Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2007

What Shapes our Attitudes?

By E. Ann Clark

Genetically Modified Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food

Guy Cook. London: Routledge, 2004; 176 pp; ISBN: 978-0-415-31467-1, hardcover $100 US; ISBN: 978-0-415-31468-8, paper $28.95 US.
It takes courage to review a book written by a linguist. Seeing ordinary words through the eyes of a linguist makes the reviewer ponder each … and … every … word … choice, to avoid inadvertent inference.

That said, this is a delightful, readable and informative book, starting with the provocative title, Genetically Modified Language. The goal of the book is unambiguously stated in the introduction, “… to show that many arguments for GM exemplify disturbing trends in the public use of contemporary English by powerful individuals and organizations, in which language, while purporting to be rational, honest, informative, democratic and clear, is in fact none of these things …” Instead, the author characterizes the arguments by GM proponents as “… illogical, obscure, patronizing and one-sided, populated with false analogies, misleading metaphors and impenetrable ambiguities.”

Showing considerable depth and background in the field, and using both literature analyses and surveys of representative stakeholder groups, the author emphasizes the international nature of the debate about GM. However, most of the evidence presented derives from the experience of U.S. and especially, UK stakeholders.

The book is organized into three sections, Part 1 — The Speakers and Part 2 — The Spoken About, which account jointly and equally for most of the book, and Part 3 — The Spoken To, which is covered in a brief concluding chapter. Appendices on disputed facts and on a portion of the 1999 article “My 10 Fears for GM Food,” by Prince Charles conclude the book.

The key stakeholders in the GM debate are considered to be politicians, scientists, the media, biotechnology corporations and supermarkets. To assess the language of politicians, the author analyzes pronouncements by George Bush, Tony Blair and Prince Charles. The perspective of the scientific community is viewed linguistically through analysis of a speech by Lord May, president of the Royal Society, coupled with interviews with 43 UK scientists and external advisers. Journalistic contributions are gauged from articles in four UK newspapers — the Guardian and the Daily Mail, which are apparently anti-GM, and the Times and the Sun, which are reportedly pro-GM. Analysis of language used by companies was based largely on web site pronouncements from both supermarket and biotech seed companies.

One of the many fascinating insights presented in Part 1 is the consistently stereotypical views of academic GM scientists, for whom the term “scientist” is narrowly defined as a pro-GM scientist. Linguistic analysis of their taped interviews suggests they simply do not acknowledge the validity of a range of scientific positions on GM, and just reclassify anti-GM scientists as “not proper scientists.”

Part 2 focuses more heavily on linguistic analysis to expose the “philosophical and political premises” upon which pro-GM arguments are based. At issue is the legitimacy of claiming to base decision-making solely on science and scientific method without acknowledging the values which motivate the decision-makers. The premise that science and science alone provides all the evidence needed for the GM debate, while excluding ethical, political and other arguments is considered a betrayal or rejection of the values of the Enlightenment.

The analysis of “hooray” and “boo” words used in GM discourse will resonate with many. Hooray words, defined as words which everyone agrees with until they look at the details, include those used in the Monsanto “pledge,” which is itself a hooray word. Monsanto pledges to “integrity, dialogue, transparency, respect, sharing and benefits” and a commitment to improve agriculture and crops. Company behaviors are reviewed and shown to contradict the sense conveyed by such words.

The book closes with Part 3, a few pages devoted to analyzing the contributions or views of the public on the GM debate. While GM proponents seek to position the public either as passive recipients of scientific expertise or as active participants in decision-making, the public declines to be so categorized. The national GM debate organized by the UK government in 2003–2004 is used as an example that the public is not only anti-GM, but also public attitudes to biotechnology are often confounded with rejection of who is advocating the technology and how it is being disseminated.

Although the examples and illustrations in Genetically Modified Language draw heavily upon the UK experience, parallels to pro-GM advocacy in Canada and the U.S. come readily to mind. The book seeks to apply linguistic principles to pro-GM discourse in a way that is both revealing and comprehensible to the non-specialist and I highly recommended it for those who want to understand how language both reflects and perpetuates the divisive polarity of the contemporary GM debate.

E. Ann Clark is an associate professor in the University of Guelph’s department of plant agriculture.