How to resolve the GM debate

2556525_0e203397ae1There are many contemporary issues where the four cultures can be seen hard at work, jostling with one another to claim the high ground, to dominate the debate, to shape our understanding of reality. One such arena is the polarised issue of genetically modified crops.

A report has been issued by the UK think tank Chatham House warning that the nation needs to pay more attention to food production if it is to address potential future food supply constraints.

As part of this discussion it is argued that the public should now drop its unsubstantiated opposition to GM crops to enable more people to be fed. Any other course of action is regarded as no more than elitist privilege.

The analysis suggested by grid-group cultural theory is that when facing the facts as a matter of urgency is advocated, what people are really trying to do is to shape the world to be more in keeping with one of four basic worldviews, or cultural biases.

The argument in favour of GM crops has so far been strongly Individualist. According to the Individualist paradigm, progress must be better, innovation is naturally beneficial, human ingenuity can solve all problems and if the status quo can’t compete it must yield. Risks to society are by definition not really risks at all. Safety, both in general and in particular, can be assumed; the onus is on detractors to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there are dangers; conversely the precautionary principle is opposed. This may seem a caricature, Yet many of the published arguments fit this caricature very well.

Where these individualist assumptions are challenged, it is easier to attack than to address the challenge. Opponents are ‘eco-warriors’ and ‘activists’ who, depending on expediency, may be depicted either as a ‘rabble’ or as ‘elitists’. The aim is to discredit the views of Egalitarians, for whom GM crops are, among other things, yet another nail in the coffin of the Common Wealth (commercialisation of genetic materials that were previously free to all users; binding farmers to inequitable contracts for seeds/herbicides/fertiliser). Egalitarian arguments too have something of the caricature to them (another apocalyptic threat to civilization cooked up by that unholy alliance of profiteers and their pseudo-scientific lackeys!). Fortified with the insights of grid-group cultural theory it is fairly straightforward to predict the arguments of the protagonists in the debate. If only they would stop behaving to type! Ironically – and perhaps counter-intuitively –  it seems that the more we know about a subject, the more polarised the debate becomes. In an experiment testing views on nanotechnology, it was found that

‘individuals exposed to balanced information polarize along cultural and political lines relative to individuals not exposed to information’ (Kahan, Slovic, Braman, Gastil and Cohen, 2007: Abstract)

But it gets worse. When the Hierarchical worldview becomes involved it is held that the conflict can be straightforwardly resolved by means of regulation. Where there are risks they can be quantified by experts and mitigated by means of established process as authorised by a clear jurisdiction. The ‘problem’ of GM crops is actually – for Hierarchists – procedural. As soon as GM is legally circumscribed, it ceases to  be a problem.

What Individualists and Hierarchists fail to recognise is that Egalitarians are not going to go away any time soon. They cannot be shouted down (because ‘eco-warriers’ tend to shout quite loudly themselves) and their concerns cannot be resolved by merely by means of regulation (because they have substantive, not only procedural concerns).

The matter needs to be resolved in a way that the opposing worldviews can all buy into, with a little give and take. Verweij and Thompson (2006) call this approach ‘clumsy solutions’ – which sounds unattractive until compared with the elegant failures that abound when policy ignores or belittles one or other of the Four Cultures. In other words, clumsy solutions are the least bad outcome that can satisfy each of the worldviews described by grid-group cultural theory. (Another term for this approach is ‘social meaning overdetermination’ , Kahan et al.)

So, for those who sincerely believe that GM crops are required to avoid mass starvation and who are frustrated with the environmentalists’ wilful obstruction of humanitarian progress, here’s a clumsy solution:

Allow GM crops on the condition that all associated intellectual property remains entirely in the public domain in perpetuity.

This satisfies the Individualist demand for a roll-out GM (whoever wants to can use it) and the Hierarchist demand for regulation (in the form of intellectual property regulation). It also assuages the Egalitarian complaint that GM is simply a mask for global corporations to take intellectual property from farmers and profit from the contrived need to buy new (trademarked) seeds every season.

If Individualists are not prepared to accept the condition of public domain Intellectual Property rights for GM technology, we might then be justified in questioning the sincerity of their claim that the most important thing now is to avoid food shortages. Perhaps, after all, the most important thing is still for biotech companies to make a profit.

But if there really are food shortages, and if GM really will produce more food, then it really will be profitable – won’t it?

Meanwhile the Chatham House authors are to be congratulated for recommending a process that includes

‘a systematized partnership between stakeholders across the sectors, operating on the basis of transparency and trust.’ (p. 38).

In recommending a reopening of the GM debate, they are also, perhaps, to be congratulated for manipulating the ‘biased assimilation’ effect (in brief, those who already support GM crops will be more likely to take the findings of the report seriously if they think it affirms their pre-existing worldview).

3 thoughts on “How to resolve the GM debate

  1. this is an excellent post. On culture & perception of GMO risk, see Finucane, M.L. Mad cows, mad corn and mad communities: the role of socio-cultural factors in the perceived risk of genetically-modified food. P. Nutr. Soc. 61, 31-37 (2007). One thing that jolted me in your argument was your public-domain clumsy solution. I immediately got the social-meaning logic of the argument — if egalitarians are motivated to credit claims of technological risk b/c they morally resent self-seeking commercial behavior, then tying GM to a conspicuous de-commercialization policy should make egalitarians more open-minded about risks-benefits of GM. (You might want to look, too, at Lessig, L. The Regulation of Social Meaning. U. Chi. L. Rev. 62, 943-1045 (1995), for discussion of social-meaning tying techniques, although I don’t think he sees this effect as cognitive in the way you do). What jolted me was the idea that rolling back intellectual property rights could have this effect. It didn’t occur to me that intellectual property rts was salient enough, or could have enough social meaning pop, to generate this effect. I didn’t imagine that excessive entanglement of GMO in property rights was possibly a source of the egalitarian disposition to see risk in it. But now that I see your post, I am put in mind of a comparative media-content report on synthetic biology that found that the European press is much more focused on disputes over intellectual property in this form of biotech than is the US media, which focuses much more on disputes over “playing God” (presumably b/c their respective audiences have different moralconcerns). See Having now been thwacked in the face twice by the same 2-by-4, I’m staring to believe that intellectual property could well be the sort of cultural/cognitive linchpin for GM, at least in Europe…. someone should test this!

  2. Yes, I’ve long thought this, to much sideways staring from friends when I say all GMOs should be in the public domain and useable by everyone, just like what DMOs are. (Domesticaly Modified Organisms like meat puppets:cats, dogs, hamsters and most of our crops and livestock)

    Good solutions are clumsy solutions because while they offend each of the fourcultures, but only do so once. Most solutions offered by one of the fourcultures tend to seek alignment and perfection, thus offending the others at least twice.

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