End the Food Wars: Let’s Fight for Understanding Instead

Posted on February 10, 2015

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Here’s post that appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project site a little over a month ago. What do you think – do we need to improve the way we talk about food and farming?

Thanks to the Genetic Literacy Project for illustrating my post with this entertaining image!

Thanks to the Genetic Literacy Project for illustrating my post with this entertaining image!

I can’t really tell if it was the “packed with pesticides” or the “bashing mom bashes good” phrase that finally made me realize what was wrong.

It wasn’t long after I became active on Twitter that I began to question some of my long-held assumptions about GMOs and “conventional” agriculture. I had always been a critic of GMO technology, based on a broad range on concerns and backed by what I considered solid evidence and sound arguments. But on-line I found a community of scientists, farmers, journalists and others who were passionate about good research, sound reasoning and logical thinking on agricultural issues. And their conclusions were often at odds with mine. Seeing their evidence, I was forced to re-evaluate and modify a number of my positions.

At the same time, the anti-GMO movement became increasingly dominated by voices who rejected the scientific consensus and focused on an increasingly narrow set of hot-button topics designed to provoke negative reactions from consumers. The more I learned, the more I realized that the extreme anti-GMO activists were largely misguided and misinformed; and worse yet, not very open to discussion. Even the organic community started to focus more and more on criticizing GMOs rather than advocating for its own broad founding principles.

I started to find less and less in common with the anti-GMO movement, and more and more in common with the “skeptic” community (for lack of a better term). They decried the mis-use of poorly-performed or intentionally mis-interpreted studies to back anti-GMO messages. They advocated for a deeper, more comprehensive analysis of the concerns raised and objected to the activists’ use of emotionally-laden rhetoric and exaggerated claims. They believed that respectful dialogue and a consideration of all viewpoints could lead to common ground.

The approach made sense to me; I was inspired. I started blogging; many of my posts, explicitly or implicitly, were aimed at bridging the divides in the agricultural and food community. I started to label myself as pro-organic, pro-science, and anti-anti-GMO. I tried, in my own small corner of the world, to bring some civility and reason to food debates. I made lots of friends, and a few enemies.

Then, a couple of months ago, I hit a wall. The inspiration to write was gone; even the will to interact on Twitter was sporadic. Initially, I diagnosed it as a sense of being overwhelmed: the volume of misinformation, claims, and counterclaims were simply too much; I was banging my head against the wall, my efforts were a drop in the ocean. Still, I struggled: this had always been the case, I had always known I was swimming upstream. What had changed?

And then it hit me. The same things that had alienated me from the anti-GMO movement and parts of the organic community were starting to dominate the discussion among pro-GMO, skeptic, and even mainstream agricultural communities. The “packed with pesticides” and “bashing mom bashes good” references? They were both in relation to organic foods, and they were both shared by leaders who in the conventional agricultural sector who would have been aghast if the topic had been conventional food or GMOs. The loudest voices were sounding disturbing familiar:

Like those who claim that “Monsatan” controls the world’s seed supply, they disrespect the choices available and the intelligence of the people who make them, using snarky memes or references to “Whole Paycheck.”

They attempt to mislead people, instilling fear and distrust in consumers, not by claiming “it’s not the gluten, it’s the glyphosate” but by conflating organic dairy with raw milk (in this case, spreading misinformation about a life-and-death matter, while wearing the mantle of a food safety and risk analysis “expert”).

They counter calls to boycott GMOs and biotech companies with calls to boycott organic food and retailers.

They twist and misconstrue conclusions and cherry-pick research results to slam organic food, while calling anti-GMO activists “anti-science.”

In short, the calm, rational voices are being drowned out by the shrill cries of those who have stooped to using exactly the same tactics they claim to abhor in their “enemies.” Faced with the reality that their scientific arguments have not been as effective as the emotional rhetoric of the other side, they have neglected the option to counter negative emotions with positive ones; instead they’ve taken the low road of fighting fear with fear.

Whether the issue is GMOs, animal rights, neonicotinoids, or glyphosate, the divides in our food conversations appear to be widening as we enter 2015. I see both “sides” becoming increasingly entrenched as more and more arguments go in circles or hit dead ends.

Struggling to understand this decline, I recalled a reference Nathanael Johnson made to different forms of argument during his brilliant series on GMOs. He cited the philosopher Daniel Cohen, who has observed that the dominant form of argument in our culture is dialectical: an “argument as war” mentality that elevates tactics above substance, magnifies the sense of “us vs. them,” and declares that those who learn something new and adjust their thinking are deemed the losers.

According to Cohen, we need a new way of looking at arguments. Our focus must be on deliberation, negotiation, compromise, and collaboration. What would our conversations about food and agriculture look like if we strove for mutual understanding rather than a conversion to our way of thinking? What if the loser of an argument was the one who had failed to gain any understanding or appreciation for the viewpoints of their opponent?

If I had my way, everyone who engages in conversations about food and agriculture would make it their New Year’s resolution to continually try to set a better example in the conduct of their discussions and the ultimate goals of their interactions. We should care less about being right, and care more about understanding and being understood.

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Posted in: Agriculture, Food, Organic