“Verbal Engineering” – How to Mislead Consumers about Biotechnology

Terry Etherton

The battle for public perception about “biotechnology in the barnyard” and animal agriculture is an interesting illustration of the use of “word play” or “verbal engineering” by anti-biotech activist groups. The intent? To misinform and scare consumers about biotechnology, science and our food production systems.

These “word sequences” are carefully engineered. The internet is awash in them!

Given the proliferation of junk science rhetoric on the internet, it seems like there is big business in scaring consumers.

A Story of Word Play – Some Examples

The activist groups who promote rbST-free milk also tout the merits of artificial hormone-free (AHF) milk. The obvious intent is to scare consumers by using the words “artificial” and “hormone”. As readers of Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology and Terry Etherton’s Blog on Hormones, Biotechnology, and Food Safety know, all milk contains a lot of naturally occurring hormones, and conventional, rbST-free and organic milk are all equally safe.

Back to AHF…if a hormone is the same, regardless of whether it is made by a “natural” or “synthetic” process does it matter how it is made? Absolutely, not!

I have not had any calls or emails from individuals with diabetes expressing concern about their use of synthetic/artificial (or recombinant) human insulin.

With respect to synthesizing recombinant proteins such as bovine somatotropin, human insulin or human somatotropin that are the same as those made “naturally”, is it really artificial if it is synthesized using the same biology that takes place in the body? How come we don’t call proteins made in the body synthetic? In science, we do. However, we refer to the process as biosynthesis!

My point – it is inaccurate, and misleading, to use the logic that associating the words “artificial” or “synthetic” with the word hormone makes that hormone different than the “natural” version. They are exactly the same. Obviously, the intent is to scare consumers with some combination of the words artificial, synthetic and hormone on milk cartons.

More word play…

“Factory farming” is another term used by the Luddites to misrepresent farming to consumers. The intent is to convey that something bad is being done in production agriculture. As readers of Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology know, this is nonsense! The farms are NOT factories and the vast, vast majority are owned and operated by families.

Sustainable farming is touted by organic food groups as the way to farm. The clear inference is that the “other” forms of agriculture production are NOT sustainable, and that progressive farmers are not practicing sustainable farming practices. I have yet to meet any farmer who is not concerned about being a good steward of their land and animals! That is, using effective and appropriate management systems to sustain their farm for future generations.

Evolution of word play…

Language obviously evolved as a communication tool. A critical aspect is how the use of a word(s) has an intended impact on other associated words in the phrase or sentence. For example, the word organic by itself has a broad and much different meaning than the phrase “organic chemistry”.

It is interesting that the word “organic” has been hijacked by promoters of “organic food”. The first definition of organic in Dictionary.com is: “noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.” This is a long way from the intent of the organic food crowd. I find it ironic that foods we consume, irrespective of their being described as organic, natural, or conventional are loaded with organic chemicals…a reality that seems to be overlooked by many.

My encouragement – there are more pressing social issues to tackle than worrying about the attacks on the most robust, and safest, food system ever witnessed in recorded history by using word play or verbal engineering that has as its goal to misinform and scare consumers. My encouragement – let’s use the evidence base built on sound science to inform consumers about biotechnology, the food system and food safety, not the scare tactics pushed by the activist groups that are based on misinformation.

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