Opposition to biotechnology carries consequences in a warming world.

The science of why we believe what we believe is in full media bloom. It’s a science that, when applied equally, doesn’t favor one political party over another. It’s a science that doesn’t declare who’s right and who’s wrong on issues related to climate change.


This last point was made by one commenter on a previous post:

Once you allow that political or ideological considerations determine which side of a scientific controversy you choose … you must allow that BOTH SIDES are potentially overstating their cases.

In their “cultural cognition” studies, Yale University’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues have found that “respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.”

Kahan’s research provides much insight into how particular worldviews shape our positions on global warming, nuclear power, geoengineering, and other hot-button issues. His findings have been used by journalists to mostly explain why greater efforts to inform the public on climate science don’t lead to greater acceptance of climate change, much less reduce the heated politics surrounding it.

But the full implications of Kahan’s “cultural cognition” findings also speak to another important aspect of the climate debate that gets less attention: The ideological biases that shape attitudes on agriculture.

For example, there is growing concern about food security in a warmer world. This issue was raised by the American Association of Advancement of Science (AAAS) President Nina V.Fedoroff in her plenary address at the 2012 AAAS conference. She discussed, in this context, the importance of genetically modified (GM) crops, and the role they could play in feeding a global population expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century.

Some quick background: The advantages of GM crops are indisputable. They have been shown to require fewer pesticides and less land, are cost-effective, produce greater yields, and can be engineered to contain additional nutrients and be drought and flood resistant. This seems like the kind of technology that would be embraced to improve food security in a warmer world.

Yet, as this EU commissioned report on GM crop studies between 2001-2010 stated:

In spite of the potential benefits, the development and use of GM crops has faced significant opposition, prompted by fears of adverse social implications and health and environmental risks. The latter, which have been debated at length, focus mainly on the concept of modern biotechnology and the genetic engineering techniques used to develop these crops. The fact that humans can “engineer” a gene from a species of one kingdom to produce a species of another has fuelled imaginations and frightened the public.

But what about the scientific basis for this fear? Fedoroff, in a New York Times op-ed last year, wrote: “Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny.”

In her AAAS speech several months ago, Fedoroff lamented the negative public opinion that she says is holding back biotechnology research and keeping regulatory barriers unduly stringent. She also dinged her fellow scientists: “I suspect that if I polled even this sophisticated audience, more than a few hands would shoot up to protest their use.”

How, she asked, could attitudes remain so negative when a quarter century of biosafety research (since the first genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were introduced) “has not identified a single new risk? Why are GMOs such a hard sell, even though they increase yields, are better for the environment, and better for human health?”

She then answered her own question: “The explanation probably lies in our own psychology. Belief systems, especially if they are tinged with fear, are not easily dismantled with facts. This isn’t a new problem but it’s an urgent and growing problem.” Fedoroff said GMO opposition was cut from the same mental cloth that has led some people to deny the reality of climate change and others to insist that autism is still linked to vaccines.

In this 2009 Seed magazine roundtable, Pamela Ronald, a University of California plant scientist, offers a different take on anti-GMO sentiment:

My overwhelming sense is that public skepticism about GM crops, and the foods derived from them, is not about the science — it is about U.S. corporations. Some consumers have not forgotten that Monsanto was a producer of Agent Orange for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Others worry that corporations will control the global seed supply.

Still, consumers … need to distinguish between a scientific process (genetic engineering) and corporations. The misdirected protests are an unfortunate diversion from the obvious: We need to feed more people on less land with less water and do it in a way that reduces environmentally harmful inputs. This is a critical environmental issue of our time.

The anti-corporate angle that Ronald notes is, indeed, widespread, particularly among green groups. But as Mark Lynas writes in his new book The God Species:

The idea that there is something inherent in genetic engineering [GE] technology that makes it beneficial only to big corporations is illogical but very persistent among environmental campaigners, many of who are extremely suspicious of big business in principle … But being against GE per se because it has been promoted by big companies is a bit like being against word processing because much of the most useful software is produced by Microsoft — irrational and self-defeating.

Lynas concludes his chapter on agriculture and biotechnology on this note: “There can be no more important task than feeding people while protecting the planet. We must use the best of science and technology to help us achieve this vital aim.”

To do this, however, we will have to first overcome the heavy mental barriers that thus far prevent the potential of biotechnology from being realized.

There are important lessons here for those focused primarily on climate change.

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.