Communication Currents

GMO free produce

Frankenfood: Memes Opposing Genetically Modified Food

August 1, 2016
Health Communication

For nearly a decade, people around the world have engaged in an international debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and foods. Is the food safe to eat? Will GMOs have unintended consequences for the environment and for human health? Examining the international controversy, author Kelly A. Clancy of Nebraska Wesleyan University says that the scientific community “is almost unanimously convinced the technology is safe, [while] the public is almost unanimously convinced that the technology is dangerous.”

Clancy and Benjamin Clancy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say that GMO proponents tend to employ “scientific narratives in conjunction with rhetoric that renders GMOs ‘invisible.’” On the other hand, they say, GMO opposition has successfully employed an online visual campaign that has been credited with stimulating “uncommonly high levels of opposition to genetically modified food in both the United States and in Europe.” 

In their recent essay, Clancy and Clancy analyze the anti-GMO movement’s practice of posting online memes, using a method that interprets the symbolic meanings of images moving from denotation to connotation to symbolic meaning. The authors analyze the way in which images construct the construct a global or international understanding of GMOs. Three categories of critique emerged in the anti-GMO memes: the process, the product, and the implication of the technology. Clancy and Clancy analyzed nearly 1000 anti-GMO images from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Poland. 

The Process  

Proponents of GMO foods often argue that GMOs are equivalent to conventional food. Opponents disagree, saying that the process of genetically modifying foods changes the natural relationships between food and humans. Anti-GMO memes often highlight the unnaturalness of the process of creating GMOs by superimposing images of scientific equipment such as needles or laboratories on images of fields with crops. Some images show scientists wearing gloves and masks* as they manipulate plants in their laboratories.

Anti-GMO activists also criticize the process of patenting life. In one German political cartoon, children sit around a teacher. The teacher asks: “Who can tell us something about the creation of mankind?” One of the children responds: “Hey Mischa—your dad works in genetic engineering.” In another meme, two stalks of corn talk to each other. One asks the other: “Who’s that strange dude?” The other plant answers: “Maybe it’s the farmer…genetically modified.”

These examples demonstrate the two critiques that emerge from analyzing images that attack the process of genetic modification.

The Product 

The criticism of GMOs extends to the dangers or uncertainties of the products that have been created using genetic modification. To highlight this problem, memes play on the theme of “Frankenfood,” or food that looks mutated or unnatural as a result of having been genetically modified. Some memes show genetically altered plants such as square oranges or blue-tinted strawberries.

The surreal depictions of “un-food” are further reinforced by images of other mutations. One image shows corn with an alien face, and the caption reads: “Plant the real deal, not mutations!” In another, the grim reaper is in a cornfield, and the caption reads: “The GriM reaper”— playing on the GM in grim and the word “reap,” and implying that the harvesting of genetically modified products is linked to death. The horror motif is common in this type of critique, with memes depicting Frankencorn looming behind children. The image of Frankencorn has appeared on 2,618 web pages in 27 versions in each of the five countries studied.

The Implications 

Critiques of GMOs also address the implications of what creating and eating such food might mean for the world at large. GMO opponents seem to argue that “unnatural processes and products produce dangerous implications,” explain the authors.  Some imagery focuses on the impact of GMOs on animals, such as bees. In one Polish meme, a bee wearing a gas mask in front of a field holds up a sign with a skull and crossbones that reads: “Polluted! GM Maize.” Other images ask: “Given the choice between believing what you see or believing the claims of a scientist, which do you trust?” In one example, there are four frames of a mouse getting an injection; the mouse dies in every other frame. The text reads, “Seriously??!? Are you sure???,” highlighting the uncertainty of the technology.

Many memes also focus on the use of contamination as a root metaphor. A root metaphor is a symbolic frame that “proposes a logic; from the root, various branches grow: for instance, a war suggests a battle, with sides, winners and losers, offense and defense, and ammunition.” The contamination metaphor is often delivered through biohazard symbols that create a connection between GMO and poison. This message is strategically repeated in three categories: biohazardous food, biohazardous fields, and its implied hazards.


Clancy and Clancy do not make causal claims between the images surrounding GMOs and the success of the anti-GMO movement. However, they note that it is useful to put the images in the context of larger protests and debates over GMOs.  Moreover, Clancy and Clancy contend that the implications of their analysis “extend beyond the opposition between scientific and non-rational discourse in Western contexts.” They argue that this analysis raises larger questions and concerns for political argumentation in general, and even more specifically about the spread of visual argumentation across countries and cultural boundaries. Visual argumentation, explain Clancy and Clancy, is an effective tool for political mobilization.

About the author (s)

Kelly A. Clancy

Nebraska Wesleyan University

Assistant Professor

Benjamin Clancy

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Doctoral Candidate