Structure and frequency of strategic frames
This section presents the results of how the actors strategically framed GE in the run-up to the ECJ ruling. We identified four frames each around the proponents and opponents of the regulation of GE. In almost half of the documents (46.6%), the proponents of regulation framed GE as a Pandora’s box, that is, as an uncertain technology. Other strategic frames centered around ecological principlesFootnote 4 (24%), freedom of choice (16%), and patenting (13.4%). By contrast, GE was framed by the opponents of regulation primarily as scientific progress in which the public should have greater confidence, with regulation being unnecessary (progress, 41.1%). GE was also presented as a way to ensure food security and solve world hunger (food security, 26.1%), as a natural technology (naturalness, 21.6%), and as a way to make science more democratic (democracy, 11.2%). The structure and frequency of these frames are described in greater detail below and summarized in Table 1.
Supporters of regulation
Pandora’s box frame
The majority of actors, particularly from business and academia, who favored a regulatory approach to GE did so using the Pandora’s box frame. In reference to the categorization of unknowns (Gross 2007, p. 751), this frame not only problematized the “knowledge about what is not known” (non-knowledge/negative knowledge) but also the total “lack of any knowledge” (nescience). Therefore, the term “nescience” can be used to describe a worst-case scenario regarding the “prerequisite for a total surprise beyond any type of anticipation” (Gross 2007, p. 751) and with no risk assessment for humans, animals, and the environment. Using examples of possible applications, such as gene drive (a method of accelerating the spread of genetic modification within a population), GE was presented as a genetic engineering method with an unacceptable level of uncertainty and, thus, morally reprehensible. An inadequate technology assessment was blamed on politicians and lobbyists who, for many decades, had consciously used their influence to promote the appointment of persons with an affinity for genetic engineering to important political bodies, thus institutionalizing a friendly atmosphere for such technologies in politics and preventing neutral technology assessments.
Ecological principles frame
This frame, which was mobilized particularly strongly by Alliance 90/The Greens, interpreted GE as a threat to the ecological principles of organic associations, whose holistic ecological strategy aimed at feeding humanity was incompatible with the applications of the new biotechnological process. The frame drew on the principles of organic farming, which aimed to preserve the integrity of the genome and cell as a functional unit, secure genetic diversity through high biodiversity, and maintain barriers to cross-cultivation and interaction between plants, living soil, and the climate. The debate on the question of the legality of genetic engineering in agriculture unfolded in unexpectedly open statements by a handful of leading figures in the environmental community who no longer ignored genetic engineering and openly discussed its possibilities (Maurin 2016). In response, the frame’s normative basis that genetic engineering was morally reprehensible and incompatible with the foundations of the ecological movement was highlighted, ultimately calling for strong regulation of GE.
Freedom of choice frame
This frame saw food labeling as an appropriate means of giving consumers freedom of choice and decision-making with regard to purchasing genetically modified food. However, it was postulated that the labeling obligation could not be upheld if the ECJ did not regulate GE, as genetically modified food without labeling could be produced on and introduced to the European continent. The approach of deregulation, which was presented as morally wrong, could lead to a major loss of acceptance, trust, and credibility, especially in organic farming, among customers. This harm to freedom of choice was caused by the immensely powerful genetic engineering lobby, which has great interest in promoting the sale of genetically altered products without labeling. To ensure that genetic engineering is subject to all testing, authorization, and labeling requirements, the frame of freedom of choice was mobilized by opponents to demand the regulation of new biotechnological methods.
In the agricultural discourse on GE, the patenting frame was used by the opponents of regulation to point to the danger of seed market concentration by global corporations. If individual nuclei of manipulated plants are patented by global players in the seed market, small to medium-sized cultivation enterprises could be at a competitive disadvantage. In particular, if genetic engineering processes are patented, there may be a threat of further monopolization of knowledge (Brinegar et al. 2017), through which large seed companies will further expand, and the market will become even more concentrated. This problem was due to the fact that GE proponents expected substantial financial gains, leading them to file a large number of patents. A further criticism was the general possibility of patenting plants, genes, and methods of cultivation. With the call for the regulation of GE by the ECJ, there was hope that, at least on the European continent, the existing concentration of the seed market would not become even more entrenched.
Opponents of regulation
In the discourse on GE in agriculture, the selected opponents of regulation highlighted, in most cases, insufficient public trust in scientific progress. This reasoning provided a strategic frame often used by critics of regulation (Max Planck Society 2019). In this study, the progress frame, expressed particularly strongly by scientific and economic actors, criticized the debate for being overly emotional. Through the regulation of GE in Europe, it has been argued that major research institutes and companies with strong market positions would relocate to countries with more liberal legislation on biotechnology. This would result in Europe’s loss of innovation and competitiveness in the global biotechnology market. A fundamental hostility toward research from politics and society would lead to the regulation discussion not being based on scientific findings but on an “ecological” ideology. The actors’ efforts at thwarting regulation were described as a struggle over the ideological foundations of science.
Food security frame
This frame focused on the problem of insufficient global availability of and access to food, in particular, staples. Climate change is seen as part of the cause of inadequate food security, leading to droughts that impede productive harvests. Further, plants for food production have become more resistant to pesticides, so global food security has not yet been achieved. Therefore, GE is seen as beneficial and morally indispensable as it offers an opportunity to cultivate the resistant or productive organisms that we need in a comparatively quick, cheap, and easy way. So that GE could be applied in Europe without a complicated approval process, food security concerns were addressed in arguments against regulation.
This frame presented interventions into genetic material by GE as natural or identical to nature. It used a somewhat “romantic” image of nature, one existing in the imagination of the German public, to present mutations occurring in nature as supposedly low-risk. Although, in the United States, for example, the experience of continental colonization tended toward a perception of nature as wilderness that had to be conquered and cultivated (Ott et al. 1999; Nash 2001), in Germany, a comparatively late and rapid industrialization and urbanization resulted in a contradictory image of nature, one that “had already been saturated with symbolic meanings by the Romantics” (Goodbody 2007, p. 5). Consequently, the historical definition of nature in Western Europe, especially in Germany, partly explains why German attitudes toward GE are generally negative. Based on this understanding of nature, interventions into genetic material through GE are also considered low-risk. The naturalness frame was used by opponents of regulation to demand that the risk assessment of GMOs focus on the end product (result-oriented) and not on the production process (process-oriented). The rationale for privileging the final product in the constitution of the law is that a mutation induced by GE does not currently appear to be distinguishable from a natural mutation. By contrast, proponents of regulation would like to tie legal assessments to the process of production. As a recommendation for action, therefore, the naturalness frame advocated deregulation of GE and called for the existing law on genetic engineering to be adapted to the current state of knowledge.
The comparatively fast, cost-effective, and simple cultivation of resistant and productive organisms was used as an argument for a more democratic governance of science. The democracy frame pointed out that, if regulated, small and medium-sized cultivators, as well as the public, would be excluded from new scientific knowledge about GE. It was argued that the technology assessment accompanying the regulation of GE would only be affordable to well-off individuals, companies, and institutions. In contrast to the patenting frame, which also denounced seed market concentration, the democracy frame argued against the regulation of GE so as to enable access to small players to the new technology, thereby counteracting the market power of large corporations. The democracy frame also used the imagery of “do it yourself” biologists who conducted garage experiments with “CRISPR starter kits” (Campbell 2019) and portrayed this as an act of the democratization of scientific knowledge.
Relationships between frames
The findings on the relationships between the frames are presented in two steps. First, the frames used in the run-up to the ECJ ruling on GE are compared with past framing of GMOs. We then explore the counter-framing strategies regarding GE, which the protagonists used to address the frames of the other side.
Frames of GMOs and GE
A general and less surprising observation was the difference in the two discourses before and after the discovery of CRISPR/Cas. The frames previously expressed in the discourse on genetic engineering articulated a multitude of options for action, such as “public accountability” (Hampel et al. 1998) or the avoidance of “cloning as moral risk” in the discourse about the cloned sheep Dolly at the end of the 1990s (Kohring and Matthes 2002). However, the discourse on GE mainly concentrated on the question of regulation, particularly the judgement of the ECJ. Although there was a common emphasis in both discourses on the various potentials, risks, and uncertainties of genetic technologies, the frames for the discourse on GE seem to have been reframed to focus on jurisdiction.
While some frames continued to occur (notably progress, food security, Pandora’s box, patenting, freedom of choice, and ecological principles), the findings also reveal changes between the media frames in the previous discourse on genetic engineering and the strategic frames articulated in the new discourse on GE in agriculture. Looking at the use of individual frames, it is striking that the most frequently articulated frame by the proponents of regulation was that of the Pandora’s box, which was not the most prominent in earlier analyses of media frames on genetic engineering. In the past, a more general public responsibility frame was consistently dominant, while the Pandora’s box frame appeared with a lower (and even decreasing) frequency, overall, less than 10% between 1973 and 1996 (Hampel et al. 1998). In the discourse on GE, it was somewhat reactivated to support the framing of GE as a technology with too many uncertainties. By contrast, the dominance of the progress frame in the opponents’ narratives of GE tied in with the earlier discourse on GMOs and research on media frames. While it was used as a “central organizing idea” to provide meaning to an “unfolding strip of events” (Gamson and Modigliani 1987, p. 143) in the previous discourse on GMOs, it appeared as a more aggressive, provocative, and exaggerated frame in the GE discourse.
Furthermore, we observed two new anti-regulation frames (naturalness and democracy), which had previously played no relevant role. While naturalness issues had previously emerged through an underrepresented naturalness frame or as partially related to the ecological principles frame used by critics of genetic engineering methods, we observed that, thematically, the current naturalness frame was very much tailored to the discussion on GE and (de-)regulation and could, therefore, be considered as specific to the GE discourse. The same logic could be applied to the democracy frame, which presented GE as an opportunity for a more democratic form of science because it would enable the rapid, inexpensive, and simple cultivation of more resistant or productive organisms. Both frames focused on GE, and there appeared to be greater difficulty in transferring them to other discourses compared to other strategic frames in the GE discourse. They were also exclusively created by anti-regulation opponents, who acted as frame sponsors in the GE discourse.
Counter-frames in the discourse on GE
In the competition for interpretive sovereignty over the legal assessment of GE, three main relationships could be observed between the strategic frames used by the proponents and opponents (Fig. 1). The frame encapsulating GE as contributing to global food security was usually countered by the proponents of regulation with the frame of ecological principles. Recognizing the problem of insufficient food security, the proponents of regulation argued that the use of GE did not solve this problem but, rather, exacerbated it. As a counter-proposal, they called for greater food sovereignty by promoting inter alia organic farming based on ecological principles. In return, the food security frame denied that organic farming could make a significant contribution to securing an adequate food supply for the growing world population.
With regard to the frame most frequently used by the proponents of GE regulation (Pandora’s box), two counter-frames were observed. First, the warning that the use of GE in agriculture posed uncertainty competed with the view that there was a lack of public trust in scientific results (progress). The progress frame claimed that the supporters of regulation had a conservative attitude toward scientific progress and were guided by dogmas and ideologies. However, the opponents of regulation were accused of placing blind faith in scientific progress without sufficiently addressing the uncertainties. As these were the two most frequently articulated frames in the debate, one could assume that they were the two most relevant strategic frames, indicating a primary line of conflict in the discourse on the regulation of GE.
Second, while the Pandora’s box frame painted the idea of unpredictability, another counter-framing strategy of the opponents of regulation was to characterize GE as a natural technique, thereby relativizing uncertainties as assessable risks. Between the two frames, there was intense debate about the extent to which GE crosses the line between classic mutagenesis and genetic engineering. The distinction between a natural and an artificially created mutation was a central point of conflict in the GE discourse, leading to a fundamental discussion of the definition of nature and naturalness. It is important to note that the frame of naturalness was almost exclusively articulated in the context of the Pandora’s box frame and, therefore, seemed to exist exclusively as a counter-frame. This means that, for the critics of regulation, the naturalness frame had a comparatively high relevance in the competition for interpretive sovereignty over GE.
Frames in the ECJ ruling
Before the ECJ delivered its ruling on the regulation of GE on 25 July 2018, ECJ Advocate General Michal Bobek published his opinion on 18 January 2018, which provided a general indication of the pending judgment (Bobek 2018). In his argument that organisms obtained by mutagenesis should, in principle, be exempt from the strict rules of the European Genetic Engineering Act (Directive 2001/18/EC) and that GE should, therefore, not be regulated, there were references to the progress frame. That there were no other references to frames besides the progress frame, which also argued against the Pandora’s box frame, may also be due to the formal language of the official document. To the surprise of many stakeholders, the ECJ decided to regulate GE and opted not to follow the recommendation of the advocate general. The ECJ’s judgement predominantly referenced the Pandora’s box frame as well as the naturalness and ecological principles frames, though it did not directly challenge other frames.