Opinion: Pies, GM pies, and statistics

Carrots at Farmer's Market - Some rights reserved by Ed YourdonPublic opinion is swinging in favour of GM crops and foods, but are Lib Dem voters really leading the pack?

Here on Lib Dem Voice in June, Baroness Kate Parminter said that it is the duty of the government to take into account public opinion when deciding whether to give the go-ahead to GM crops and food. It now seems that public sentiment is shifting in favour of GM food.

A survey published by the Independent last week suggested that 42% of people agree with growing GM crops here in the UK and 49% would buy and eat GM food. The article claimed that the appetite for GM is greatest among us Lib Dems:

“Lib Dem supporters (57%) were more favourably disposed to buying and eating it than those of other parties.”

This news might cheer Lib Dems who are pro-GM, such as Lib Dem Defra minister David Heath. It might alarm any of us that vehemently oppose “Frankenstein foods”. But my reaction to this statistic is simply one of puzzlement. Are our voters really more pro-GM than those of other parties? To answer this question, we should take a moment to look at the ingredients of the Independent’s survey.

If we divvy people up by how they voted at the 2010 election, then only 47% of Lib Dems would devour a GM meal. Labour’s appetite is more rapacious with 53% of its voters prepared to pull into GM fast food joint. Just 42% of Tories would toss a GM burger onto the barbecue.

It’s been three years since the last election, and people’s voting intentions may have changed. If we bring the data up to date by asking people whether they, generally speaking, think of themselves as being a Lib Dem, 51% back GM. This is level pegging with the Tories at 50% and Labour at 51%.

That’s 47% of Lib Dems drooling over GM food by one measure and 51% by another.

So where did the Independent’s claim that 57% of Lib Dems are “favourably disposed to buying and eating GM” come from? It originates in what is known as a squeeze question. People were asked: “If it were a legal requirement for you to vote, which party do you think you would probably vote for?” This third definition of voters found that 57% of Lib Dems would tuck into GM, compared to 52% of Labour and 51% of Tories.

So when it comes to what proportion of Lib Dem voters would scoff GM food, it’s 47%, 51% or 57%. Pick your own statistic.

There is more statistical spaghetti in this data than I care to digest (for example, the data are weighted and sample numbers are often low). But the message is clear. While nearly half of people support GM food, political differences depend on which recipe is used for defining voting preferences.

As Benjamin Disraeli might have said, “there are pies, GM pies, and statistics.”

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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  • “I find it bizarre how people will listen to lies and believe them.”
    Sadly Peter, I guess that’s the desensitizing effect of listening to political spin and politicians assurances.

  • Simon McGrath 29th Jul '13 - 10:00am

    Perhaps we should base the decision on science rather than scare stories or opinion polls?

  • Simon McGrath

    It would be nice wouldn’t it……what are the science qualifications of senior lib dems (and economics is a ‘social’ science not a physical one)?

  • Alex Macfie 29th Jul '13 - 1:11pm

    We have Julian Huppert; I can’t think of any other Lib Dem politicians with a scientific background. But there is a dearth of politicians with scientific qualifications across the political spectrum; this may be because politics is itself a social science and people from arts or social science backgrounds are more likely to be drawn to it or find it easier than people skilled in natural sciences. But it does lead to politicians believing scaremongering over things like GMOs: since it is the anti-GM camp who have been most skilled in political spin (the very term “Frankenstein foods” being one example).

    Maybe Lib Dem voters are more likely to be rationalists than are voters of other parties. Still, it is interesting also to contrast two anti-science dogmas, namely the anti-GM movement and creationism: the former is much more respectable than the latter among the “left”. Yes, for sure, anti-GM sentiment is not restricted to the left (it is also found in the Daily Mail), but it is best associated with the (left-wing) green movement, while creationism is associated almost exclusively with the religious Right. Yet both are basically motivated by opposition to science, with opposition to GMs perhaps being respectable among the left because it taps into the anti-business sentiments of left-wingers as a way of kicking the corporations that participate in GM technology.

  • David Allen 29th Jul '13 - 1:14pm

    It used to be that the problem was slanted statistics – people deliberately distorting the figures for their own nefarious ends. Now, that problem hasn’t gone away, but it seems to me that we are increasingly seeing a new one as well. That problem is, the desperate drive by tired or lazy journalists to find something, anything, to say about a topic, whether it is true or not.

    The obvious real truth about GM is t hat there is no significant political bias, whatsoever, in terms of who would eat it and who wouldn’t. But that’s boring. The poor journo who said that would presumably get a low grade from the editor.

    So what the heck, let’s mouth off with a statement about the stats which sort of sounds a bit more interesting. Never mind if it is actually correct.

  • Alex

    As a scientist and someone ‘of the left’ I agree entirely. The problem with science is that it is never black or white and you have to base decisions on balance of risk and what will the benefit be. This requires a good understanding of the subject and is not set up for a soundbite.

    The Green lbby is very powerful and is also rich but it is seen as being benign whereas all comanies involved in the scientific field are inherently biased – unfortunately that does not help to make the right decisions

    The same with the regulatory framewor – in Europe the precautionary principle is the strong where hazard is focused on more than risk. I am not a big fan of this as if we used the same principle in our daily life we would never do anything, including getting out of bed!

    It saddens me that we seem to be going backwards and I would like to see a situation where we invested in science education and understanding so the general population were better able to understand complex subjects such as climate change, food security, health and pollution rather than just depending on soundbites from poorly educated journalists and/or politicans

  • Alex Macfie: “…both are basically motivated by opposition to science, with opposition to GM perhaps being respectable among the left because it taps into the anti-business sentiments of left-wingers as a way of kicking the corporations that participate in GM technology”.

    This is an unjustified conflation. You do not have to be anti-science in order to be concerned about the way GM technology potentially takes power from individual farmers and places it in the hands of the technology companies. Nor do you have to be anti-business to be concerned about the possible adverse consequences of monopoly capitalism. Have I just outed myself as being ‘left-wing’ by using the term capitalism? Well, actually I’m pro-science (although not in favour of GM technology – it is possible to use one’s critical faculties to make judgements about the use to which science is put) and I’m a businessman.

  • It is very wrong to frame opposition to GM crops as ‘anti-science’. No doubt there are some luddites out there but on the other hand many of the strongest voices in support are motivated by commercial gain and so are hardly impartial.

    For what it’s worth the science aspect is very much contested. For instance, yields have improved and insecticide use is down in North America since GM crops were introduced. But in Europe which hasn’t adopted GM yields and insecticide use both show an even better trend. The main culprit appears to be the narrow genetic base of the GM varieties which mean that a bad year for adverse weather or new pests is likely to be REALLY bad. Any Irishman from circa 1850 would likely have strong views on the sense of relying on a single variety.


  • What GF said

  • Andy Boddington 30th Jul '13 - 8:10am

    I don’t think that being anti-GM is being anti-science. Anyone considering scientific potential must also consider its practical realities. For example, I cannot become comfortable with nuclear power until the issue of disposing of waste is resolved.

    With GM, as TonyHill and GF have pointed out, there are major concerns about the transfer of control of agriculture to a handful multinational companies.

    We must survive the challenges of a growing worldwide and local population, growing consumer standards and changing tastes, and an uncertain future climate. To achieve this, we need a ‘biodiversity’ of agricultural producers, methods and genetic strains.

    Monoculture, and the concentration of farming options in the hands of a few big players, will undermine the long term stability of agriculture.

    This doesn’t mean that I am against GM. It will have its place. But just like nuclear power, it is no panacea. It’s not a one-stop shop to solving the problems of demand, let alone hunger.

  • Andy Boddington

    I agree that anti-GM is not anti-science and I think the rest of your post makes sense – I too think on this question we are looking at a mix of technologies.

    The trouble is though that sciencetific discussions are actually very ‘grey’ with no black and whiote and to undertsand the arguments there has to be a basic level of understanding how the scientific methodology works. Without that it is susceptible to soundbite. The ‘Frankenstwein Foods’ quip makes good tv but doesn’t really get us far and GM is a big area, building what we know from hybrid breeding all the way to incorporation of genetic information. The Governments should be looking at this dispatassionately but I don’t think they understand the subject enough to be able to and are influenceable by lobbying (and theGreen NGO are as skilled at this as the corporations)

    In this particular area we have a NGO lobby that is very powerful , making some important points but also as guilty as the large companies of playing with the data. They have large budgets and organisations to maintain as well so the confrontational attitude helps them. A lot of the same people who are lobbying on this side, also are proponents of quack medicines that are less positive than challenging the ‘corporate world’.


    The gains made through scientific progress are clear to see on life expectancy and the innovation of man, what needs now is to focus on sustainability, from qualified people from all sides working together.

  • David Raidenovitch 25th Apr '14 - 10:51pm

    I could be considered a scientist as I have a degree in mathematical sciences. Be that as it may, it would seem to me that being anti-GMO is not anti science, as GMO is a technology, and not a science.

    All science does is try and discover the truth. And NOTHING more.

    In any case, whether GMO is good or bad is neither here nor there. People tend to make use of the future tense when it comes to GMOs. Using blue-sky words like “potential” etc. But the role GMOs are going to play in world food was decided years ago.

    People don’t seem to understand that thanks to the unbridled genius of patent law, GMO has already been monopolised by Monsanto (they own a ridiculous proportion of the seeds) and a handful of other Oligopolic multinationals.

    So stop thinking about the pretty idealised potential of GMOs in your own mind. That is simply irrelevant. That will never ever happen. What “potential” will be explored is that which maximises the profit for Monsanto. Nothing else. Nothing else, because anyone who wants in is obstructed by patent law.

    The argument should end there really. Monsanto is possibly the most evil corporation that ever was or will be. GMOs may have had potential. Once. But that is something we need to move on from. You do not want your children begging at the feet of this Monster.

    Only a fool would trust in their benevolence.

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