Food Biotech Gridlock

Why Allowing Labeling May Assuage Public Skepticism

--Todd Newman and Matthew Nisbet

In November, Washington state voters rejected Initiative 522 that would have required foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be labeled. If the vote passed, Washington would have been the first state in the nation to require such labeling. With roughly $30 million in total spending, the ballot fight was the most expensive in the state’s history, making Washington the latest public stage for the ongoing conflict over GMOs that pits industry and many scientists against an increasingly well-funded coalition of media-savvy advocates.

According to both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, there is no evidence that GMOs pose risks to food quality or safety. Thus, proponents of GMOs argue there is no scientific justification for special labeling. Despite the safety attributed to GMOs by these scientific authorities, a nationally representative poll by ABC News suggests 93% of Americans favor mandatory labeling, with 52% believing that genetically-modified food is unsafe and another 13% unsure about their safety.

According to the same poll, there are growing gender-based and partisan differences in public opinion. For example, 62% of women think GMOs are unsafe while only 40% of men share a similar opinion. And while Republicans remain generally divided over the safety of GMOs, Democrats rate them unsafe by a 26-point margin.

Similar to the debate over climate change, the growing controversy over GMOs illustrates the tension between scientific consensus and public perceptions. Among opponents of GMOs, the fight is not so much about transparency and the "public's right to know," as labeling advocates suggest, but rather an aversion to the technology driven by deeply rooted ideology, world views, and cultural identities.

Yet a body of work on risk perceptions suggests that in face of these factors, the food industry should carefully consider and evaluate allowing labeling to move forward at the Federal level, since the move may in fact help reverse the trend of growing public skepticism.

Risk Perceptions, Culture and Worldviews

Through a number of experimental studies in the 1980s, psychologist Paul Slovic and colleagues examined the discrepancy between expert and lay assessments of various hazards. In light of the development of chemical and nuclear technologies, the field of risk assessment was developed to aid experts in identifying, characterizing, and quantifying risk. Yet in contrast to the systematic risk assessment strategies used by experts, most members of the public rely instead on mental short cuts to quickly and efficiently make sense of the many decisions they face in a uncertain world. Studies of this process, however, have demonstrated numerous mechanisms through which the public often misjudges risks and/or holds to subjective opinions about risks with unwarranted confidence.1

Furthermore, in these studies, strong initial views among the public were found to be resistant to change as they influenced how subsequent information was processed. New evidence is often accepted as reliable if it is consistent with a person’s initial beliefs, while contrary evidence tends to be dismissed as unreliable. Finally, under those conditions when individuals lack a strong prior opinion about an issue, the way that information is presented – or framed – can strongly alter individual perceptions.2 As this emerging "pyschometric paradigm" explained the mental shortcuts individuals frequently rely on to make sense of uncertain information, research in the field of anthropology sought to explain how individuals orient information consistent with "cultural ways of life."

According to culture theory, developed by anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, individuals would be expected to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce their commitment to one or another cultural way of life.3 According to their group/grid typology, group refers to the “degree of social incorporation of the individual in a social unit,”while grid refers to the “extent of constraining classifications that bear upon members of a social group”.4

In recent years, the two dominant fields of risk perception – the psychometric paradigm and culture theory – have been integrated into what Yale University’s Dan Kahan and colleagues call “cultural cognition.”7 Following the typology of culture theory as well as the understanding that individuals rely significantly on mental shortcuts, Kahan and colleagues argue that individual risk perceptions are shaped by actively crediting or dismissing evidence in patterns that fit the values individuals share with others.5

Thus, when forming attitudes about contentious issues, such as GMOs, evidence that aligns with an individual's values and worldviews will be favored over contradictory facts. As a result, scientific facts will mean different things to different people, depending on the saliency of the values or beliefs that motivate how they process information.6, 7

Through understanding how individuals form perceptions of risk, we can begin to understand how the public can remain divided on an issue such as GMOs. For example, following Kahan et al’s cultural cognition typology, individuals aligning with communitarian-egalitarian values display heightened levels of concern about the technology.

This is due to the fact that based on their underlying wordviews, these individuals – when faced with uncertainty-- tend to favor restricting markets and industry in favor of the collective good. Conversely, among individuals who display hierarchical-individualist values they tend to view regulations such as labeling as unfairly restricting markets and/or industry, institutions they hold in high regard. Since these policy measures are considered inconsistent the way they believe the world should work, hierarchical individualists tend to dismiss claims about the risks of food biotechnology.

Furthermore, as the media continues to cover the labeling debate over GMOs, the public assumes there must be something to fear, and subsequently interprets that information based on the mental frameworks that guide their judgments and behavior.

This process is made all the more reinforcing in today’s media world, where communitarian egalitarians – by way of left-leaning media outlets, blogs and popular authors – search out, find, and bump into news coverage and commentary that urges the need for labeling in the face of sensationalized – and often false – claims about risks.

Labeling advocates take advantage of this left-leaning media ecosystem by flooding social media with links to favorable coverage, commentary and arguments, establishing a set of facts and authorities on the issue that runs directly counter to consensus views among scientists and regulators.

Breaking the Cycle of Growing Public Skepticism

To reverse public skepticism and assuage growing fears, GMO proponents must reconsider the efficacy of their current strategies. Indeed, as the biotech and food industry continues to push back against labeling measures such campaigns may in fact only continue to diminish public trust.

In the short term, as campaigns such as the recent ballot fights in Washington and California show, if industry can spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising and mobilization, they can move the polls quickly in the context of an election season.

Yet this strategy is not sustainable in the long term. In addition, the immense corporate spending on communication, advertising and lobbying that it will take to fend off the labeling movement across states is only likely to amplify the extremity of claims in the debate over GM food while reinforcing the notion that policy is being decided by big money interests rather than the public.

Here’s how writer and author Mark Lynas recently summed up the no win situation that industry faces: “In both California and Washington State we have Monsanto and others pouring tens of millions into a campaign that to all outward appearances is desperately trying to stop people knowing where their products are being used. Can you imagine a better opportunity for the fear mongers: ‘Why won’t Monsanto let us know what is in our food? What are they trying to hide?’

Instead of feeding the cycle of intensifying polarization on GM food, Lynas and others argue that it may be more cost-effective and beneficial for industry to allow labeling at the Federal level to move forward. As David Ropek, a risk communication consultant, explains in a recent post at Big Think, allowing labeling could eventually lead to public acceptance over time as individuals witness first hand the ubiquity - and apparent safety - of genetically-modified food as a dominant food system staple lining grocery shelves and served across restaurants.

As Ropeik wrote in an open letter to food company CEOs ahead of the Washington labeling vote: “Even if you win the vote, you will lose the war…because the war isn’t about labeling. It’s about the public’s lack of trust in you, and therefore their opposition to the technology that is so important to your success. Your company’s opposition to labeling is hurting you far more than it’s helping. It is time for a new approach.”

Past research, argues Ropeik, suggests that when individuals are given a choice – as labeling GM food would provide them – their fears about that choice subside, and they adopt behaviors that they would otherwise strongly oppose if they believed that the behavior was being forced on them.

As he continues: “Many people will be willing to buy products containing GMO ingredients if they are openly labeled. And acceptance will grow over time as people become familiar with the label and pretty much forget it’s there (despite the efforts of your opponents, whose opposition will be undercut by your change in position), another aspect of cognitive psychology that supports labeling in the name of increasing acceptance of GMOs.

Lynas is even more blunt in his assessment of the current industry strategy, arguing along similar principles as Ropeik: “People are getting increasingly scared of GMOs precisely because the industry is fighting a rearguard battle not to tell people which foodstuffs contain them. This has to be the worst PR strategy ever: can you think of a single analogy where an industry uses every media tool, every electoral and legal avenue possible to stop people knowing where their own products are used?”

As Lynas correctly points out, industry needs to take the difficult but necessary step of shifting strategy and rebuilding public trust: “Transparency is the only way to rebuild trust. Trust cannot be bought via PR campaigns, trust can only be earned. The best way to earn trust is through full transparency, and – this point is crucial – this transparency cannot only be on terms that you set yourself. That means that if sufficient people say they want to know something, you must tell them. You cannot take refuge in saying that the experts agree that they don’t need to know.”

If we are going to avoid in the GM food debate the polarization and loss of trust that has so tragically derailed effective policy on climate change, the next few years will necessitate hard choices by industry and other biotech proponents. Understanding the social, cultural and psychological factors that influence how individuals perceive the risk of GMOs should inform more pragmatic and effective approaches to policy and communication.


Todd Newman is a doctoral student in the Media, Technology, and Democracy program at American University, Washington DC where he is studying the dynamics of risk communication in debates over science, technology and the environment. This post is adapted from a short paper he wrote as part of Matthew Nisbet’s Fall 2013 doctoral seminar in Advanced Communication Theory


1. Slovic, P. (1987). Perception of risk. Science, 236(4799), 280-285.

2. Tversky, A., Kahneman, D., & Choice, R. (1981). The framing of decisions. Science, 211, 453-458.

3. Douglas, M., & Wildavsky, A. B. (1983).Risk and culture: An essay on the selection of technological and environmental dangers. University of California Pr.

4. Rayner, S. (1992).Cultural theory and risk analysis.Social theories of risk, 83, 115.

5. Kahan, D. M. (2012).Cultural cognition as a conception of the cultural theory of risk. In Handbook of Risk Theory (pp. 725-759). Springer Netherlands.

6. Kahan, D. M. (2013).Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection. Judgment and Decision Making, 8(4), 407-424.

7. Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. (2013, June 21). How to Win People’s Hearts and Minds for GM Farming. New Scientist magazine.

Nisbet, M.C. (2012, May 25). Squaring the Genetically Modified Crop Circle. New Scientist magazine.

Brossard, D. & Nisbet, M.C. (2007). Deference to Scientific Authority Among a Low Information Public: Understanding American views about Agricultural Biotechnology. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 19, 1, 24-52.

Nisbet, M.C. & Huge, M. (2006). Attention Cycles and Frames in the Plant Biotechnology Debate: Managing Power and Participation Through the Press/Policy Connection. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11, 2, 3-40.