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January 19, 2015

DNA, GMOs, and the Left's dilemma

io9 reports January 18 on a fascinating study by Oklahoma State University:
A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of respondents supported a government policy mandating labels on foods containing DNA. Not GMOs. DNA, the genetic material contained in every living thing known to science and practically every food, GMO or otherwise.
The results smack of satire, but they're real. The Food Demand Survey (FooDs) is an online poll of a representative sample of the U.S. population, conducted every month by Oklahoma State agricultural economist Jayson Lusk and research specialist Susan Murray. The most recent month's survey included a question regarding the institution of government policies concerning food. The results, which you can read in full here, indicate that "a large majority (82%) support mandatory labels on GMOs." What's curious, note Lusk and Murray, is that roughly "the same amount (80%) also support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA."
Even though the survey's sampling method does not appear to be ideal, the result does seem to reflect the human social tendency to jump onto issue bandwagons with little or no factual knowledge of the issues.  If someone we know and admire (be it a friend or some celebrity) is passionately for or against something, it's easy and natural to tag along.

There is a common superstition that all "chemicals" in food are bad.  "DNA" sounds like a chemical (which, of course, it is), so you bet I want to be informed when chemicals with ominous-sounding three-letter acronyms are present in my food!  Indeed, many who embrace the concept of "organic" foods seem to think that it is too much work to ponder the scientific pros and cons of various additives that have been part of our food supply for generations.

The GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) controversy is another good example of hysteria driven by scientific illiteracy.  Foods with one or more GMO ingredients have been dubbed "Frankenfoods" -- a reference to Frankenstein's monster -- by many activists.  I doubt they wish us to carry the analogy too far, given that the townspeople's reaction to the creature was irrational and emotion-driven.  The analogy the activists WANT us to take from the story is the notion that we must never tamper with nature, ever, for any reason.  A large majority of Americans are emotionally drawn to this argument, which almost certainly accounts for the fact that 82% support the proposed GMO labeling requirement, despite the fact that there is little or no scientific evidence that any of the GMOs approved for consumption are harmful to humans in any way.

To me, the curious twist to the anti-GMO crusade is that its activist core appears to reside in to the part of the political left boasting an average education level higher than that of the general population.  They have every reason to be familiar with the scientific truth behind GMOs, but they're the ones that appear to be driving the emotional opposition.

How can this be?  Some on the right are fond of observing that when Soviet communism collapsed, unreconstructed Marxists in the west appear to have adopted the environmental movement as the platform for continuing the advancement of their socioeconomic agenda.  There is strong circumstantial evidence to support this notion.  First, the environmental movement started to blossom dramatically even as the dust was still settling from the collapse of the communist bloc. Second -- and this is more significant to me -- virtually every policy prescription advanced to solve the environmental crisis du jour happens to align perfectly with the socioeconomic goals of the Marxist left: crippling regulation, punishing taxation, global wealth redistribution, etc.

This also appears to be the underbelly of the activist left's opposition to GMOs: it's driven by ideology, not by science illiteracy.  You see, GMOs can be patented...by corporations!  If we allow GMOs into our food supply, that benefits greedy capitalists.  So, even if someone comes up with something like "golden rice", which has a scientifically demonstrable benefit to human health, it must be opposed at all costs

The dilemma for the educated activists on the left is that their numbers aren't anywhere near what is needed to successfully advance their anticapitalist agenda, so they have no choice but to harness the ignorance of those whose convictions about food are driven more by superstition than by facts.  Thus, even though these activists often scorn the scientific illiteracy of average Americans, expediency keeps their mouths shut as GMO myths continue to run rampant in the mass media, in blogs, and on Facebook.

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