The ideology GMO disjunction

So, I was recently reading Randolph Court’s take on liberals anti-science failure on GMO’s:

Take the oddly contradictory issues of climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There is near-universal consensus among the world’s scientists that man-made pollutants are trapping heat in the atmosphere and wreaking havoc on the environment. Yet when pollsters ask voters whether they believe temperatures are climbing because of human activities, most Democrats say yes and most Republicans say no.

Democrats may wag their fingers contemptuously at this, but the pot would be calling the kettle black, because many of them are just as stubbornly skeptical on the issue of genetically improved foods, even though the scientific consensus about their virtues is no less universal.

Here’s the thing, the very Pew data that Court links to suggests his entire premise is wrong!  In aggregate polling data, liberals are no more anti-GMO than are conservatives (and partisan differences are there, but very small):

No Differences in Views About GM Food Safety by Party, Ideology

They even run a series of regression models, and ideology plays no factor whatsoever.

The data is actually publicly available and I’ve had a lot of fun playing around with it (lots of fun stuff in there).  Pew collapses their ideology data so I ran a cross-tab with their full ideology measure.  You can see a bit more daylight here– only 39% of very liberal respondents think GMO is generally safe as compared to 49% of very conservative, but that’s still not a lot of daylight as these things go.


Anyway, what strikes me as interesting about this is that there really is something going at the elite level.  Liberal interest groups, like Greenpeace, really hate GMO food and fearmonger it relentlessly.  Conservative groups don’t.  But among ordinary Americans, there’s just really not much ideological difference at all on these issues.

Where the difference really is?  Gender.  Actually, gender and race.  All the bad stuff one can say about white males in our society, but they do get the GMO food issue more right than other groups.

Safety of Eating Genetically Modified Foods

And while throwing in a bunch of other variables typically makes the race variable lose it’s impact in a multi-variate regression, the gender variable is remarkably robust.  Women are less trusting of GMO food safety no matter what possible controls you can throw in there (and, yes, look for a publication on that with my name some day).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

6 Responses to The ideology GMO disjunction

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Gender differences matter a lot in grocery store marketing I imagine, as I suspect that there is not gender equality in allocating grocery shopping responsibilities.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Right. But it’s not entirely clear why being the primary shopper for a household should make one more disposed to false beliefs about GMO food.

      • ohwilleke says:

        I doubt the relationship is causal. But, the practical importance of the divide is still great, because it means that the market impact of anti-GMO sentiment is much greater than would be apparent from a non-gender divided opinion mix.

        I suspect that the cause of the difference is rooted in the same kind of gendered differences in interfacing with the world and forming beliefs about it that cause women to be more religious, on average, than men. These differences can be adaptive in many contexts, while being not helpful in others.

        Further, there is probably adaptive value in being a late adopter of new kinds of food generally, as it can take time to determine whether there are any long term unknown harms associated with new additions to one’s diet. For example, adopting corn in one’s diet, without adopting beans and rice that made the complete package a complete healthy diet for Native Americans, can have negative dietary consequences. Late adopters avoid the missteps of new foods generally which are sometimes very harmful, but are rarely seriously harmed by their caution.

        GMOs (and organics for that matter) usually provide most of the benefits to people impacted by the production process (e.g. by reducing crop losses to insects or cold snaps or reducing pesticide sourced pollution) and not for the end consumer dietarily. So why not let others take those risk until they have been proven for a long time?

      • Mika says:

        38,5% of Finnish 2015 parliamentary election female candidates chose the option “Totally disagree” to a claim “Genetically modified food is safe for humans and environment” whereas 27,1% of males did the same.

        There are 13 electoral districts in Finland and there is variation on choosing the “Totally disagree” -option. It seems to me or my hunch is that the more dependent the districts economy is on agriculture the more likely the male candidates totally disagree with the claim. I’d be totally surprised if they were more socially liberal than the male candidates in other districts. I can see no obvious district variation pattern among women.

        The data is from Finnish Broadcasting Company’s voting advice application and one (at least 🙂 ) caveat is in order ( 🙂 ): big majority of candidates answered VAA’s questions but not all so the numbers presented are only tentative. I also didn’t search for any numbers to back up my hunch about the importance of the agriculture to economy. The districts in question are just more rural I think. I didn’t run any multi-variate regressions because the available data is stupid (i.e. I don’t now how to use it 🙂 ). The scale is a five point Likert-scale from “Totally disagree” to “Totally agree”

  2. itchy says:

    Thanks for this. Count me as one who would have assumed Court’s position was correct had I not seen your rebuttal.

    Now, about anti-vaxxers …

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