Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Framing the Biotechnology Debate: A Textual Analysis of Editorials and Letters to the Editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Framing the Biotechnology Debate: A Textual Analysis of Editorials and Letters to the Editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines how the subject of agricultural biotechnology is framed in editorials and letters to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1997 to 2006. Editorials and letters to the editor were textually reviewed and coded according to a frame typology that included the following frames: Progress, Economic prospect, Ethical, Pandora's box, Runaway, Nature/nurture, Public accountability, and Globalization. The overall tone of each text was also qualitatively assessed according to whether it mentioned risks, mentioned benefits, or reported controversy. Whereas previous research has found the "progress" frame to predominate coverage of biotechnology, results suggest that the "public accountability" frame now largely organizes discourse on agricultural biotechnology, both in editorials and letters. Findings further show that both risks and benefits are commonly reported, but letters are much more likely to offer radical alternatives to applications of agricultural biotechnology than editorials. The implication of this finding is that readers are more likely than official editorial opinion to express subjectivist, non-technical solutions to the problems that biotechnology purports to solve, while editorials are more likely to maintain positivistic associations with the technology.

Introduction

Depending on one's point of view, the subject of agricultural biotechnology can represent a vast array of realities. It is at once a gift to the developing world and an act of biopiracy, a technological breakthrough and a threat to biological diversity, and a way to enhance nutritional content while posing a risk to public health. Some argue that humans have been selecting plants and animals for desirable characteristics since the dawn of civilization, and biotechnology simply provides the tools that allow scientists to tailor such traits more accurately at the molecular level. Thus, for proponents, "The objectives of food biotechnology are generally the same as previous technologies, but the process is faster and more precise" (Hoban, 1995, p. 189). Supporters feel that society can look forward to a host of economic, social, and environmental gains as a result of the technology. As Priest (1994) explains, "By manipulating a single gene or a series of them in both plants and animals, scientists seek to create tomatoes that are resistant to disease and rotting, cotton that is resistant to insect infestation, corn that grows faster and larger, [and] pigs that produce leaner meats" (p.77). Opponents, on the other hand, see food biotechnology as a biological perversion. Because genetic engineering involves the transfer of genetic information from one species to another, it represents a radical departure from traditional breeding and therefore invites concerns regarding the safety and ethics of the technology along with the regulatory capacity of the government. In this view, we as a society are carelessly playing God with unknown ramifications.

Regardless of these varying ideological perspectives, the field of agricultural biotechnology continues to grow. Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops, which are now commonly called biotech crops. According to the independent International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a not-for-profit organization, "In 2005, the billionth acre, equivalent to the 400 millionth hectare of a biotech crop, was planted by one of 8.5 million farmers, in one of 21 countries," which is up from 17 countries in 2004 (James, 2005, p. 3). As stated in the 2005 Executive Summary of the ISAAA, "The global area of approved biotech crops in 2005 was 90 million hectares, equivalent to 222 million acres, up from 81 million hectares or 200 million acres in 2004,"(James, 2005, p. 3) and 67.7 million hectares in 2003 (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], ¶ 20). Producing 55% of worldwide biotech crops on 49. …

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