The Greek root “bio” means life and is typically found in words referring to having or giving life. These words are commonplace in academia and science. Words like biology, biotechnology, biography, and biochemistry float across the heads of Americans after spending years in school classrooms learning about these subjects. The use of the root extends further into the world of STEM when the field of engineering is taken into consideration. Fields such as biomedical engineering apply design and mathematical practices to medicine and biology for use in the medical field. Similarly, the field of bioengineering uses these same engineering and design practices to either mimic a biological system or to alter a biological system or structure. A well-known example of biological engineering is the genetic modification of seeds and organisms to alter how and in what conditions they can grow in. Seeds that have undergone bioengineering are known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
In other Greek and Latin-based languages, the root “bio” is not always used in such an objective way. For instance, the terms biologique and the term biologisch are the French and Dutch equivalents of the English word organic, respectively. In these countries, produce labeled using either of these terms is not genetically altered in any way. In Spain, the term used is biofood. This term is sometimes used interchangeably with the term organic in other regions. All of these terms are used to refer to food grown without genetic modification, which conflicts directly with the objective use of the root “bio” in the English language.
The language used to describe organically grown food is very important for food production, distribution, and consumption. Language and word choice are important parts of a culture and a community and were developed to convey cultural values. Language is not stagnant. Even in modern English, words are taking on new meanings every day through their use on the internet and a changed connotation around them. Regardless of what the term is, language is an important tool in the field of advertising and marketing as well because it influences how we perceive goods and produce. Given the conflict in many different fields regarding the use, growth, and consumption of genetically modified produce, it is important for transparency to be maintained in labels of food and produce. Because scientists and researchers are constantly discovering new results and impacts of GMOs, the public view of genetically modified organisms is constantly shifting back and forth. Consistency in how we refer to genetically modified organisms is key in keeping this market as transparent as it can be.
There is a lot of debate regarding whether genetically modified foods are healthier or unhealthier for humans, the environment, the economy, and the climate than organically grown products, and the data regarding each of these subjects varies, specifically regarding human health. There is no scientific data that suggests consuming genetically modified food is detrimental in any way to human health, but the process of growing this food and spraying the crops with chemicals causes long term health effects in surrounding communities. An additional field where GMOs are associated with conflict and debate is within the agricultural industry. The integration of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into this industry has also led to a lack of diversity of types of produce grown, increasing susceptibility to disease and pests. Because of this, the number of chemicals, in the form of pesticides and fertilizers, has dramatically increased. Due to these factors, GMOs are generally viewed as a negatively impactful technology within this field, and there has been a push for organically grown foods and small scale, non-corporate farming from the environmentalist community since the 1960s. These discussions and controversies have led to the term “GMO” being associated with negative connotations and political and health conflict.
This January for the first time, there was a federal shift in the language used within industries in the United States to refer to genetically modified food. Until this point, states for the most part passed laws regarding food labeling, but there was no federal legislation regarding genetically modified produce. Instead of using the language “genetically modified” or “GMO,” food producers and distributors have begun using the words “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineering” on food products. The qualifications of the food needed to have these labels have also been altered. The intention of this language change was to make information and origin of food more transparent and accessible to the general public, but there is disagreement regarding whether or not this decision is productive and accomplishes its goal.
In the midst of a pandemic driven supply chain crisis, some people believe that changing labels and presentation of food is not the best course of action. It may lead to altered consumption patterns and confusion about what is in food products, especially among communities where value is placed on the organic/non-GMO label. Language used to convey where grocery store food comes from is not developed with the intention of being misleading, but the choice of language used in this specific example leads to questions regarding how food should be perceived, especially in the increasingly global food system where many smaller, national, or local level food systems are becoming increasingly intertwined and interconnected. Using the root bio in terminology regarding genetically modified foods directly conflicts with the use of the root in the term biofood, meaning organic produce.
Perhaps it is not the place of an English student to ask about the words on the food label when there is such great controversy about what is actually in the food, but the words bioengineered and biofood – while different in structure and use – appear shockingly similar when sitting next to each other in the grocery store. As the environmental activist community grows and expands, the public perception of GMOs has worsened. As of now, there is no way to know how this change will affect the consumption of genetically modified or non-genetically modified products. There is also no way to know exactly what the reason was for this language change, but when the language surrounding genetically modified and artificially produced food begins to match the language used for organically grown foods, I begin to wonder: which should be perceived differently? Is this “increased transparency” making it harder to understand where our food comes from? Are there lines being blurred?
To me, it appears that the reason for the labeling change had nothing to do with the content of the food or produce because the difference between genetically modified and organic produce remains the same. Instead of aiming to clarify what is in the food on the grocery store shelves, the change of name starts to blur the line between these two kinds of produce. To the innocent grocery shopper, it may appear that the two kinds of food are produced in the same way and have no differences except for a difference in cost. This appearance may lead to increased sales of genetically modified produce regardless of the public opinion of the technology used to produce them. The way I see it, the line between these two kinds of food is beginning to be blurred and presenting the foods using similar language makes it a little harder to understand where our food comes from. In an increasingly complex food system and this language change seems to be a tool to save the face of the GMO industry.
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Margaret Fornes is an undergraduate student at Butler University. She is originally from West Lafayette, IN and majors in environmental studies.