The familiar black and white striped Nutrition Facts adorning the side of every packaged food item could be changing, and so could other food label requirements.
When you look in your pantry or refrigerator, chances are you’ll find something that’s genetically modified. An estimated 70 per cent of processed food on Canadian shelves contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their ingredient lists.
But that’s just an estimate. No one knows for certain, because GM ingredients don’t have to be labelled in Canada.
Organisms (plants, animals or bacteria) where the DNA has been altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally.
Altering the genetic material of any organism through any method, including conventional breeding.
Genetic modification involving the direct transfer or removal of genes, artifically.
Grown or made without the use of artificial chemicals.
“How do you find out about a technology that’s hidden on grocery store shelves?” questioned Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator for the Ottawa-based Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). “Consumers are very interested and concerned with how food is produced and how safe and healthy it is.”
“How do you find out about a technology that’s hidden on grocery store shelves?”
In a mandate letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included several crucial points on food labelling, specifically providing more information on food packaging.
Former Health Minister Rona Ambrose, now the Conservative interim leader, began the process of revamping food labels last year, including public consultations before the last election.
While the final report from those consultations is still pending, many are wondering whether mandatory GM food labelling will make the cut.
The spotlight on GMO labelling
In 2014, a Health Canada survey indicated that many Canadian consumers want to see genetically modified ingredients identified on food products. They said using food labels helps them meet health, dietary, environmental, cultural and social needs, such as where a product is from or how it’s made.
“Consumers are looking for better information, and as they do that, they’re demanding mandatory labelling,” says Sharratt.
Footage © Amy Thatcher
A 2015 Ipsos Reid poll conducted by CBAN revealed that 88 per cent of Canadians want mandatory labelling of GM foods.
“Consumers are looking for better information and as they do that, they are demanding mandatory labelling.”
But consumers aren’t totally in the dark. The Standards Council of Canada adopted a standard for voluntary labelling of GMO-free foods in April 2004. This optional labelling system can inform those consumers looking to avoid GM foods.
Andreas Boecker, a consumer researcher at the University of Guelph, says this is the way to go.
“There’s really no need to implement GM labelling beyond the current voluntary system,” he says. “When you’ve got labelling one way, there’s no need for the opposite.”
Playing with plants
Humans have been tinkering with the DNA of plants and animals for thousands of years through traditional breeding. With biotechnology and genetic engineering, this process happens in a laboratory and makes better plants, faster. The majority of crops are altered for one of two traits: herbicide resistance and insect resistance.
Although the federal government has approved dozens of genetically modified foods, only four GM crops are currently grown in Canada.
In a 2012 Ipsos Reid survey, while nearly all Canadians claimed to be aware of genetically modified foods (85 per cent), less than half could correctly define what they were.
Similarly, in a 2012 survey conducted by the B.C. Growers’ Association, 76 per cent of Canadians feel that the government hasn’t provided them with enough information on GM foods.
“Most people haven’t done the research and don’t understand the different applications or benefits to the technology,” says Boecker. “So it’s a natural response to say ‘Let’s be cautious about this.’”
Food companies and industries believe implementing government-mandated labels would imply a level of risk that consumers won’t want to accept.
“I really resent some of the representations that have been made around Franken-food and all the scare mongering,” says Cate McCready of BIOTECanada, Canada’s biotechnology industry association. “You can create fear for these foods just by putting a label on it.”
“You can create fear for these foods just by putting a label on it.”
According to current federal guidelines from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, food must be labelled for safety and content. Since Health Canada has deemed GM foods to be safe, they don’t have to be labelled.
“There’s a sense that GMO is an ingredient, and that’s not what it is. It’s a process,” says McCready.
Boecker says labelling how food is created or harvested could open the door for endless additions to food labels. This could include labelling for practices such as pesticide use, or labelling how food is harvested, such as in an environment that uses child labour.
“With the right to know, there’s always the question of where do you start, and where do you stop.”
The right to know
Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting or refuting the safety of GM foods, many consumers still advocate for the right to know. Since 1993, there have been three major consultations regarding the labelling of novel or genetically engineered foods. These consultations resulted in a set of guidelines for GM food labelling, and the creation of a standard for Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering in 2004. But mandatory labelling didn’t make the cut.
“I think the government needs to provide greater transparency to citizens in Canada…that’s the rationale behind labelling,” says Sharratt. “If the new government has a real commitment to transparency, then mandatory labelling of GM foods needs to happen.”
According to Health Canada, GM food labelling is not currently on the political agenda. This means the familiar look of the Nutrition Facts might stay the same a little while longer, despite the call for change.
“If the new government has a real commitment to transparency then mandatory labelling of GM foods needs to happen.”
“There needs to be an investment made by the government for envisioning the future of food and farming,” says Sharratt. “One would hope that labelling could be a part of more transparency and democratic discussion.”
Data courtesy of the Center for Food Safety. Sixty-four countries worldwide have standards regarding the labelling of GMO foods.
Frontpage/header photo © Amy Thatcher
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