What’s in a name?

posted in: Commentary | 7
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.”


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.

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!