the priority.

  45. Loren Eaton says:

    Nonsense. It costs millions of dollars and 6-12 years to get a GM variety to the market. As a matter of fact, Richard Goodman, who has been in the news lately, runs an organization at the University of Nebraska that does a lot of the allergen tracking. You know the testing that’s not taking place. Oh and yes, all the players in the industry DO participate and contribute both time and money. Someone has to pay for it. And for all their whining, the OCA and Greenpeace are not involved.

  46. Loren Eaton says:

    Uhh, Seralini’s study is invalid. The rats develop symptoms spontneously during the testing period. Next!!

  47. jh says:

    “it baffles me…how afraid people are of GMOs”

    How can anyone possibly be baffled by people’s “fear” of GMO’s? It fits right in to everything else that’s going on in Western society.

    Western society is infected with the idea that it will cause it’s own demise. Nuclear power, GMOs, climate change, oil spills, peak oil, population – virtually anything that occurs on a massive scale sparks this fear.

    The sad thing about it is that many GMO supporters – educated people who should know better – are screwing themselves and all of us by contributing to this mass hysteria on just about every other front – especially climate change. With a few greens finally starting to wake up and smell the coffee, I’m hopeful the pendulum will start to swing, and educated people will snap out of their cold-war-induced dark fantasy mind-set and start using some basic common sense. But it’s not happening yet.

  48. JD says:

    Because it was never proven outside of corporate science and we all know corporations and science do not go hand in hand. For corporations are all about profit and don’t care about things like safety. 😉

  49. JD says:

    Keith is simply a wannabe corporate troll low on facts. You know like the Chinese 50 cent party. 😉

  50. JD says:

    Ever notice how outside of the corporate controlled U.S. GMO’s are being banned? And MOST nations are simply laughing at us for consuming them? It is for this reason I buy ALL of my food locally where I live that is grown by AMISH farmers that will not grow GM crops due to religious reasons. And the best part is I pay 40% less then at the grocery store, have better health and much better tasting nutritious food! =DD

  51. JD says:

    We will see where GM potatoes are in 15 years look at where most of them are now. Not in the stores that is for sure! Science has a LONG way to go kiddo! LOL

  52. Buddy199 says:

    That will be a lot of comfort to the blind children and their parents.

  53. JD says:

    You have no clue on farming do you? Not all farmers use internal combustion engines. 😉

  54. Rob Bairos says:

    How is ‘corporate science’ different than ‘organic science’ for example, given that the latter is extremely profitable and growing quickly.

  55. JD says:

    Citation please? Otherwise your full of malarkey. 😉

  56. JD says:

    How much does the corporate world pay you per post? 😉

  57. Rob Bairos says:

    A handful of scientists (including Seralini) with a proven track record of anti-gmo activism think his study was well designed.
    Scores more (with no ideological axe to grind) think otherwise.
    Why is this interesting to you?

  58. JD says:

    These are wannabe corporate trolls Judy like these people. 😉

  59. Joshua says:

    JD –

    I don’t agree. I think he does some good work, which he then undermines with hyperbole and counterproductive rhetoric.

  60. mem_somerville says:

    Have no clue on the Amish, do you? They use GMOs.

  61. mem_somerville says:

    You do understand that this issue is current because these potatoes are in the last stages of approval, right?

  62. Loren Eaton says:

    Allergenonline, I believe. Out of Nebraska. They maintain a database of known and suspected allergens so that all kinds of researchers can avoid them.

  63. JudsonParker says:

    GR hasn’t yet been commercialized and is still in test phases (hence you heard about Greenpeace destroying a test crop, not one bound for human consumption). So it would be propaganda equal to anti-GMOers to make this false emotional appeal.

  64. theLaplaceDemon says:

    Five cents a post. How much is Big Organic paying you?

    (I kid, I kid. For the sarcasm-deaf: Yes, I work in science, and no, none of my funding comes from biotech/the corporate world or has anything to do with agriculture. I also have no reason to think JD is actually paid by organic food companies.)

    But, seriously JD: What is up with this thing y’all do where you accuse people of being paid to disagree with you? Let’s say that Monsanto does pay people to argue on the internet (I have seen no evidence that this is actually the case): why not engage with them on the substance of what they’re saying? If you actually believe you are right, you should be able to put together a solid, evidence-based argument showing why your position is stronger than theirs. So why not?

  65. First Officer says:

    How much does Mercola, Inc. pay you to accuse people as shills?

  66. First Officer says:

    An Amish paradise does include GMO’s !

  67. First Officer says:

    Oh, Jeff Smith, i see, came in for a landing long enough to spread more of his hypoxic induced (from all that high altitude yogic flying) hallucinations and lies about GMO’s.

  68. jh says:


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