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for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

The power of metaphors

This page is part of the We’ve Been Framed GM messaging guide

Metaphors – words that are literally about one thing, but which are used to describe another – can help us to convey a lot of information very quickly because they plug into people’s existing mental models. For example, you don’t need to know how the “robinhood tax” works to understand that is aims to take from the rich and benefit the poor.

Metaphors are being used to great effect by those promoting the use of GM in food and farming, including:

  • DNA scissors
  • Genetic cut and paste
  • Gene editing

Gene editing has become widely adopted jargon but is, like the other examples, a metaphor. There are no actual scissors involved in new GM techniques but the words and images suggest that genetic manipulation is like molecular microsurgery, rather than the haphazard and error-prone process that we know it to be.

One way that we can challenge the promotion of genetic manipulation in food and farming is to adopt our own metaphors. GM Freeze explored lots of options and chose the following three metaphors because they are clear, easy to understand and highlight important truths. They can also be adapted to suit your organisation’s communication style.

 GM as an injury

GM is an assault on nature.

Mutilating DNA.

Slashing, ripping or tearing DNA (rather than cutting)

If you need to use very measured language, you can still use this metaphor by saying, for example, that new GM techniques injure an organism’s DNA then try to control the way the damage is repaired. This still supports the metaphor that others may be able to extend in more hard-hitting campaign materials.

Image demonstrating the risks of manipulating DNA

This image was commissioned by GM Freeze: contact us if you would like a free copy to use in your own communications.

GM as gambling

Allowing GMOs into our fields is a gambling with our future.

We shouldn’t play Russian Roulette with our food.

Nature is a safe bet.

This image is used under license from but you can find lots of similar ones in image libraries.


Regulation as a safety net or protection

GM safeguards are an essential safety net, protecting us against things that can go wrong.

Common sense protections

Regulation is necessary because GM is prone to risky errors and hazardous mistakes.

Graphic illustrating threats to GM safeguards

This image was commissioned by GM Freeze: contact us if you would like a free copy to use in your own communications.


Take care

Be very careful about using the metaphors favoured by those promoting GM in food and farming. Sometimes we can undermine them (eg: it’s more like a DNA hand grenade than DNA scissors) but it is very easy to end up being a parrot which actually helps embed the pro-GM framing. See Communications Traps and How to Avoid Them for more.


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 the Soil Association. Thanks to all our collaborators.

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]

We’ve Been Framed GM messaging guide © 2024 by GM Freeze is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. The resources are based on material and workshops run by Framing Matters.