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Linguistically Modified Foods? How Language May Shape Perception Of GMs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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As politicians are aware, you betcha language can impact public opinion. In the 2012 presidential election, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had their word selections analyzed. Public reaction was sometimes more favorable than others, demonstrating how the power of words (or things remotely resembling them) should not be misunderestimated.

Alphabet Stew'ing: The language of GM can be confusing.

The ability of language to shape public perception isn’t limited to presidential campaigns. In his book, Genetically Modified Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food, applied linguistics professor Guy Cook analyzes the GM debate from a linguistic perspective. Cook makes an analogy that language functions like a windowpane. In everyday life, information about the outside world is gathered by looking through the window; often there is little focus on the glass itself. He believes language can function similarly to the window. Just as a window pane can be warped or smudged, the same can happen with language, resulting in a distortion of how things are seen through it.

Using that analogy within the GM debate, a distorted window of language could influence how the issue is perceived by the public. Would something genetically modified sound more edible than something genetically engineered? Or do Frankenstein foods evoke imagery so monstrous that considering its potential benefits wouldn’t even be an option?  Whether deliberate or unintentional, the use of biased words and metaphors can impact the public understanding of GMs and have wider political and economical effects.

Although not all information regarding GM is biased, when biased language is used, discussions surrounding the topic can become a war of words. As Cook notes, these debates often use words commonly associated with war in which battles are fought with attacks and assaults. Interestingly, the two topics–GMs and war–might not be separate. Instead, they may be part of broader international debate involving recurring themes and ideological differences.

This point is supported by a study examining the coverage of GMs by the British press and public reactions to it during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At times, GM coverage was displaced in order to focus on Iraq. However, at other times, the two topics became interrelated through the use of parallels, emotive epithets, and metaphors. Using corpus linguistic analysis, expert and non-expert interviews and focus group discussions, the study found: “Both in the press and in public reaction, the issue of GM was found to be intimately associated with other political events of the time, notably the invasion of Iraq.” Something to consider at a time when comparisons have been drawn between the current situation in Syria and Iraq.

Image Credits: by author, Nichole Renee


Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. leggedfish 11:33 pm 09/25/2013

    The GM food companies are going about it all wrong. Instead of fighting regulations that say they need to label the foods as genetically modified, they should advertise it. “Food of the Future!” as a 1950′s ad would say. Also, they should put the glowy jellyfish gene into any food they can, since what kid wouldn’t beg his mom to buy glow-in-the-dark vegetables.

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  2. 2. DanielWWalton 5:00 pm 09/26/2013

    These kinds of biases are certainly important in public discourse, but scientists are often tasked with keeping as neutral a tone as possible when describing research. If anti-GMO activists (effectively) use charged language to talk about the issues, should researchers respond in kind or attempt to maintain objectivity?

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  3. 3. marclevesque 7:09 pm 09/26/2013

    “How Language May Shape Perception Of GMs”

    Very interesting post. Genetically engineered food crop industries also actively use language to shape perception and help promote food crops derived from genetic engineering.

    For example, by using the recent expression ‘genetically modified foods’ (or GMFs) to refer to both plants derived from recent bio-molecular engineering techniques, and relatively ancient plant breeding techniques, you can raise the impression the techniques are less dissimilar than they actually are.

    See here for an indirect example of this kind of framing in action:

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  4. 4. PatriciaSchwarz 7:58 pm 09/26/2013

    You cannot put things into my body that I don’t want put in there. How’s that for framing? Are you getting a clue yet?

    This is about power. GMO advocates are trying use their own economic and political power to insert their food into people without first attaining meaningful consent.

    Of course people are going to resist that. Like no kidding. DUH.

    This reminds of that evolutionary psychologist back in the 90s who was searching for a scientific reason to explain why women don’t like to be raped.

    Some people never get that clue, amazingly enough. And I think that’s going to be true here too.

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  5. 5. PatriciaSchwarz 8:50 pm 09/26/2013

    One more thing — GM activists just love to frame their issue as the poor victimized scientists facing off against a scientifically illiterate and downright moronic public.

    You cannot expect people to trust you under those conditions, when you look down on them and let them know it at every opportunity.

    This is a very real problem. I have Ph.D. in physics and I have long been appalled and amazed by scientists who expect to make their living off of the very same public they heap with contempt and ridicule over the lunch table.

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  6. 6. DanielWWalton 2:03 pm 09/27/2013

    Dr. Schwarz, the issue isn’t about the victimization of scientists. It is, however, largely about scientific illiteracy. I don’t believe it’s fair to attack scientists for recognizing that the public is largely ignorant about the actual research behind GMOs. This ignorance too often breeds fear that can lead to voters encouraging short-sighted policy decisions. I do agree that scientists can and should be doing more to educate people about their work.

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