Skip to content
for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

GM Communications Traps and How to Avoid Them

GM Freeze worked with Ralph Underhill of Framing Matters and a group of campaigners to adapt Ralph’s “animal traps” framing model to the issue of GM in food and farming. This is our guide to spotting and avoiding some of the most common, and most damaging, GM communications traps.

animal trap icons

 

 

How we refer to different types kinds of Genetic Modification

Gene Editing

Parrot – the repetition trap

Repeats a term used to re-brand GM techniques and encourage public acceptance.

 

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

Gene editing is a metaphor – it deliberately hides the complexity and risks of genetic manipulation by comparing it with something we all do to improve our work and fix mistakes (editing text).

 

Robin – the rose-tined trap

The word editing has positive associations because it is usually done to improve things and Editors are often important people (especially in the media).

Try these instead:

Messing with DNA

Plants (or animals) created in the lab

Genetic manipulation

Sometimes we need to use accepted jargon (eg when communicating with officials) but we can still frame this to focus on our perspective, for example:

Experimental forms of genetic modification

Genetic engineering

If you really need to differentiate between newer and older techniques: gene edited GMOs

 

Tweaking, snipping or cutting DNA

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

It makes the changes sound insignificant, quick and simple, hiding just how profound and unpredictable the effects can be.

Try these instead:

Wrecking the genome

Interfering with DNA

Mutilating genes

Creating mutations

Injuring, slashing or tearing DNA

Precise, point mutations

Parrot – the repetition trap

Repeats terms used by those promoting gene edited GMOs

 

Robin – the rose-tined trap

People will often assume that if something is precise then it is also accurate. This is not true – a stopped clock is very precise but only accurate twice a day!

Try these instead:

Significant changes to the genome

DNA changes that can have far-reaching impacts

Genetic manipulation

If you really need to talk about the way that gene-editing GM techniques are different from other forms of genetic manipulation you could say that they are more targeted but still prone to all sorts of errors and unexpected outcomes.

Herbicide tolerant crops

Rat – the misunderstanding trap

It’s jargon and people won’t necessarily understand what it means

 

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

It plays down the way that these crops encourage repeated spraying with weedkillers.

 

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Tolerance is generally considered to be a good thing so the whole phrase has positive associations.

 

Try these instead:

Crops engineered to survive an onslaught of chemical spraying that wrecks the ecosystem

Plants manipulated to survive being sprayed with dangerous chemicals

Plants designed to be used with weedkillers

Crops that are repeatedly sprayed with weedkillers

If you need to be very brief, or to keep your re-framing more subtle:

Weedkiller-linked crops

Weedkiller-friendly crops

Bt crops, insect-resistant or pest-resistant crops

 

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Bt is jargon and an abbreviation so many people will not know what it means


Chameleon – the sanitising trap

Being resistant to insects or pests sounds like a good thing so these terms hide the real impacts that the crops have.

 

Try these instead:

Plants manipulated to kill insects

Plants that kill insects

Insect-killing plants

Plants that are toxic to insects

Insecticide crops / plants (this is still jargon so take care, but it will be helpful some audiences)

Disease-resistant GM animals

Parrot – the repetition trap

Repeats a claim by those promoting GM – remember none of these animals have actually been developed.

 

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Resistance to disease sounds like being healthy (though it doesn’t actually mean this).

 

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

Hides the real cause of the diseases and welfare issue experienced by farm animals – poor treatment in industrial food production.

 

Try these instead:

Abuse-friendly or abuse tolerant animals

Animals genetically engineered for the industrial food system [or factory farming – but see below for why you should be cautious about the word farming]

Animals manipulated to survive abuse and poor conditions

New Breeding Techniques, or precision breeding

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

This is a deliberate re-branding term used to convince people that new GM techniques are completely different from older GMOs.

 

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

The word breeding has positive associations, implying natural processes of sexual reproduction (exactly what GM is not!).

 

Try these instead:

Messing with DNA

Plants (or animals) manufactured in the lab

Genetic manipulation

Lab-produced

ALSO: see the suggested alternatives to “gene editing”, above  ANCHOR LINK HERE

“Problem solving” GM traits: drought-resistant, blight-resistant, high-iron, salt-tolerant, etc

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Presents the GMO positively as a solution. This implies that the proposed trait will do what it says and that will solve the problem

 

Parrot – the repetition trap

Repeats the term used by those promoting GMOs and implies that the GMO trait described actually works. This is true even when we refute the claim (eg “we don’t need blight resistant GM potatoes”)

 

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

Hides the systemic problems causing the issues that the trait is supposed to address. Also implies that the named “problem” is real and urgent

 

Try these instead:

Highlight the real problems (eg people are short of Vitamin A because they are poor)

Avoid mentioning the trait as far as possible and focus on the fact it is GM, patented etc.

If you really need to mention the specific trait:

  • Avoid branding (eg say GM yellow rice rather than “Golden Rice”)
  • Emphasize the limited appeal/impact of the traits (eg burnt-toast GM wheat rather than “low acrylamide” wheat

How we refer to individuals and organisations

Science, scientists, images of people in lab coats

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Scientists, Doctors and others who help us wear white coats, so these have very positive associations for many people.

Scientists are regarded as clever in ways that most people can’t match so referring to someone as a scientist will elevate their status, particularly in comparison with a campaigner.

Scientists have gained elevated status in response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

Rat – the misunderstanding trap

GM is a technology, being applied in real world situations, it is not, in itself, science.

There is science on both sides of the debate.

Chameleon – the sanitising trap

Presenting GM as “a science issue” hides all the social, economic and other problems caused by patenting, corporate control etc

Try these instead:

Use metaphors about gambling or violence, perhaps also children (to highlight that genetic research is still in its infancy)  LINK TO METAPHORS PAGE 

Highlight the random and unpredictable aspects of genetic manipulation.

Experimental

Risky

Industrial

Remember GM is a technology and science is only one way to assess its place in society.

Keep any people in images of GM in progress as anonymous and non-engaging as possible – eg just hands, in silhouette, wearing protecting gear (rather than lab coat)

If you need to talk about individuals involved in different GM developments:
GM developers, companies or patent holders

Farmers, farms or farming

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Most people have very positive associations with farming and farmers – from children’s picture books onwards. We can use this to help us when appropriate but need to watch out for times when it will undermine our message.

 

Try these instead:

Industrial food production (rather than industrial farming or even factory farming)

Focus on the system, corporations and big-biotech

Campaigners or activists

Shark – the contaminated or contested language trap

Many people see campaigners and activists as troublemakers or out of touch with the general population. With GM they may also think of destroying crops which many people view very negatively.

NOTE: This shark applies when talking in public about ourselves or others concerned about GM in food and farming. We might still want to call ourselves campaigners or activists in more private spaces as some people find these terms very motivating.

Try these instead:

Concerned citizens – focus on the people we represent rather than ourselves

Concerned locals (where appropriate)

Charities (rather than NGOs)

Farmers (when they are expressing concern about GM)

Researchers (when presenting our own studies or assessments)

Depending on the audience and context it might be useful to take advantage of science Robin (see above) and highlight the qualifications of experts who are concerned about GM.


Other issues and phrases

Regulation

Shark – the contaminated or contested language trap

Regulation and “red tape” have been presented negatively by generations of politicians and corporations.

Try these instead:

A safety net

Safeguards

Protections / common sense protections

Checks and balances

Sensible rules, playing by the rules

To talk about de-regulation, try: high-tech free for all, the Wild West or GM developers checking their own homework

Innovation

Robin – the rose-tinted trap

Innovation is widely considered to be a positive

 

Try these instead:

Risky untested technology

Unproven

Experimental

Also try shifting the focus to what’s wrong with the GM approach, such as addressing symptoms rather than root problems.

Monoculture

Rat – the misunderstanding trap

It’s jargon – many people won’t know what it means, even if they have heard it before.

Try these instead:

Wildlife desert or wasteland

Absence of genetic variation

Lack/loss of diversity

 


Watch out for inverted parrots


Sometimes we try to turn a word or phrase on its head by adding a negative prefix but when we do that we are still repeating the unhelpful frame, rather than creating a better one.

People often only hear or process part of a word, especially if they hear that part a lot – try thinking about an un-Elephant to see what we mean.

Rather than unsafe, try: dangerous, risky or hazardous

Rather than imprecise or inaccurate, try: haphazard, random, erratic, error-prone or variable

 

XXXX links to other pages / downloads – to come XXX

Credits and collaboration – please read at least once

These webpages, the printer-friendly versions and the images you can download were all created as part of GM Freeze’s We’ve Been Framed project. The project was generously funded by the Network for Social Change, developed with input from the Public Interest Research Centre and delivered in collaboration with Framing Matters.

The We’ve Been Framed project benefited from the input of committed, enthusiastic and very creative individuals from a range of organisations including Beyond GM, EcoNexus, Food Matters, , Garden Organic, GM Watch, Organic Farmers & Growers and Soil Association.

This messaging guide is – and will always remain – a work in progress. We will update our recommendations as the external context develops and in response to feedback and our own experience. If you would like to make a comment or suggestion, please do so by emailing info[at]gmfreeze.org

We’ve Been Framed GM messaging guide © 2022 by GM Freeze, developed with Framing Matters is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International The animal icons on some of these pages are used by GM Freeze, under license from Flaticon. They are not ours to share so please do not copy or re-use them.