Rethinking “pro-GMO” and “anti-GMO” labels


After watching the National Research Council’s recent webinar on Social Science Research on GE Crop Adoption and Acceptance, I am puzzled and disappointed by the criticism of it in GLP’s follow-story by Amber Sherwood, Anti-GMO sociologists mute attacks on biotech, urge greater sensitivity to cultural impacts”. If nothing else, labelling the social science experts as “anti-GMO” underscored the event’s collective argument that we are in need of including sensitivity to culture in the repertoire of science. Perhaps we should be taking these experts’ feedback as constructive criticism, not attacks.

It’s important to first note the conclusions from each speaker’s presentations.

Mary Hendrickson, assistant professor of rural sociology from the University of Missouri concluded that it is not just science’s capabilities, but also social, economic, and political structures that shape the adoption of any technology; as a result, knowledge of actual farmer practice and of the farming systems in which they are embedded is critical to understanding a technology’s impacts. For example, Hendrickson said that patent protection in the United States is a significant barrier to entry. We need to re-think such a system to allow for more public work on GE based on an understanding of real farmer needs.

For Dalhousie University Associate Professor Matthew Schnurr, “context matters!” It is undeniable that in cases like the matoke banana in Uganda (the focus of his extensive academic research), there are biotechnologies able to accomplish successes not possible in conventional breeding. However, as Schnurr points out, values and preferences, including those towards local varieties and colors, very much matter. If scientists and/or NGOs fail to take such ideas into consideration, it can result in lack of acceptance by farmers or consumers.

Associate Professor Abby Kinchy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Science and Technology Studies department, where I am a student, highlighted the fact that current modes of “science-based” decision-making and governance fail to account for these cultural and economic contexts, often forcing critics to seek alternative venues for defending their voice, including disruptive protests and legal actions. Such a system often stifles discussion, instead of encouraging it.

We don’t need to necessarily agree with these scholars on the nuances of some of these conversations, but it’s difficult to disagree with a single one of these above conclusions if we—the scientific community—are willing to be self-reflexive about our own work.

Maybe it is possible for one to remain critical of corporate culture, of regulatory issues, of consumer choice and ownership issues, etc., without risking being ignorantly labeled as ‘anti-science’ or ‘Luddite?’ If we require everyone who supports biotechnology to abide by this impossible standard we are setting ourselves as “pro-science” and “pro-GMO,” we will quickly lose support for our own causes, and even worse, our credibility.

As advocates for this technology, I’m unsettled by our collective inability to be critical thinkers. Since when does “expressing reservations about the use or potential misuse of the technology,” as make one “anti-GMO”? Labeling someone anti-GMO simply because we do not like what she has to say is part of the problem; it is the easy way out of a discussion, and is in no way productively influencing the conversation.

By the framing laid out in the GLP article, I might be considered “anti-GMO”. If you know me, or know what I stand for, the problem here will become a bit more obvious if it wasn’t already.

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Amber Sherwood responds:

I don’t believe and nor did I write that any of these speakers attacked GMOs in their presentations. Rather, they were giving their input from a social science perspective, as stated in the article. I referred to them as anti-GMO based on previous statements, which have been very critical of crop biotechnology–indeed their comments often reflect the ‘talking points’ of virulent GMO opponents. They struck a different tone at these hearings, which is constructive, but their past statements are readily accessible.

I appreciate their efforts to bridge science and society, and find it necessary in fact; they are trying to highlight the need to merge science with cultural factors. My most pointed criticism was the clear misrepresentation of data in one talk and a lack of focus on the problems that GE crops are meant to solve. Cultural issues are important, but they are not the only issues at hand and we can’t ignore inconvenient truths if they don’t fit our narrative. I certainly did not, nor would I ever, refer to these sociologists as “Luddites” or anti-science, as you suggested.

Becca Harrison is a graduate student in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Science and Technology Studies program. She graduated from Cornell University’s Animal Science and International Agriculture departments in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @_beccaharrison.

Amber Sherwood-K is a graduate student in the SUNY Buffalo Science and the Public program. She writes on issues surrounding genetically modified organisms and agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @AmberSherwoodK.


  • RobertWager

    I do disagree with some of the statements.

    “Hendrickson said that patent protection in the United States is a significant barrier to entry.”

    No its de-regulation costs for novel GE crops that stop wider entry.

    “current modes of “science-based” decision-making and governance fail” Like in Europe? and all countries that have significant trade with Europe?

    • rick

      Exactly, it is not patenting per se that restricts entry. Now, if you wanted to start a company offering bt and roundup ready traits, then yes, the patents on these traits might be prohibitive, although even here, some of the early patents for these traits are expiring. Perhaps if some of the tools & techniques of biotech are patented, gaining access to those tools could be a barrier, although the patent will eventually run out.

      It is the ability to patent innovation and novel applications of existing inventions that is typically the pathway for new entrants to acquire the capitol and market that enables new players to compete with the existing dominant providers of goods and services in any given economic sphere. Typically, when a new technology arises, historically you have a surge of new companies and competitors in a market. That has not happened to the extent is should have with biotech. However, I agree it has more to do with the regulatory and marketing environment making it difficult to deploy new applications of biotech than the ability of startups and public sector to generate new products being inhibited by patent of older products. Still, I am not opposed to government entitities holding more biotech advancements on behalf of the public, although I defend the ability of private sector actors to also establish and protect intellectual property.

  • Stacey

    Why is Amber’s response here? It makes her sound very defensive…

  • People are thinking about this all wrong. The sides are divided as Anti-GMO and Pro-Science. We shouldn’t label people as Pro-GMO, because the connotations of that terminology go against the fundamental ideology of GMO proponents who believe that we should allow SCIENCE to determine the PROs and CONs of the genetic technology on a case by case basis.

    • JoAnna

      And we should use be using the term “anti-GMO” sparingly. There are many good scientists (including social scientists) who are pro-science but are critical of GMOs. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.

      • Lumen

        This is exactly the same type of argument that the vaccine deniers have. “We’re not anti-vaccine, we just have questions.” Then they proceed to spout factually incorrect or misleading talking points that inflate the risks or frighten people.

        People who are against Global warming are fond of this gambit as well. “We aren’t denying anything, we are just skeptical.”

        Being critical and asking tough questions is always good. However, when those questions and criticisms have been met with mountains of clear evidence and well researched studies, and the result is just more repetition of already settled arguments… it’s time to call a spade a spade.

        Blaming GMOs for poor farming practice, broken patent systems, or a lack of cultural communication is still Anti-GMO. All of these issues existed before GMOs and would continue to exist if GMOs disappeared tomorrow.

        Anyone who wants to shed the “anti-GMO” label should start with admitting that they were wrong about the safety of GMOs.

      • mem_somerville

        Maybe that’s who we are talking to though–the real anti-GMOers.

        Some people seem to think that every comment and conversation we have is supposed to be some sort of touchy-feely outreach. It’s not. Sometimes it’s calling out really bad behavior for others to see.

        I’m getting tired of the all the calls for kumbayah. Some stuff needs to be called what it is.

        • JoAnna

          that’s why I said to use the term sparingly. Obviously there are a lot of groups/individuals on the fringe who are grossly anti-GMO and weird conspiracy theorists. But using that label to describe ANYONE with questions, like the original article’s author did, is not productive.

          Anti-GMO is someone who perpetuates the lies and myths about the safety, health effects, etcs of GMOs (and these people are unfortunately the loudest and more problematic)

          Not someone who says we should have better understanding of how communities react to the technology.

          • mem_somerville

            But those folks did perpetuate myths too. We watched them do it. They used misinformers like ETC as evidence. The Schmeiser case was misrepresented.

            If they misrepresent the business and legal issues, why does that get a pass? In my definition of anti-GMO, that’s in there too. Who gets to pick how broad the definition is?

  • A problem is, the pro-GMOers seem to want us to believe in “the immaculate conception”–of GMO’s.