The language of the GM technology debate

The great GM debate is a complex one. Professor Guy Cook examines the ways in which the issue is often tackled - verbally that is.

The language of the GM debate is nearly as complex as the science. Five years ago I published a book analysing the way people use words to make their case when arguing about genetically modified food.

It was based on the findings of two research projects in which I and my research team interviewed ‘major players’ in the debate (scientists, biotech companies, politicians and campaigners), collected a half-million-word database of newspaper articles, and conducted focus-group discussions to see how members of the public really reacted to the arguments – rather than how those involved in the debate imagined they did.

Some findings were rather surprising. While both sides agreed that, in the words of then Prime Minister Tony Blair, ‘it is important for the whole debate that it is conducted on the basis of the scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice’ (as though everything outside ‘science’ were ‘prejudice’), the use of language was anything but rational and scientific. Everywhere, proponents of GM smeared their opponents by associating them in highly emotional language with the worst kinds of mindless extremism.

In 2002, Blair talked of ‘us’ (a favourite pronoun by which he apparently meant the British people) ‘being overrun by protesters and pressure groups who use emotion to drive our reason’, as though those who disagreed with him were somehow not British (‘them’ not ‘us’), and emphasising his point by using a word (‘overrun’) that linguistic analysis can show occurs almost exclusively with vermin or enemy armies. There is also a tremendous irony in using highly emotive alliterative rhetoric (‘protesters and pressure groups’) to argue for ‘reason’ over ‘emotion’. A year later, Lord May, then president of the Royal Society, made a speech in which he equated the beliefs of the organic movement with those of Hitler, Mao, the Taliban and Creationism, which is based on a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

There was also frequent argument on the pro-GM side by the most unscientific strategy of conveniently selecting evidence to suit their point, rather than seeking counter examples as good science should do, with regular references to the historical benefits of new technology – vaccination, antibiotics, dentistry, lightening conductors – but never any mention of harmful technologies such as nuclear weapons or thalidomide. Most underhand of all, given the concerns of that time (and this), opponents of GM were frequently equated with ‘terrorists’.

In the words of one scientist we interviewed: ‘You got terrorists come along and trashing it... you know, in the 1940s they burned books, and now they tear up plants’.

The pro-GM News International press even suggested that plants could be genetically engineered to detect terrorist plots! ‘Plants may warn of bio-terror’ was a 2003 headline in The Times – though the key words here seem to be ‘may warn’, making this one of the many promises of GM benefits that never happened – like the ‘golden rice’ that was supposed to tackle child vitamin-A deficiency and blindness.

In short, while opponents were regularly accused of hysteria, hyperbole and lack of scientific rigour, it was the pro-GM arguments that regularly exhibited these qualities, with minor players, such as the rank-and-file researcher quoted above, picking up – sometimes almost word-forword – the arguments of bigger players such as Tony Blair, Lord May and the pro-GM press.

Unlike them, I am not pulling these examples selectively out of a hat to suit my case. Our projects exhaustively demonstrated such uses of language as frequent and recurrent patterns in pro-GM arguments. Perhaps our most telling finding concerned the infamous phrase ‘Frankenstein foods’. This was indeed, as claimed by the GM lobby, used very frequently – but not so often by their opponents. Instead it occurred far more frequently in the discourse of the pro-GM lobby, anxious to stereotype all arguments against them as ill-informed, tabloid-inspired hysteria. It was a convenient strategy for dodging, rather than engaging in, rational debate.

Reason over emotion?

But all this refers to a debate that took place more than five years ago – a very, very long time in politics, if not in the natural history of plants. We are told the new debate is different and involves different issues; so while opponents, locked in their Luddite obstinacy, have not moved on, proponents of GM, being open-minded, rational and caring, have new arguments on their side. This is because the world situation is apparently radically changed. Today we have food shortages and a burgeoning world population, whereas before...

This time around, the effects of GM on environment and health will also perhaps be different – surely a unique development in causality for the natural sciences. In the words of Sir Bob Geldof, an adamant champion of GM (indeed, a self-professed ‘big GM guy’) and of reason over emotion: ‘the media agenda is rooted in an argument from 12 years ago. They are not up to speed on the conditions on the continent of Africa, and they really need to be’. Or in the alliterative rhetoric of The Times earlier this year: ‘The world has moved on. Food is no longer frivolous’.

So things have ‘changed’ and we have, in addition, new faces on the scene: a new British Prime Minister (less given to, or perhaps just less successful at, clever rhetoric than his predecessor), a new president of the EU Commission, a new Pope, and soon a new US president. These are clearly radically different times, when we could, as many are saying, look again at the arguments for and against GM. We could also, given the irrational flavour of the debate last time around, re-examine those arguments in a calmer and less emotive way.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what is happening. The same moves in the same arguments are being repeated by the pro-GM lobby.

Move One is to claim the argument is only scientific, a matter of quantifying known short-term effects as a prelude to making policy decisions, without mention of the political, social or psychological consequences of major changes in food production. Thus, in June of this year, Gordon Brown, echoed his predecessor: ‘The attitude to GM crops and GM food taken by consumers in our country and in any country is going to depend on the scientific and medical advice... Scientific advice is going to be the key to the future’.

Move Two, however, is to conduct the argument in distinctly unscientific terms, not by addressing scientific evidence against GM (of which there is a great deal that has not gone away), but by stereotyping the opposition as emotional and ignorant. Often this happens through word choices that can easily pass unnoticed.

What’s in a word?

One of the findings of our original research, for example, is that the verbs used to describe anti-GM views are almost exclusively ones referring to emotion rather than cognition. Thus while proponents ‘think’, opponents ‘feel’, ‘worry’ and ‘fear’. This is still as much in evidence as ever. Speaking for the EU Commission (now solidly behind the GM cause), its president, Joseìeì Manuel Barroso, ‘admitted people were worried about GMOs in food and farming’, but countered this worry with reasons. The Times, in April of this year, talked of opposition to GM in Europe as inspired by ‘romanticism’ and a ‘deep-rooted fear of science’.

In addition, opponents of GM are regularly mocked for being rich and well-fed – as though the proponents were any different, or as though there were no well-documented opposition among, for example, poor Indian farmers. Proponents are mocked, too, for their belief in the goodness of ‘nature’ – as though the value of that complex but important word could be dismissed simply because it cannot be precisely defined in science.

One recent convert to the pro-GM faith – and I choose my words advisedly – is Country Life, whose recent editorial on GM is very much in this spirit. It begins with the observation that the phrase ‘Frankenstein food’ sums up ‘the public’s instinctive fear of developments it doesn’t understand’, and then, after rehearsing the usual arguments as though they were incontrovertible (‘surely’ people ‘must’ see the point, etc), concludes with the following flourish:

‘This Easter weekend, we shall celebrate the rebirth and resurrection that is symbolised by spring. It provides a moment, perhaps, to contemplate the long-term future of the world, which looks far from bright. Wars could break out over water. Flooding and desertification could cause huge movements of people, on a par with those experienced during the Dark Ages.’

This apocalyptic tone illustrates another curious aspect of pro-GM rhetoric, for while it is often insinuated that it is opponents of GM who are irrational religious fundamentalists, acting out of ‘pulpit prejudice’, the opposite is often the case.

Once again, the clue is in small choices of words: ‘Monsanto is committed to enhancing grower productivity and profitability as well as supporting product stewardship’.

Monsanto’s continuing use of the word ‘stewardship’ echoes a long-standing Judaeo-Christian position, based, like Creationism, on a literal interpretation of Genesis, that God gave humanity ‘dominion’ over nature. Hence the strong, long-standing support for GM technology by the Vatican, the Chief Rabbi and the Church of Scotland, and its vigorous promotion in one of the most religious countries on Earth, the USA. Monsanto, after all, hails from the ‘Bible belt’ (or ‘bio-belt’ – take your pick) and there are well-documented links between the powers in that GM heartland and the fundamentalist Christian lobby in the Bush White House. Lord May simply got it wrong when he saw the ‘fundamentalists’ as his opponents.

Meanwhile, while the pro-GM lobby seeks to bully and distract by stereotyping its opponents, and disguising its own motives – which are surely still ‘profitability’ rather than concern for the world’s poor – the real arguments, both scientific and social, against GM remain.

There are good reasons, rather than emotions, to believe that it will not solve food distribution problems, that it does cause environmental damage, that it is undermining legitimate national and international decision-making processes, that it will have detrimental social effects by further industrialising farming, and that it will dangerously disrupt the relation between humanity and the natural world.

Guy Cook is professor of language and education at the Open University. He is co-editor of the journal Applied Linguistics and an academician of the Academy of the Social Sciences. He has published extensively on the role of language in education, public debate and advertising. For more information on his work on the language of food politics, visit Guy Cook's wepage.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008