Almost fifty years ago, a team of scientists sent a wave of excitement throughout the scientific world when they successfully managed to transfer genes from one microbacterium to another, thereby creating the first genetically modified organism (GMO) in history. This major discovery marked a crucial step in the research on genetic engineering, but also triggered a heated public debate over the ethics, safety and desirability of this new technology. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, these critical attitudes would evolve into an actual protest movement against genetic engineering, influencing not only the public opinion but also European policy on GMOs. Despite the demonstrated importance of these protests, very few historians have actually explored this topic. The main goals of this research project are to analyze the emergence of this protest movement from a historical perspective and to identify why the resistance to GMOs has become so successful and prevalent in Western Europe. To assure the feasibility of this project, three countries will serve as case studies: Belgium, France and The Netherlands.
Following the theoretical lead of prominent social movement scholars such as Tilly (1993), Snow (2013) and Diani (1991), I will look into three different elements of this protest movement. First, I will study the social networks between activists and organizations in order to understand the processes of idea/grievance formation. I argue that the ideas and grievances of the activists about genetic modification can be seen as the result of social interaction, coming into existence when books are exchanged, meetings are held and opinions are shared. Secondly, I will analyze the way in which activists “framed” these grievances in order to mobilize the public opinion. To study these frames, I will perform a qualitative textual analysis of the several texts that were produced by the actors themselves. Finally, to understand how activists actually contested the introduction of GMOs, I will look into their protest actions and conduct a qualitative event analysis of the several episodes of collective action.
In addition, the regionally specific scientific, economic and political historical contexts that enabled these processes will be taken into account. The project situates itself at the crossroads of intellectual, social, and environmental history and will benefit from the use of archival sources, press articles and oral history. In a broader sense, this research also contributes to the historiography of environmental activism since the 1980s.