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DECEMBER 14, 2013

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About the Author:

Tina Andersen Huey received her PhD from University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia, PA. Her dissertation concerned the legitimization of knowledge in discourse about genetically modified food. Her research interests focus on the meaning people ascribe to food and in popular food movements (e.g., Slow Food, organics, anti-GMO). Dr. Huey is Per Pinstrup-Andersen’s daughter.
Festschrift for Per-Pinstrup Andersen

Discursive Positioning of Global and Local Food Systems in Media and Social Movements: GM Labeling Campaigns


Extended Abstract:

Political actions around labeling of genetically modified (GM) food offer a prism through which to understand media agenda setting, social movements, and concepts of the public sphere. Based upon the campaign to label GM food in Connecticut, this paper lays the groundwork for a study of how social movements and media actors understand the global dimensions of GM food production. Limited content analysis of both old and new media samples confirms the need for further study to better describe the way global hunger and poverty figure in attitudes toward the science of agricultural biotechnology.

This paper advocates for the inclusion of cultural studies theories, because these may offer a way out of deliberative stalemates that currently characterize the agricultural biotechnology debate. Traditional science communication approaches go only partway and may be counterproductive, because they rarely include a consideration of culture.

Communications scholars drawing from anthropology and sociology like to go into a loosely bounded field armed with deductive reasoning, using what Glaser and Strauss called “grounded theory” (Glaser and Strauss 1967). With this approach, a general question like “what is labeling about?” allows unexpected frames and meanings to emerge. It allows the researcher to deconstruct, or unpack, the idea of labeling. Sociological approaches pioneered by Howard Becker (1998) temper what otherwise can become a highly detailed semantic parsing. Becker encourages the operationalization of "why" questions as "how" questions.

In the case of GM food labeling, the question was operationalized as: How is labeling used in a political context? In this way it became a question about the circulation of ideas rather than a psychological question about why people insist on knowing something. In the manner of cultural studies rooted in the Frankfurt School, this led to a critique of how certain ideas are privileged and others are ignored—in other words, to what labeling means in the context of broader hegemonic structures. But, like more recent iterations of cultural studies borrowing from political economy (Crang et al. 2003), the approach assumes that a critique is most useful when articulated with a practical recommendation.

The coalition campaigning for the labeling law in Connecticut was an ecumenical group and not all local. Yet they supported one another. Elements of globalization, food safety, and environment are ever more tightly bound together discursively. But the global voices, the arguments for considering consumers at the other end of the food system, were conspicuously missing, except in discourse about Monsanto's domination.

Opposition to agricultural biotechnology must be seen as a political problem, not a scientific or science-education problem. It is not ethics, so much as a deeper appreciation of the cultures around food production and consumption, that will help bring out the assumptions and potentially improve policies. “Ethics” cannot be used as a general term describing externalities. To use ethics successfully requires entering into the “other’s” ethics. In agricultural development organizations, “the other” appears to be anyone who advocates a radical departure from the current food system. I propose that a deeper use of ethics requires understanding that ethical food production, to many individuals, means doing away with the business models and regimes dominated by Monsanto, Walmart, and other large corporations in the food system.

What emerges from the study is the need to make global food security more culturally relevant. New strategies are required for engaging communications theories and practice in the fight against hunger. Contrary to the critiques often leveled at them, and despite ostensibly irreconcilable differences, food-related social movements should be considered an ally of food security organizations. Activism on behalf of greater transparency of the labor processes and channels of production and distribution can only benefit the cause of hunger and poverty alleviation.


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