Jul 14 2016

Framing the Debate on GMOs

Framing is a very interesting and intellectually critical concept. It is part of metacognition, the act of stepping back from the details of your beliefs and arguments to think about the nature of the thinking itself. Framing is meta-debate, where you think about the context of the debate itself, not just the details.

Framing can also be used, either consciously or inadvertently, to control a debate or discussion, to set up the parameters so that they favor one position.

A recent article in The Conversation discusses the framing of the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate. It’s an interesting article that definitely makes me think about how the GMO discussion should be framed, although I do not agree with the author, Sarah Hartley’s, take.

She refers to a recent letter by Nobel laureates criticizing Greenpeace for their opposition to Golden rice.

The scientists are accusing Greenpeace of ignoring facts, misrepresenting risks and benefits, failing to recognise the authority of science and relying on emotion and dogma. They are particularly concerned about Greenpeace’s opposition to Golden Rice, which has an added gene that boosts vitamin A levels – something scientists claim is much needed in many poor populations.

But Greenpeace argues that there are cheaper and more effective alternatives to Golden Rice and that GM rice developers are out of touch with the needs of local populations. It also claims developers are downplaying the risk that GM rice will contaminate traditional and organic rice crops.

The question she is asking is this – should the debate about GMO focus on the science or are there other legitimate issues that need to be considered?

While I agree that there are other legitimate issues to consider, such as the regulatory system and the patent system, I think that Hartley is missing a very important perspective, that of someone who has dealt with many denialist, ideological, or anti-science movements. They tend to employ common strategies, mental pitfalls, and cognitive biases.

Hartley is a sociologist, so she is trying to frame the debate in terms of social issues. She is criticizing the Nobel laureates for trying to frame the debate in terms of scientific issues. I would frame the discussion in terms of critical thinking, which tries to account for the various ways to frame the issue. I don’t think Hartley recognizes the assumptions in her framing.

She writes:

Opposition to GM crops is not always based exclusively on scientific risks and benefits and neither is it grounded in emotion or dogma. To characterise opposition in this way only serves to inflame the relations between proponents and opponents.

Ideological opposition, such as the anti-GMO movement, is typically multifaceted. It is scientific, social, emotional, ideological, cognitive, and commercial. What often happens is that a particular issue, like vaccines, fluoride, or GMOs, becomes a focal point for an ideological movement. The target is demonized, becomes the focus of fearmongering and conspiracy theories, and is blamed for a host of ills. Opposition to that one thing then takes on a life of its own and is reinforced in echochambers in various ways. It becomes a source of identity for a community.

Scientific questions, however, tend to dominate the discussion, as they should when the issue is, at heart, scientific. Opponents don’t want to come across as crazy conspiracy theorists, so they try very hard to build a scientific case for their position. However, because they are starting with a position, they inevitably descend into rank pseudoscience.

The appropriate response of the scientific community is to correct the bad science and to reassure the public about the actual science. The role of the skeptical community is to do just that, to communicate the science, but also to address the critical thinking issues, because skeptics have greater expertise in conspiracy thinking and pseudoscience.

Journalists also have a role in investigating the underlying forces at work. Is the government doing its job? Does industry have undue influence? Who is ultimately behind this campaign?

When it comes to GMO there are basically two types of issues, scientific and social justice. The social justice issues revolve around patents and corporate imperialism. However, I and others have argued that this is not a proper framing of the GMO debate, because these issues are not unique to GMOs and also not relevant to all GMOs.

These are proxy issues, used to unfairly attack GMOs. This is because the anti-GMO campaign has made opposition about GMOs themselves, a point that Hartley has missed. The underlying issues are not the cause of opposition, only the post hoc justification for it.

This situation is seen with vaccines. Hard core anti-vaxxers are not concerned about the science; it is always about the vaccines. The specifics of their opposition are simply a tool to justify their opposition, not the reason for their opposition. (Keep in mind, I am talking here in generalities, and of course there are many individuals with varying beliefs on these issues.)

So “anti-GMOers” talk about patents, but hybrid seeds are also patented, and not all GMOs are patented (Golden rice is a humanitarian project and is not patented). Patents are not the real issue. They just hate and fear GMOs. Otherwise, they would be marching against hybrid seeds (which also, by the way, cannot be saved and replanted).

If you really care about reforming the patent system as it applies to biotechnology, then campaign to reform the patent system; don’t demonize GMOs. If you think that the relationship between farmers and Big Ag is one-sided, then propose fixes to that problem. These issues are simply not about GMOs.

The fact that the anti-GMO campaign looks the other way when it comes to hybrid seeds, the results of mutation farming and forced hybridization clearly demonstrates that they are intellectually dishonest (or just not thoughtful). Some have argued that this is because the anti-GMO campaign is ultimately about promoting organic farming, which does not allow GMOs but does allow hybrids and the products of mutation farming.

In short, the social justice issues are extraneous issues when it comes to GMOs, because they are not specific or unique to GMOs. These arguments result from marshaling any argument possible against the focus of opposition, the demonized target of fear and hatred.

The real issues are all scientific. Opposition to GMOs are mostly justified with scientific claims, that they are harmful to health, pose risks, and are bad for the environment. Even some social justice issues can be resolved with objective evidence, such as the false claim that GMOs have increased Indian farmer suicide (they haven’t).

As an example, she states:

For example, alternative ways of addressing vitamin A deficiency through fortification, rather than genetic modification, in the Philippines have had dramatic results since 2003.

She offers this as an example of a social issue the scientists are ignoring, but this is not true on either count – this is a scientific issue, and scientists are not ignoring it. At the heart of this point is an empirical claim that supplementation programs are working.

A 2004 review of vitamin A supplementation programs in the Philippines concluded:

Two aspects are of concern. First, the magnitude of the effect of high-dose vitamin A capsules on SR, and hence on the extent of reduction in deficiency, is limited. Second, the effect does not persist for six months, which is the interval between doses. Thus there is no decrease in the prevalence of deficiency over time.

There was a decrease in vitamin A deficiency, but the effects were limited. A 2008 study found further reduction in vitamin A deficiency, from 40% overall to 15% overall, but this reduction was highly variable in different regions, and:

The exact reasons for these improvements have not been determined, but they may be the results of proven approaches to prevent vitamin A deficiency, such as vitamin A supplementation, dietary diversification, food fortification and promotion of optimal breastfeeding.

No one claims that these other approaches are not useful, or that Golden rice should be the only solution. That is a straw man. The position in favor of golden rice is that it is an additional tool that can reduce vitamin A deficiency further. Also, it is sustainable and does not require an ongoing program or financial support.

Hartley brings another unexamined and I believe false premise to her discussion, that the goal of public discussion about GMOs should be about convincing anti-GMO activists. Historically this is a failed strategy. Hard core ideologues are almost impossible to convince.

The point of writing an open letter to Greenpeace is not to convince Greenpeace (although we can always hope for a rare conversion), but rather to marginalize Greenpeace by showing that their position is anti-science and intellectually bankrupt.

In these debates there is typically the majority of people in the middle, who can be convinced either way by the evidence. In the case of GMOs, the anti-GMO campaign has successfully spread a great deal of bad science and misinformation, confusing the public and sowing fear and distrust.

The primary goal of scientists and science communicators is to correct this flood of misinformation and to bring the public back to reality.


It is important to think about the framing of a public discussion if your goal is to affect public opinion and, ultimately, policy. I also agree that it is important not to naively frame a discussion in purely scientific terms when the other side is not. You have to address the alternative framing.

However, I think it is appropriate for the scientific community to act as honest and unbiased brokers of scientific information. If one or even both sides of a debate are using bad science, then scientists and science communicators should step in and correct that bad science.

At the same time, there are those who act not only as scientists and/or science communicators, but also science-based commentators. Skeptics generally fill this role; we examine the cultural, social, and historical aspects of science and the public.

We examine public debates in terms of the science, but also in terms of the logic of arguments used, the various aspects of critical thinking, and in the context of a thorough understanding of anti-science and pseudoscience.

The GMO debate involves all of this. At its core is a dedicated band of anti-GMO activists who are using bad science and bad logic to demonize a safe technology that has the potential to help sustainably feed the world. There is good reason to think that this campaign is at least partly motivated by a competing industry, the organic food industry, which has a history of using fear and bad science to justify higher prices for their products.

The debate is mainly over the science, the tool that the anti-GMO side has used. Correcting the bad science will go a long way to make the discussion about GMOs more rational and productive.

In addition to bad science, there is simply misinformation with a conspiratorial tone. Essentially, the anti-GMO campaign tells lies about the agricultural industry. They have developed a mythology that serves their ideology (this can be properly called propaganda). Correcting these anti-GMO myths will also serve to advance the public discussion.

Hartley in her article largely blames scientists for poor communication and missing the real social issues at stake. This position is not only false, but she entirely misses the real underlying social issues that are in play here. She has bought into the fake social issues that the anti-GMO campaign uses to demonize GMOs and does not question their premise or validity.

The debate about GMOs is not about patents, capitalism, or imperialism. Those issues have nothing specifically to do with GMOs.

The real underlying social issues have to do with denialism, conspiracy thinking, anti-science, ideology, and vested interests using misinformation to demonize a competitor.

Similarly, the anti-vaccine campaign is not concerned about autism. They are just anti-vaccine and autism is just the fearmongering target of the day.

The alternative medicine community is not about health care freedom. They simply want to make money selling snake oil and want to erode the scientific standards that would otherwise prevent them from doing so.

The global warming denial campaign is largely about protecting industry profits, but they have been successful in convincing those with certain political ideologies that it is really about preventing a big government takeover of the energy industry.

These movements do take on a life of their own and become about more than what initially drove them. Culture is complex and includes many feedback mechanisms.

But – don’t confuse the justification for a movement with the ultimate true causes of a movement.

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