What’s in a name?

Applause genetically engineered rose via Wired.
Applause genetically engineered blue rose, image via Wired.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
–Shakespeare

Does the name of a scientific technique and its results matter?

There are many names for genetic engineering and genetically engineered organisms, and many definitions for those names. Scientists and government agencies in the US generally use genetic engineering and biotechnology. Activists who dislike the technology call its results GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Regardless of why these two groups use these different terms, I think we as science communicators find ourselves contributing to the divide. When we eschew the term GMO in favor of the terms GE or biotech, we may be inadvertently preventing our communication efforts from reaching the widest audience.
When someone Googles “GMO safety” they get a much different result from “biotechnology safety”. When I do these searches, US government regulatory agencies come up for the biotechnology search, but not for the GMO search. That means many people looking for info on this topic will never find the government information. They’ll also never find many scientific journal articles on the topic.
Karl and I are scientists so we mostly use the term genetically engineered or GE. But we  try to include the term GMO in hopes that search engines will bring folks here.

Process vs product

In 2014, Hilary Clinton said: “‘Genetically modified’ sounds Frankensteinish. ‘Drought resistance’ sounds really – something you want. So how do you create a different vocabulary to talk about what it is you’re trying to help people do.”
I think the best vocabulary is to actually talk about the product, not the method. Instead of “GMOs”, we should be talking about insect resistant cotton or virus resistant papaya. Each trait has its own pros and cons, and it’s much more productive to address those unique characteristics than to try to group them.
Trait by trait discussions are ideal, but in the meantime we should try to get more comfortable with the term GMO. Like it or not, it’s here to stay.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

7 comments

  1. Hi Anastasia, While I agree with your conclusion. I use G.E. as it is more accurate. I consider the gmo category to include g.e. along with the other methods of modification. Gmo as in “hell no gmo” is Orwellian and being a stubborn butthead. I refuse to use Orwellian terms that lead to misunderstanding or conceal truth. We are already a cashless society. Paper currency is not “cold or hard” Therefore it is not cash. When I have explained why I differentiate between the different forms of modification. It is one of the few times I have actually had antii g.e. folks agree with me. Peculiar result though that may be.

  2. The difference in search results between GMO and biotech/transgenesis/etc is staggering, so I’m really happy you’ve written this article. I also think the reason why the biotech corps named their new site “GMO Answers” is for this very reason.
    I’m not sure if you saw this on twitter, but it’s also a very interesting observation on google image search terms: https://twitter.com/WyoWeeds/status/590340383680237568

  3. I’ve always been comfortable with the term GMO. Despite being a massive pedant I’m fine that the term isn’t necessarily reflective of what it is describing – it is the term most used in the general discussion (outside of scientific circles) and trying to change it to something else can generally be seen (I think) as an attempt to obfuscate and confuse, rather than to clarify or properly define.

  4. I think GMO is a fine term as long as the thing being discussed is an organism. I use it as a marker. A person who refers to GMO oil (or other ingredient) is a person who is ignorant on the topic. In professional settings, I tell lay people that when they hear terms like that, the speaker has then identified himself or herself as being ignorant on the topic and not worth listening to. If they see a term like that on food, they know they are being marketed to by companies willing to lie to them to get their money.

  5. Wow! I hadn’t seen that, thanks for sharing. These images make it clear that we science communicators must do a better job of using the term GMO. There will always be the “red” images, but I’d like searchers to see more of the “blue” side, too.

  6. I agree that GE is more accurate, and even better would be naming the technique (perhaps rDNA) or the specific trait and crop (virus resistant papaya). But we have to consider what terms will bring our work to the greatest audience.

  7. The more I think about this and the various arguments/discussions/verbal wars, I have been in. I do not remember anyone not knowing what I meant by G.E. A few have asked why I use it. Perhaps a bit of flexibility depending on audience.

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