Genetically modified food is everywhere in America’s supermarkets and restaurants. And since it’s not labeled, most of us have no idea how much of it we’re eating — or how much it’s affecting our health.
American foodies are a sophisticated and discerning bunch. We frequent farmers’ markets, scrutinize food labels and proselytize about the evils of high-fructose corn syrup. So, how did we wind up giving genetically modified foods a pass?
In the past two decades, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have completely infiltrated our farm fields, grocery stores and kitchens — so much so that most people can’t say with any certainty how many GMOs they actually consume daily. If you eat corn chips, cook with canola oil, drink soymilk, or indulge in the occasional muffin made with baking powder, for instance, chances are you’re eating GMOs.
Twenty-five years ago, plant genetics was an obscure science and far from the center of the food chain. Today, more than 54 percent of American crops contain GMOs and roughly 70 percent of processed foods harbor at least one genetically modified ingredient, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization.
Not surprisingly, a lot of money is at stake. Monsanto, team-GMO’s biggest player, reported $13.5 billion in sales last year, up 14 percent from the year before. The sales figures are easy to track and enumerate. Far less certain is the impact that GMOs are having on our health.
The fear, among many health experts, is that GMOs are fueling an increase in food allergies and other gut-based ills. Although a direct correlation is impossible to track in the United States because GMO foods are not labeled, a glance across the Atlantic is edifying.
British researchers found a 50 percent jump in soy allergies after the introduction of GMO soy into the country’s food chain. Consequently, the European Union banned genetically modified foods in 1999. The moratorium was lifted in 2004, when strict labeling requirements went into effect.
In the United States, GMO proliferation has corresponded with upticks in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, leaky gut, and, especially in children, allergies. Coincidence? Perhaps, but Don Huber, PhD, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., doesn’t think so. The introduction of GMOs into the food supply, says Huber, has been not only a massive human experiment, but a large-scale “betrayal of the public trust.”
Confusion Breeds Ignorance
One reason so many Americans are unclear about the relative merits and risks of GMOs is that the science behind them is notoriously challenging to grasp — and easy to spin.
A genetically modified organism is one in which the genetic composition of that organism has been altered — meaning that specific elements of the DNA have been removed or added to achieve certain ostensibly desirable traits.
In agriculture, the process is used to create so-called super-plants that can withstand things like insect attack and drought, or that possess flavor and texture profiles that make them more appealing. Those who defend the practice argue that the technology is simply a 21st-century approach to plant breeding, and that farmers have long bred plant species for desirable traits, such as better flavor and texture or greater yield.
Critics of GMOs point out that there are a number of flaws inherent in this breeding analogy. For starters, they say, genetic modification allows the transfer of any gene across any species in ways that traditional farmers never imagined. Plants and organisms unable to physically reproduce can become unnaturally intertwined. A novel gene may be cobbled together from a plant virus, a soil bacterium and a petunia plant, for example — creating a kind of botanical Frankenstein.
Genetic plant modifications are also unwieldy and imprecise. “Genetic engineering takes artificial combinations of genes that have never existed together, forcibly inserts them into random locations in the host genome and then clones the results,” says Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods (Yes! Books, 2007).
What’s most concerning to the critics is that, in 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relegated responsibility for the safety of GMO foods to industry. The companies themselves not only decide whether or not to consult with federal agencies, but also what scientific data to submit. In essence, people who make GMOs are the same people who test GMOs for safety, says Bruce Blumberg, PhD, a developmental and cell biologist at the University of California, Irvine. “Americans think the FDA and EPA are testing GMOs and making them safe, but that’s simply not true.”
Advances in GMOs accelerated under the loose regulations. The first genetically engineered food hit the market in 1994 (the Flavr Savr tomato). Since then, sugar beets, potatoes, corn, squash, rice, soybeans, vegetable oils and animal feed have all been manipulated. In 2011, American farmers planted more than 170 million acres of GMO crops. There’s even a genetically engineered salmon in the works.
GMO Health Hazards
So, what does this mean for you? Honestly, no one knows for sure. Scientists can’t measure the impact of GMOs on human health when no one knows which foods contain GMOs and which don’t. Likewise, companies are not required to share their health and safety research. The secrecy has fueled a hostile climate between GMO supporters and detractors.
“When there are so few studies done on the safety of GMOs in people, we have to act like detectives. We have to weigh anecdotal evidence, case studies and theoretical dangers to build our case. Put it all together,” says Smith, “and even from the most conservative viewpoint there is a stunning implication of harm.”
Until recently, genes were thought of like Legos. Plant scientists imagined they could snap unwanted genes out and snap desired genes in without having an impact on the surrounding DNA. But that tidy theory was upended when the Human Genome Project discovered that genes don’t work in isolation but as part of a system.
The current understanding is that inserting new genes into a plant’s DNA can create untold collateral damage, says Jeffrey Bland, PhD, FACN, a nutritional biochemist and president of the Personalized Lifestyle Medical Institute in Seattle. “What other effects might genetic modification be having in humans that we don’t know about?” he says.
Here are a few of the top concerns:
Leaky Gut: Leaky gut syndrome takes place when fissures open between cells lining the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Partially digested food particles ooze through those fissures into the body and appear to be foreign invaders. The immune system is then called out to seek and destroy. If the situation isn’t ameliorated, autoimmune disorders, food allergies and food sensitivities may arise. GMOs introduce gene sequences that the body has never seen before. The concern, says Smith, is that our immune systems may be “interpreting the GMO as a harmful attacker and responding in kind.”
Consider the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, which is one of the most common genetically engineered traits. GMO crops that contain the Bt toxin are designed to kill insects by breaking open their stomachs. The concern now is that it might be causing a related reaction in humans.
“The gut is the first interaction point between GMOs and human physiology — it’s on the front line,” says Bland.
When scientists raised specific concerns about genetically modified corn, Monsanto and the Environmental Protection Agency offered assurances that the crop would affect only the digestive tracts of insects. They promised that the human digestive tract would destroy the Bt toxin. But a 2011 study of pregnant women in Quebec, Canada, found Monsanto’s Bt toxin in the blood of 93 percent of the women tested and in 80 percent of the umbilical-cord blood of their babies. The authors suspect the Bt toxin migrated from the genetically engineered corn, ubiquitous in processed foods, and entered the women’s blood supply, something Monsanto said could never happen.
Allergic Reactions:Allergies are a growing health problem, especially for kids. Between 1997 and 2007, food allergies in children rose nearly 20 percent. Most food allergies are reactions to proteins, such as milk, eggs, soy, nuts and gluten. And since most genetically engineered crops make new proteins, it’s conceivable that they could spark new allergies or increase the incidence or severity of existing allergic reactions.
In the mid-’90s, plant scientists inserted a Brazil-nut gene into soy DNA to make a soybean with more diverse proteins. Nuts are some of the most common and most deadly food allergens. Luckily, before the new soybean went to market, the creators tested it for allergenic properties. To their surprise, the new soybean carried the nut’s allergenic gene. That was a close call, but Smith worries it will not be the last. When a new protein is introduced to the food supply, he notes, it is difficult to know whether it will cause an allergic reaction because people typically don’t show symptoms until they’ve had several exposures.
The World Health Organization (WHO) designed a safety net to lower the odds of another Brazil-nut incident. At its core is a database that allows crop developers to compare the structure of any new protein with the structure of proteins that are known allergens. WHO also recommends testing new proteins for digestive and heat stability. (The more stable a protein is during digestion and under heat, the longer it spends in the gut and the higher the odds it will cause an allergic reaction.)
According to Smith, genetically modified soy, corn and papaya all failed parts of WHO’s voluntary tests. Specifically, he notes, a protein in Bt-toxin corn is similar to a protein that triggers egg-yolk allergies. Likewise, a protein in the widely used Roundup Ready soybean aligns closely with a dust-mite allergen. The biochemical result, says Smith, is that “if you have an allergic response to dust mites, you might also have an allergic response to Roundup Ready soy.”
More troubling still is a study showing that part of the Roundup Ready gene from soy can transfer into the DNA of human intestinal bacteria, where it may continue to be biologically active. That means “that these proteins may reproduce inside your gut,” says Smith, “so, if you are allergic to that protein, and it is being constantly made within your GI tract, you will constantly be triggered [to have allergic reactions].”
Endocrine Disruption: Ninety percent of plants genetically modified to survive herbicides contain residues of Roundup. The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, disrupts the endocrine system, which is in charge of secreting hormones that regulate our moods, our metabolism and our sexual functioning.
In laboratory studies of human cells, glyphosate disrupted hormone systems and led to cell death. In animal studies, glyphosate upset hormonal balance and led to infertility and birth defects.
Biotechnology companies insist the products are safe. But Monsanto said the same thing about bovine growth hormone in the 1990s, which has since been linked to a possible increased risk of cancer.
The real challenge, say GMO critics, is that industry-funded safety studies typically last only 90 days, which is too short to determine whether lab animals will develop any chronic or life-threatening illness.
Case in point: Scientists in France recently conducted feeding tests in rats over a period of two years. They fed the animals GMO corn sprayed with Roundup or gave them Roundup-spiked water (at levels considered safe in the United States). The rats exposed to Roundup, especially females, developed alarming, widespread tumors. The results, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, were controversial and lambasted by pro-GMO experts who called the data flawed and the author biased.
Smith offers a counterpoint for each objection. Critics say the scientists used tumor-prone rats; Smith says they were the same type of rats Monsanto used in its studies. Critics say the study population was too small; Smith points out that Monsanto used the same number of rats when testing for safety and efficacy. This leads Smith to characterize such protests as “a desperate, unscientific attempt to distort and deny damning evidence” that could be used to ban GMOs.
To be clear, there is no direct evidence that GMOs harm people. All experts can do is connect the dots and speculate. That’s because it is both highly unethical and nearly impossible to conduct randomized controlled feeding studies on people. Plus, since virtually everyone is already eating some quantity of GMO-laced foods, finding a control group is impractical. (Even organic foods can be subject to GMO contamination due to wind or insect-related cross-pollination.)
Interestingly, however, unscientific feeding studies are happening on farms around the country. Livestock eat either GMO-laced feed or non-GMO feed. What studies and anecdotal evidence show again and again is that animals fed genetically modified feed develop major health problems, including lowered fertility, weakened immune systems and an increase in stomach troubles.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the list of ailments syncs with anecdotal evidence of what some experts see in people. “Hundreds of people tell us that when they switched to [predominantly] non-GMO diets, their health improved along the same lines we see in animals who are taken off GMO feed. [But] no one is looking for evidence of harm,” Smith says, “because the entire fortune of the industry is at stake.”
Unfortunately, as with many high-stakes debates, the conversation about GMOs has deteriorated into a shouting match between passionate extremes. Currently, there is no certain “right” or “wrong” side. There is only initial evidence and theory — and a growing consumer hunger for more-conclusive research. Because when it comes to human health, Smith acknowledges, “we have too few data points to draw firm conclusions about specific disease.” What we do have, he says, is “sufficient theoretical understanding and evidence to warrant great concerns.”
Catherine Guthrie Catherine Guthrie is a health and nutrition writer based in Boston.
The metaphor of Frankenfood was first coined by Paul Lewis from Newton Center in Massachussets in his letter to the Editor of the New York Times of June 16, 1992. In this letter he argued against genetically manipulated tomatoes and called for action against ‘Frankenfood.’ Thereafter, the metaphor was used in the US in the context of bovine growth hormone used to increase the production of milk in cows. In 1993 the United States Government's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of BGH in milk production, and this caused a wide-scale protest in the US. In Europe the use of this hormone was banned in 1994 for a period of four years. The concern over ‘Frankenmilk’ was accompanied with the concern over Frankenfood in the US in 1996 and in Europe in 1998-1999, mainly due to the exporting of genetically engineered US food products to Europe.
This latter connection seems to have become popular in various sites on the Web. On October 7, 1996, spokespersons representing more than 300 consumer, health, trade and agricultural organizations from 48 countries announced the launch of a world-wide boycott of genetically engineered soya and corn produced in the U.S. Reuters transmitted a news article headlined: “Biotech foes boycott gene-altered U.S. corn, soya,” via Wire Service: RTna (Reuters North America) (http://netlink.de/gen/Zeitung/1007a.htm), in which Pure Foods Campaign director Ronnie Cummins was quoted saying at a demonstration in front of the Chicago Board of Trade, “in short, they are telling us to shut up and eat our Frankenfoods.”
This dramatic start to the campaign is not quite mirrored in the spread of the metaphor on the Web. The Altavista Advanced Search Engine returned 10,206 (January 21, 2003) hits with the boolean search term frankenfood* OR (frankenstein food*) for the period 1992-2002. 4. The results were checked against the instability of the search engine (see e.g. Bar-Ilan, 1998/9; Wouters and Gerbec, this issue), and the results fluctuated between 7,000 and 10,500 hits between November 2002 and January 2003. For the purposes of this study it was meaningful to include as many results as possible, i.e. to select the data provided on a result-rich day.
In the AltaVista search results, the first hit comes as late as 1995, at the site of http://www.ufo.net in the context of the bovine growth hormone debate in the US. The number of uses of the metaphor has risen rapidly from 1997 onwards. This may partly be explained by the fact that the AltaVista Advanced Search Engine treats the date of an update as the date of the page. The number of commercial sites (.com) using the metaphor has risen more rapidly than .org and .edu sites. This, of course, is related to the overall rapid growth of commercial sites on the Web. But this skewed growth does not explain all growth, since most of the hits represent addresses ending in country addresses (Figure 1).
The contexts in which the term is used since 1999 show great diversity. Some of the Web pages, for example, suggest Frankenfoods as good food for Halloween parties. Others report on the launch of a new Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 2000 where Frankenfood was one of the new entries. New formulations of the metaphor are still being developed. For instance, Greenpeace has been campaigning against Kellogg's with the help of ‘FrankenTony’, a monstrous version of the tiger used by Kellogg's in the marketing of their products, while Friends of the Earth were selling Frankenfoods T-shirts in the spring of 2000. The metaphor seemed to resonate in a wide variety of contexts.
In the Usenet newsgroups, the metaphor was first taken up by the group sci.med in September 1992, three months after the publication of the letter to the Editor in the New York Times. This first posting used a direct quotation of the original letter to the editor: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it's time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.”(Lewis, Newton Center, Mass. in the New York Times, June 16, 1992). This same quotation was forwarded to the newsgroup talk.politics.drugs in October 1992, and used in the sci.med.nutrition group in November 1993. Thereafter, in 1995-1997, the most occurrences of the metaphor came about in the newsgroup rec.games.trading-cards.marketplace.misc where ‘Frankenfood’ was used as the name for an assassin card that people were trading.
Only from 1998 onwards was the metaphor used in the context of calling for consumer resistance to GM foods. In the Usenet newsgroups there was a peak in the use of the metaphor in 1997 and 1999-2000. The peak in 1997 was caused by an e-mail thread in the group soc.culture.british having 549 messages on the subject “No more Frankenstein food please” between August 22, 1997 and December 21, 1997. Most of these e-mails, however, were more general messages about food and health, not using the metaphor or commenting on it in the body of the post. In some shorter threads, the discussion remained about GM foods, such as in the alt.politics.british in between May 30, 1999 until July 18, 2002 (7 messages) or in rec.food.cooking (a 13-message thread over cornbread dressing). The main threads on this subject cover also the plant-tc e-mailing list that had a thread of 15 e-mail messages on the subject “Frankenfood.”.
All in all, the metaphor was used in the Usenet newsgroups 2,170 times in the period 1992–20025, in very diverse groups from political and cultural newsgroups to newsgroups on cooking and gardening. The main groups where the metaphor was used were the general groups of .alt., soc. and .rec. The number of groups where the metaphor was used shows increasing variety in 1999-2000. (Figure 2)
A typical topic of debate in the newsgroups between 1998-2002 was the concern over whether the writer was ‘already eating GM food.’ This is in accordance with the case study on BSE conducted by Richardson (2001) on the role of newsgroups as forums for discussing risks and disseminating recent information around possible risks. Most of the postings arise from concerns over environmental risks, and the need for sharing information and concern with others. Here, the metaphor of Frankenfood provided a common name for these concerns.
Based on the AltaVista search results, the main sites using the metaphor were non-governmental organizations focusing on environmental and consumer issues. The four very common contributors using the metaphor of Frankenfood were Gene.ch (http://www.gene.ch), Netlink (http://www.netlink.de), Organic Consumers (http://www.organicconsumers.org) and Genetically Manipulated Food News (home.intekom.com). All four lead active campaigns against genetically manipulated crops. They participated in the debate by circulating news clippings (netlink.de, Genetically Manipulated Food News), offering a space for postings related in GM foods (Gene.ch, Genetically Manipulated Food News) and providing consumer information on GM foods (Organic Consumers). Most of these main sites reached the peak in their postings in 1999 (Figure 3) 6.
The gene.ch e-mailing list and archive is supported by Pure NetworX, and consists of three English language subgroupings: gentech, genet and info4action, and two German language subgroups. For this analysis, I selected the three English language lists. The peak in the postings in 1999 comes from the activity in the info4action list that delivered information on local campaigns and protests against GM foods. Here, the metaphor was used in calling for action. The sub-sites gentech and genet contained mainly newspaper articles, press releases and other material opposing genetic manipulation in all its forms. Most of the messages in this mailing list report on the latest developments with regards to GM foods.
According to their own mission statement, the Organic Consumers Association “promotes food safety, organic farming and sustainable agriculture practices in the U.S. and internationally (…) campaign strategies include public education, activist networking, boycotts and protests, grassroots lobbying, media and public relations, and litigation.” Similarly, http://www.netlink.de/gen is the home page of an organization campaigning against genetically manipulated foods. It circulates material on GM foods both in English and German. Also the fourth main participant, Genetically Manipulated Food News, opposes GM foods. The newsletter no longer functions, but the archive is still supported on the Internet. The URL http://home.intekom.com now belongs to a telecom company. The newsletter was maintained by the Safe-Food-Coalition of South Africa. According to their own statement, the material came mainly from Internet e-mail list servers, such as The Natural Law Party of Canada (Richard Wolfson), The Ban-GEF (Ban Genetically Engineered Food) and Biowatch (South Africa). All these NGOs oppose GM foods, and used the metaphor to call for consumer action.
In addition, two actors were active in Europe, mainly in the UK: the Friends of the Earth organization (14 hits) and the biotech company Monsanto UK (30 hits). The Friends of the Earth (FoE) started a campaign against genetically manipulated food products in 1998. Monsanto was trying to reply to this campaign, on its Web pages and with the help of pro GM food advertisements, for instance (Levidow, 2000). This was also reflected in the mass media. To get a view on how the metaphor was used in the mass media, I collected articles published in the on-line version of The Times7. (Figure 4)
The campaign lead by FoE consisted of local protests in front of supermarkets, as well as globally available pages on the Internet. They actively promoted the metaphor of Frankenstein's monsters, effectively invoking fear and anxiety. Successful metaphors are often emotionally appealing (Väliverronen & Hellsten, 2002). The first instance in which FoE used the metaphor of Frankenfood was the decision made in 1998 by the supermarket chain Iceland not to sell GM foods. FoE further used the metaphor in its various forms to refer to GM foods. Sometimes Monsanto was called the Frankenstein's monster of the food industry (26 May, 1998), sometimes the whole biotech industry was named Frankenstein industry (9 July, 1998), and GM food technologies were called Frankenstein technologies (10 July, 1998). The press releases address the issue from a consumer perspective. Here the use of the metaphor of Frankenstein proved to be successful in attracting attention, initially because it is emotionally appealing, and secondly because it is flexible enough to allow for various formulations. All in all, the discourse here is focused on consumer concerns.
Most of the pages on the Monsanto site were news clippings in favor of GM foods. In the Monsanto newsletters, the terms Frankenfood / Frankenstein food were only mentioned as replies to accusations, that is in the context of trying to ‘correct’ the information provided by the NGOs. The company also launched an advertising campaign to promote GM foods in the UK in 1998, but the campaign did not succeed in changing the negative associations of Frankenfood (Levidow, 2000). Some of the clippings on the Web pages provided two sides of the debate, one of which is for GM foods, and the other against genetic manipulation. The context, however, always leans towards providing a ‘rational’ context for the debate, or putting more emphasis on the economic aspects of agribusiness. For example, this appeared on January 28, 2001: “(Europeans') apprehensions are fueled by news reports using emotional terms such as ‘Frankenfoods’ in headlines and repeating allegations from an “aggressive fear campaign” even when scientific consensus rebuts them, says North Carolina State's Hoban, who has compared U.S. and European attitudes toward genetically modified crops” (Barry Shlachter in Monsanto News). The discourse here emphasizes genetic modification as a scientific issue that has potential economic benefits, and negative reactions as irrational fear.
In the on-line archives of The Times (including The Sunday Times) there were 58 articles in 1992-2002 where either the term ‘Frankenfood(s)’ or the term ‘Frankenstein food(s)’ appeared. The first occurrence came as early as 1992 in The Times in the context of Pure Food Campaign by a Washington-based pressure group in the US. Thereafter, the metaphor was used once in 1993 and twice in 1998. The peak in use of the terms was in 1999. The Times caught up with what it called ‘panic’ when the debate reached a political level in 1999. The start for the debate came about when the Guardian published a letter from 22 scientists supporting the findings of a Dr. Pusztai in February 1999. Pusztai had earlier claimed that GM potatoes caused health problems in rats. This was the start of a very intense media debate on GM foods in the UK (see also Durant & Lindsey, 2000).
Interestingly, both the FoE and Monsanto stopped using the metaphor in 2000 - or at least the use of the metaphor was not visible on their Web pages any longer. In The Times the number of uses of the metaphor has decreased from 2000 onwards. There are several reasons for the peak in the use of the metaphor in 1998-2000 and the subsequent reduction in its usage in the four main sites' Web pages as well as in the pages of FoE and Monsanto. One reason for the peak in the use of the metaphor is Dr. Puzstai's contested findings on the immune system problems of rats fed with GM potato. At the same time, the UK was facing mad cow disease, and this new concern may have affected the debate on GM foods as well. There are also several reasons for the decline of the metaphor. The FoE site focused on new concerns, such as climate change and environmental pollution in 2001-2002. The metaphor of Frankenfood may also have become so conventionalized that it lost some of its emotional value used in calling for action.
Even though the metaphor was mostly used to refer to the negative aspects of genetic manipulation, this was not always the case. On the Web pages of Charter88 (http://www.charter88.org.uk), an organization dealing with issues related to constitutional reform in the UK, for example, an e-mail thread of five messages on the topic of “Frankenstein Food is good for you” appeared in 2000. In the e-mails, the main subject was the benefits of GM rice containing vitamin A, the so-called Golden Rice, in fighting blindness in developing countries. The thread can thus be taken as a reformulation of the metaphor.
In summary, the main sites using the metaphor of Frankenfood were NGOs opposing GM foods. It was used for slightly different purposes in the different contexts. In the Usenet newsgroups it was used as a name for concerns about food and health while in the pages of the NGOs it was used in calling for political action against GM foods. In The Times the metaphor became more popular only after the GM food debate had reached the political level. The metaphor was in use in various sites on the Web roughly at the same time, from 1997 to 1999, even though it was occasionally used between 1992 and 1996, and it reached its peak in 1999-2000, after which its use rapidly decreased. The variety of the contexts in which the metaphor was used also grew in 1999-2000. The metaphor seemed to gain popularity because of its emotional loading, flexibility and ability to give a concise name for consumer concerns. The metaphor was effectively used in calling for political action, but only after it was put in the context of consumer concerns.
The timeline analysis provided detailed information on the expanding/shrinking network of sites that were using the metaphor of Frankenfood on the Web. This enables the identification of the main participating sites to take place. Identifying the main sites helps to focus the more qualitative analysis of the functions of the metaphor on these sites. The timeline analysis, however, is not informative about the linkages between the sites nor about their internal textual structure. I will first discuss the linkages between the sites and then illustrate the semantic structure within the sites in the form of semantic maps.
Analysis of the possible linkages between the sites of the network can be done in at least two ways, e.g. counting the hyperlinks between the domains (see Park & Thelwall, 2003 this issue), or checking from the full text data if the main sites refer to each other. The difference lies in the intended use of the linkage. Where a hyperlink from one domain to another shows an often highly formal, institutional connection between the sites, mentioning other sites in the texts often indicates a more dialogic relation to that site. Sometimes the sites purposefully exclude, or even delete, a hyperlink to another main participant in the debate (Marres, forthcoming). For the purposes of this study, the cross-references in the texts seemed to be more fruitful than the hyperlink structure.
For the cross-reference analysis I downloaded the full texts of the pages of the sites using the AltaVista search engine, the search terms Frankenfood* and “Frankenstein food*” and the specific URLs of the main sites. The additional search was needed in order to derive all the pages that were not included in the AltaVista searches and to check the original publication or posting dates8. After downloading the full texts, I checked (using the find option) whether they mention one another, and how frequently. References to own sites (e.g. Monsanto referring to Monsanto) were not calculated. The analysis of the cross-references is informative about the linkages between the sites in the network (Table 1). In the table the columns show how many times the site referred to the other sites while the rows show the sites referred to. Netlink, for example referred 78 times to Monsanto while Monsanto never mentioned Netlink.
|GM food news||–||2||0||0||0||0|
Interestingly, all sites refer to Monsanto and Friends of the Earth, while Monsanto and Friends of the Earth refer almost exclusively to each other. The active promotion of the metaphor in both local actions taken against GM foods and potentially global information on the Web pages of the main sites seemed to extend the metaphor of Frankenfood into popular use. Surprisingly, three of the main sites using the metaphor referred to each other only infrequently in their texts. Instead they all referred to Monsanto and Friends of the Earth. Monsanto, of course, was one of the main producers of the GM products that were opposed in Europe, and this explains references to the company. References to FoE are, at least partly, due to its active campaigning against Monsanto.
To further see the word network structure in the documents of Monsanto and Friends of the Earth, semantic maps were constructed. Semantic maps show the network of the co-occurring words in the selected documents. The semantic maps are based on the full text data of the main sites' Web pages from 1992-2002. They were constructed following the method developed by Leydesdorff (2001, 2003). First, however, a concordance program was used to create wordlists of the full texts of the Web pages of FoE and Monsanto. Routines were written to create co-occurrence and cosine matrices between the words within the selected texts. Where the co-occurrence matrix represents a symmetrical matrix of all the co-occurrences between the words, the cosine matrix (Salton Index) is based on a relatedness measure, i.e. the cosine between the vectors of the word distributions (e.g. Salton & McGill, 1983). The data was then imported into the visualization program Pajek9 in order to draw the semantic maps. Here I was interested in the co-occurrences of the words in the Web sites of Friends of the Earth and Monsanto (Figures 5 and 6).
In the 14 Web pages of Friends of the Earth and the 30 Web pages of Monsanto, the words ‘food’, ‘genetically’ and ‘GM’ are keywords that most frequently co-occur with the other words. In Monsanto's texts, however, these words co-occur with a more limited number of other words than in the FoE's documents. The network of co-occurring words is more dense than in the case of the texts of FoE. Note that in the semantic map of Monsanto's documents, the threshold was set far higher than in the case of FoE; 500 as compared to 50, respectively. This means that only more than 500 co-occurrences between the words are represented in the map, whereas in FoE's map, word co-occurrences are represented if they exceed 50. This is interesting because it shows that the discourse of Monsanto is repetitive, and circulates around a few keywords that are strongly co-occurring with each other.
This difference provides enlightenment with respect to the different discourses used by these two sites in their Web documents. The discourse used by Monsanto repeats the same phrases on genetically modified foods, whereas FoE talks about genetically engineered10 crops and Frankenstein foods. Also, the word Frankenstein is not within the 100 most common words used by Monsanto, but holds the 10th position in FoE's texts. In the discourse of Monsanto, genetically modified foods are connected to development and knowledge. In the discourse preferred by FoE, genetically engineered foods are connected to concern, government and moratorium.
In summary, the NGOs using the metaphor all referred to Monsanto and FoE in their Web pages, while they seldom referred to each other. Also The Times referred only to Monsanto and FoE. This is interesting as it shows how effective the consumer campaign lead by FoE, and the subsequent response by Monsanto, was for the spread of the metaphor. The semantic networks of co-occurring words in the Web pages of FoE and Monsanto showed interesting differences in their discourses. Where Monsanto repeated its key arguments, FoE seemed to inject variety into the debate.