The left and right of the table

Part A: Video

Part B: Article

The "left" and "right" we are talking about refer to the political-left and the political-right, and the table we are talking about is the dinner table. Food today is as political as welfare, guns, gay marriage, and abortion.

Our terms for the "left" and "right" of politics originated in France during the French Revolution. As their National Assembly met at the end of the 18th century, those who supported the king sat on the king’s right, thus standing for stability and tradition. Those who sat on the king’s left were for the revolution, a discarding of tradition, and possessed an optimism that rational men could improve upon ancient traditions. The left were radicals. The right, who were reacting to the radicals, were the reactionaries.(D1)

The terms stuck, and it continues to represent divergent political views in democracies. In America, the “left” refers to Democrats or liberals, while the “right” refers to conservatives or Republicans. You could say there is a political-left and political-right at the dinner table also, for when we gather at the table to eat we bring with us all of our political baggage, and we project political ideology upon food.

However, the left-right analogy has some problems when being applied to food. Who represents the “conservative” side of food, that side that holds fast to long held traditions? You could argue that Republicans are holding fast to the technologies of the last century, technologies which have reduced food prices considerably. Or, you could argue that Democrats are reaching even further back in history, holding onto more ancient traditions. It is the Democrats, the liberals, who are more likely to advocate organic agriculture, whose proponents want to reconnect with the agricultural methods of the late Middle Ages.

Who is the "radical" here? Who is the "reactionary?"

Although it is difficult to say whether liberals or conservatives are more radical when it comes to food, it is rather easy to group people into political groups based on their opinions on whether we need more or less food regulation. It does not matter whether the regulation is applied to food or something different like energy or housing codes. The “right” is generally opposed to more regulation and the “left” views regulation more favorably. The right sees less need to regulate corporations while the left have ample reasons to do so. Ask someone what they think of the role of corporations in food, and their answer is a good indication of whether they vote Republican or Democrat.

What you eat is my business

What you eat used to be largely your own business, since what you ate tended to affect you and only you. Discussions of food pertained to taste, personal health, affordability, and religion. Now what you eat affects everyone. Food is not only a personal, but also an ethical issue.

The amount of soil lost to erosion impacts the ability of future generations to feed themselves, so the practices a farmer employs is of interest to everyone. The extent to which lakes, rivers, and estuaries are polluted depends upon the ability of farmers to prevent fertilizer and manure runoff. So if you care about the environment, you care about how people farm. People today recognize livestock as sentient creatures, and around two-thirds of Americans demonstrate a sincere concern for the feelings of farm animals.(N2) This attitude means that even if you do not eat meat, you are interested in how livestock are treated. Everyone, farmers included, wants food to be produced ethically, but we disagree on what constitutes ethical food. Given that what you eat affects everyone else, it is not surprising that food has become a controversial issue.

Food is political, and political fights tend to be nasty. An example is when Jon Stossel called New York State Representative Felix Ortiz a “cancer” for wanting a tax on junk food (Ortiz retorted that he is a “good cancer”),(S1) or when R. F. Kennedy Jr. called hog farmers a bigger threat than Osama Bin Ladin,(W1) or when when Maria Rodale wrote to President Obama saying we are “no better” than Syria because the pesticides we use on our farms are akin to chemical weapons.(R1)

Food debates do not have to be this snarky and silly. This article certainly will not be. In my research as an agricultural economist, I have learned that people on both sides of the political spectrum have legitimate arguments. Nobody wants pollution from fertilizers, not even conservatives. Everyone wants an affordable food supply, even liberals.

American voices

What I wish to do in this article is to highlight one key similarity and one key difference between conservative and liberals (as they exist in the U.S. today). By doing so, we can better understand what the food debate is really about, and why two equally smart and kind groups of people can form radically different notions about what constitutes ethical food.

In 2012, the Gallup Poll(N1) conducted a survey from a representative sample of Americans to gauge how favorably they view certain institutions. One of these was the institution of "free enterprise", another term for commerce, or the pursuit of an honest profit. Both Republicans and Democrats view this institution very favorably, so remember when we are debating about the role of government in food, we are not debating private versus public property, nor are we debating capitalism versus socialism. Virtually everyone believes someone should be able to gain in wealth if they can produce food of a higher quality or at a lower price (or both). People who call themselves Democratic Socialist are not calling for the government to assume ownership of the “means of production”, and Socialists in the nineteenth century did.

Figure 1—American voices on free-enterprise, government, and corporations

Where Republicans and Democrats diverge is in their views of “big government” and “big business”, and this fact will continually reappear as we discuss food controversies.

Less than half of Democrats view "big business" favorably, and thus they are going to be less enthusiastic about large corporations' involvement in the food supply. On the flip side, most Democrats view the federal government (which I'm calling "big government") favorably, while only a small percentage of Republicans concur. These views mean that government regulation designed to restrict the power of corporations is going to be greeted favorably by liberals, but will be opposed by conservatives.

This depiction of the left and right is consistent with the social psychology literature, most notably the research of Jonathan Haidt. Consider this quote.

Quotation 1—On victims and bullies But we really resent a bullying alpha male. And you see this, boy, do you see this in the Tea Party, where the bullying alpha male is the government. And it harkens back to the American Revolution and liberty, liberty, liberty. You see on the Left, too, where the bully is the corporations and the rich, and we need the government to protect us.
—Haidt, Jonathan [interviewee]. January 20, 2014. "Jonathan Haidt on the Righteous Mind." EconTalk [podcast]. Russell Roberts [interviewer]. Library of Economics and Liberty.

To see why views on big business versus big government are so important, consider genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some surveys show that both liberals and conservatives view GMOs similarly (while others show conservatives are more receptive). Students might be surprised that any survey detected agreement between conservatives and liberals. Some evidence even suggests that conservatives express greater disapproval of GM foods than liberals.(B1,K1,L3,R2) Nevertheless, when it comes to regulation of corporations selling the GM foods, liberals tend to favor regulation while conservatives oppose it. However much conservative may dislike GMOs, they dislike big government even more.

This is probably why most counties in California that voted in 2012 to re-elect President Obama also voted in favor of mandatory labeling of GM foods, with the reverse being true in the other counties.(M1) The GMO debate is probably more about big business versus big government than the GM technology itself.

Figure 2—Voting Patterns in California

As another example of how the political landscape matches the culinary landscape: If you drive through a region populated with an unusually large number of Cracker Barrel restaurants, studies have shown that the region is probably dominated by Republicans. If instead you pass a number of Whole Foods grocery stores, you are in Democratic territory.

As the reader probably guesses, liberals prefer more government regulation in areas like food safety, food heath, and animal welfare. Consumers of organic foods tend to be more liberal than the average American.(L1,P1,Z1) These facts suggest that food activists, meaning those most vocal about wanting to change agriculture, are probably more liberal than the average American. Given that liberals view corporations less favorably explains why so many agricultural controversies seem more about corporations than agriculture itself.

Food controversies are as much about who sells the food as about how the food is grown. This is evident in the GM food controversy, where the groups leading the opposition seem to dislike the corporation Monsanto (acquired by Bayer in 2018) more than the technology itself. If you have ever used the Google search engine, you probably noticed that as you type, Google suggests other words you may want to add, given the search terms used by many other people. It is telling that in December of 2013, when I typed the word “Monsanto” into a Google search, the third or fourth suggested term to add was “evil”. Apparently many others have performed an internet search using the terms “Monsanto” and “evil” in the same string. Given this situation, one is not surprised that readers of voted Monsanto the “Most Evil Corporation of the Year” in 2011.

Video 1—Googling the word “Monsanto”

At the heart of the anti-GMO movement is a belief in a corporate conspiracy (and I do not use the word “conspiracy” to suggest the belief is untrue). Consider this exchange from Stossel between agricultural economists Jayson Lusk (full disclaimer, Lusk is my colleague and very good friend) and food activist Jeffrey Smith (from the Institute for Responsible Technology). You will see Lusk argue that the “science” shows GMOs to be safe while Smith argues this is only because corporations have corrupted scientific and government institutions.

Quotation 2—Debating GMOs on the Stossel show    Lusk: All selection is playing around with genes...In fact, that traditional plant breeding is involving many thousands of genes and we often don't know what's going to happen. Modern biotechnology is picking one or two it's actually much more precise than our traditional plant breeding techniques.
   Stossel: So that should make it safer. Jeffrey [Smith], what about that?
   Smith: Well, the FDA scientists were absolutely clear in the memo made public from a lawsuit. They said that the process of genetic engineering is different and leads to new and different risks. Like new allergins, toxins, and new diseases. They repeatedly urged their superiors to require [more] study, but the person in charge of policy at the FDA was Michael Taylor-Monsanto's former attorney, later Monsanto's Vice-President, now is back at the FDA as the U.S. Food Safety Czar.
   Stossel: So Monsanto has captured the FDA, this thousand-person agency? And [the FDA] is just in the tank with big business?
   Smith: Monsanto has not only captured the FDA, but as I traveled to 36 countries they've done the same to many, many countries...
   Stossel: ...That makes me skeptical of you [Smith], not them [in that Smith's conspiracy theory is to expansive and intricate to take seriously]
   Lusk: You look at every major scientific authority on the subject, whether it's the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization [of the United Nations]...these are all independent bodies, of independent scientists, and every one of those organizations has confirmed the basic safety of biotech foods.
Stossel [TV show]. June 6, 2013. "War On..." John Stossel [host]. Fox Business News. Guests are Jayson Lusk (agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University) and Jeffrey Smith (Institute for Responsible Technology).

If you go to the Food Democracy Now! Website, a media organization particularly opposed to GMOs, you will see the organization describes itself as being motivated by the fact that the U.S. government cares more about the interests of corporate agribusiness than farm families and consumers.

The Cornucopia Institute has referenced a diagram titled “Is the USDA a wholly-owned subsidiary of Monsanto?” listing fifteen individuals who have held important positions in both the USDA and Monsanto (including Hillary Clinton). The #StopMonsanto group has a similar diagram with 35 people.(O1)

Figure 3—Image once posted by the Cornucopia Institute

To understand the GMO controversy one must understand the aversion some people have for corporations and their belief that corporations can control governmental and scientific organizations. Yet, this is true for most all agricultural controversies. Anne Lappé & FoodMythbusters posted a very popular video where they claim that modern agriculture's reliance on fertilizers, pesticides and GM seeds—all produced by corporations— are the result of a “quick addiction”, suggesting farmers were tricked into using these inputs produced by corporations and would like to stop using them, but they can not because of corporate power.(L2)

The left and right do not just happen to have disagreements on the proper role of GM foods. These disagreements reflect core differences in their beliefs about whether big corporations serve a positive or negative role in society. This situation means that agricultural and food controversies don't just involve farming, ranching, and food processing. They involve economics and politics.

Finally, consider the way in which food author Michael Pollan recently attacked corporations. To promote his new book Cooked he went on The Colbert Report(P2) and argued many of our health problems come from eating foods that are cooked by corporations. However, I believe in this case Pollan was probably just using corporate food as a metaphor for mindless eating. Surely, he is a patron of Whole Foods and would have no problem eating food in their in-store restaurant—yet Whole Foods is a corporation. He probably doesn’t disagree with the research that frozen dinners like Weight Watchers Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine(M2) have helped some people maintain a healthy weight—those two are foods cooked by corporations. He is just using the term “corporation” to stand for mindless eating, I believe. If that is the case, then there seems common ground for the right and the left, as most everyone today believes that people should eat less processed food and should take an active role in ensuring they are eating healthy foods.

Parting thoughts

So food is political. Good. That fact means that if you live in a democratic country you can exert control over food. And if what I eat is your business, then it is your democratic duty to tend to that business at the voting booth. It is easy as an individual to feel powerless, but in a democracy no one person is supposed to have much power.

So food is political. That means people will disagree at times. Fine. Let the food debates continue, regardless of where they lead, which is better than no debate at all.

Related information

See this article for an example of a corporate conspiracy that turned out to be true.

See this article for a discussion of how the corporate conspiracy argument can be over-used.

Related videos

Videos at and


(1) Original graph. Data source: Newport, Frank. November 29, 2012. “Democrats, Republicans Diverge on Capitalism, Federal Gov’t.” GALLUP Politics. categorization.

(2) Original figures. Data source: (a) McFadden, Brandon. 2014. Personal Communication. Graduate Student. Department of Agricultural Economics. Oklahoma State University. (b) California Election Results. Accessed February 2014 at


(B1) Bailey, Ronald. October 4, 2011. "Are Republicans or Democrats More Anti-Science?" Accessed May 22, 2013 at

(B2) Boyd, Nathalie and Ron Elving. October 8, 2013. "Does Where You Shop Depend On Where You Stand?" It's all politics [blog]. National Public Radio. Accessed October 11, 2013 at

(D1) Desan, Suzanne M. 2013. Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napolean. The Great Courses. The Teaching Company.

(H1) Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind. Pantheon Books: NY, NY. Page 13.

(K1) Kahan, Dan. October 15, 2012. "Timely resistance to pollution of the science communication environment: Genetically modified foods in the US, part 3." The Cultural Cognition Project [blog]. Yale Law School. Accessed May 22, 2013 at

(L1) Lusk, Jayson. November 12, 2012. "What Do Cage-Free Eggs Have To Do With Gay Marriage?" [blog]. Accessed October 10, 2013 at

(L2) Lappé, Anne & FoodMythbusters. October 24, 2012. Anna Lappé & Food MythBusters -- Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world? [video]. Accessed January 30, 2014 at

(L3) Lusk, Jayson. Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. Personal communication about one of his working papers. June 1, 2014.

(M1) McFadden, Brandon. May 2, 2013. Personal communication regarding his in-progress dissertation. Graduate student. Department of Agricultural Economics. Oklahoma State University.

(M2) McElroy, Molly. Nutritious Frozen Foods Can Play Role in Weight-Loss Programs [web article]. News Bureau. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Accessed June 16, 2013 at

(N1) Newport, Frank. November 29, 2012. "Democrats, Republicans Diverge on Capitalism, Federal Gov't." GALLUP Politics. Note that "Democrat" refers to both people who call themselves Democrats as well as those who lean towards the Democrats. A similar statement can be made about the "Republican" categorization.

(N1) Norwood, F. Bailey and Jayson L. Lusk. 2011. Compassion, by the Pound. Oxford University Press: NY, NY.

(O1) March 3, 2012. 35 individuals who worked for Monsanto and the U.S. Government.Accessed January 31, 2014 at

(P1) Prickett, Rob, F. Bailey Norwood, and Jayson L. Lusk. 2010. "Consumer Preferences for Farm Animal Welfare: Results From a Telephone Survey of U.S. Households." Animal Welfare. 19:335-347.

(P2) Pollan, Michael [interviewee]. April 22, 2013. "Michael Pollan." The Colbert Report.

(R1)Rodale, Maria. September 4, 2013. "An Open Letter To President Obama Regarding Syria." The Huffington Post. Accessed September 9, 2013 at

(R2) Rhan, Razib. June 11, 2013. "Do liberals oppose genetically modified organisms more than conservatives?" Gene Expression [blog].

(S1) Stossel [television show]. March 7, 2013. "Myths, Lies, and Complete Stupidity." John Stossel [host]. Fox Business News.

(W1) WND. February 4, 2009. RFK Jr.: Hog Farmers Bigger Threat Than Osama." Accessed March 13, 2013 at

(Z1) Zepeda, Lydia and Jinghan Li. 2007. "Characteristics of Organic Food Shoppers." Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics. 39(1):17-18.