Last year, Health Canada commissioned a study into consumer perceptions of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Health Canada intends to use the findings to more effectively communicate to the public how food products derived from biotechnology is regulated.
The research found that many people still don’t know much about genetically modified foods. Some fail to understand why they are needed and are confused when it comes to knowing which information to believe. About 61 per cent of the people surveyed said the term “genetic modification” is negative. Only 26 per cent of respondents said they would be comfortable eating GMO foods but even fewer (22 per cent) supported their development and sale in Canada.
(Photo: Danili Vasily via Getty Images)
The study says almost 50 per cent fail to understand why GMO foods are necessary in the first place and that consumers don’t believe the argument that GM will produce more affordable, sustainable food or ensure food supply. Over half believe GMOs are just a way for corporations to increase their profits. They aren’t wrong.
According to the findings, 78 per cent want their GMO food labelled so they can choose for themselves: if consumers had a choice, 62 per cent would choose to buy a non-GM food item.
The report states that significant efforts to inform and educate Canadians would be required to shift views in a more positive direction. The message is that governments, agriculture and academics have not communicated the technology well. In other words, public concerns about GMOs are based on ignorance, fuelled by the failure of government, scientists and the industry to convey a positive message about genetic modification of our food.
The report stated that the “massive anti-GMO movement” and accompanying volume of information presents a significant challenge for Health Canada, as there would be a strong likelihood that any decisions or announcements would be received through a “conditioned lens.”
The public is not buying in to the “conditioned lens” of the industry.
On a similar note, Monsanto Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley recently argued that Monsanto made a mistake in not reaching out to the public about GMOs when they first appeared on the market over 20 years ago. He said the crop science industry and academics have been more proactive with genome editing, which he argues can precisely delete and insert genes in an organism’s DNA. Fraley says the industry and universities currently involved in rolling out genome editing technology have done a much more extensive communication to both the public and key regulatory and policy makers.
The report commissioned by Health Canada and the statements of Fraley seem to rest on the mistaken assertion that genetic modification is a legitimate tool for improving food production and consumers are being unduly swayed by an anti-GMO movement which plays on their fears.
Robb Fraley’s approach is more ideological than scientific. His message is that gene editing is precise and therefore presents no risks. This might sound impressive to the layperson, politicians or journalists with no training in the area, but plant biologist Jonathan Latham argues the technology is error prone, the effects of editing are not controllable and there is no simple pathway between gene and trait. What Fraley really means when he talks about “reaching out” and having a “dialogue” is to get everyone to buy in to the industry playbook. But the GMO biotech cartel is getting nervous and glyphosate is on the ropes. The public is not buying in to the “conditioned lens” of the industry.
Most people who have misgivings about GMOs are concerned with regulators not properly testing the technology, institutions being co-opted by the industry and science being distorted to suit vested interests (see this about Cornell University too). They are also concerned about being denied choice because of the industry’s outright resistance to the mandatory labelling of GMO food products. So, we need to get something straight: people with genuine concerns about GM technology are first and foremost pro-transparency and pro-democracy; they are not “anti-GMO.”
Monsanto Co. headquarters located in St. Louis. (Photo: AP Photo/James A. Finley, File)
GMOs have the potential to irreversibly alter the genetic core of the food supply. In this respect, it is very worrying that Health Canada seems more concerned about jumping on the industry bandwagon by trying to convince the unwilling public about the perceived benefits of GMOs than actually carrying out its own safety studies.
During an interview with Global News in 2015, the then Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose stated, “right now there is no scientific evidence that conclusively says that in any way genetically modified foods are unhealthy for Canadians.” The minister also said that they would gladly label GMOs if proven unsafe. Therefore, wouldn’t this study alone be sufficient proof?
We should not be relying on industry studies and propaganda to set the agenda. The onus should not be on those from outside the industry to prove that GMOs are not safe or necessary. We require proper long-term independent testing and epidemiological studies on food products that involve GMOs. And we require Health Canada to hold the industry to account over its baseless claims.
Instead, we get public relations exercises aimed at farmers and students and the promotion of industry science and propaganda on social media to unwilling innocent consumers. Perhaps that’s the reason why after 20 years the public still reject GMOs.
Perhaps the public aren’t as gullible as some like to think.
Instead of acting as product promoters for the industry and finding out how to put a positive “spin” on GMOs, public officials should be carrying out or facilitating genuinely independent studies and demanding conclusive proof that GMOs are necessary as well as immediately labelling GMOs until proven safe.
The public is already convinced: we’ve been asking for GMO labelling for way too long. It is our basic human right. As Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said, “Canadians have a right to know what is in their food when they buy it, not when they take it home and eat it.” We can no longer be just another statistic about citizens who want labelling.
In the study mentioned at the start, 50 per cent of respondents failed to understand why GMO foods are necessary, and over half believe GMOs are a way for chemical corporations to boost profit. Perhaps the public aren’t as gullible as some like to think.