Last year, Health Canada commissioned a study into consumer perceptions of foods containing genetically modified (GM) organisms. The findings showed that 78 per cent want GM food labelled so they know what they are buying. Over the past 20 years, polls have consistently shown that over 75 per cent of Canadians support the labelling of GM food (see also this 2015 Ipsos Reid poll [88 per cent]).
Pro-democratic and pro-transparency - not anti-GM
It is all too easy to call those who express concerns about GM food "anti-GM." This is wrong. The real issue is whether we believe in transparency and democracy.
On 15 December 2016, in response to a question about mandatory labelling for GM foods, according to MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Radio-Canada:
"This is about protecting consumers. I am hearing consumers say loud and clear that they want to know more about what they are putting in their bodies. This is a good thing. We are working with them."
One would assume that the PM might therefore have little difficulty in supporting Dusseault's private members' bill C-291 to amend the Food and Drugs Act, which will be voted on in early May. The aim of the bill is to secure mandatory labelling of GM foods. It would allow consumers to have access to more transparent information on food labels.
The bill is not part of an anti-GM campaign. It would not inhibit the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Canada. If passed, the bill would support MPs in their collective duty to uphold the values of democracy and respect the wishes of the majority of Canadians. Transparency demands that consumers have a right to know what is in food so they can make informed choices.
In 2001, the Royal Society of Canada released a scathing report showing that the Canadian regulatory system is deeply dysfunctional as GM approvals are based entirely on industry studies that are not peer-reviewed. The report made 53 recommendations to the federal government for improving the regulatory system to bring it in line with peer-reviewed science and the precautionary principle. To this day, only two out of those 53 recommendations have been implemented.
All the more reason Canadians need to know which foods contain GMOs, just as 64 countries around the world share that basic right.
10 March Parliamentary debate
The main arguments for and against mandatory labelling were discussed on 10 March in the House of Commons debate over Bill C-291. Those against labelling argued that many consumers are misinformed about GM foods, that labelling would be misinterpreted as an unnecessary warning and that it would place the industry at an unfair disadvantage. The industry argument is that as GM foods have been on the market for 20 years and no one has been harmed, they are therefore "safe."
Opponents of labelling went on to argue that the government should only label GM foods if or when there is a need to provide a health warning. It was stated that Canada already has a voluntary labelling standard and there are also many non-GM options available in grocery stores.
In response to these claims, parliament was told that mandatory labelling would inform consumers about which foods are genetically modified: not providing this information would place the commercial interests of the industry ahead of the public's concerns thereby denying consumers the legitimate right to know. As a large majority of Canadians have consistently said that they want GM foods labelled, the government should thus take their views seriously. After all, the government already mandates some labelling for non-health-related reasons, such as country-of-origin labelling and the mandatory labelling of all irradiated foods in Canada.
It was also stated that, to date, voluntary labelling has failed to provide consumers with labels. Moreover, despite the claim about the availability of non-GM options and the implication of free choice (despite the absence of labelling!), these options are not available for all foods and products in all stores.
There are many reasons why consumers may want the choice not to buy GM foods. For instance, 30 per cent of Canadians who say they want mandatory labelling cite ethical concerns and 87 per cent say they just want to know what is in the food they are eating (Ipsos Reid). Labelling is about providing consumers with the information they need to make informed choices.
The safety issue is separate from the right to know and labelling. If GM foods are unsafe, they should not be allowed on the market in the first place. Debate over the safety of GM foods continues in the scientific literature: there is no scientific consensus (also see this and this) on the safety of GM foods. Those who claim otherwise resort to highly misleading articles, "Unhealthy Fixation" by William Saletan being a case in point, which is based on a fundamentally flawed study.
Furthermore, the claim that no one has been harmed by GM foods over the past 20 years is not science based. There is no post-market monitoring of GM foods and GM food consumption. Mandatory labelling would be one way to enable traceability and monitoring of GM foods to assess the impacts on human health.
Government's commitment to transparency
Given the government's stated commitment to greater openness and transparency by "making government work for Canadians", doesn't the current administration have an obligation to make good on this pledge?
When the industry says that labelling would just confuse the public and send out the wrong message, it is an attempt to protect its financial bottom-line, given the research showing that many would not choose to buy GM food.
Parliamentarians should not submit to bogus arguments or be swayed by shoddy pro-industry articles. They should be protecting the public's right to know and choose. Don't buy into the notion that ordinary people have been swayed by "scaremongering" anti-GMO activists. It is simply not the case. People have valid concerns that in any functioning democracy should be addressed.
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