I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers. Q.4 Should labeling GM foods be mandatory in Canada? There is a private member bill that has been introduced to label GMOs in Canada plus 24+ legislative (municipal and state level) initiatives currently on ‘the books’ in the US. This whole issue of labeling is not going away anytime soon. The problem is that the issue is often oversimplified in the media. It’s not as simple as slapping a label on a can and calling it a day. Mandatory labeling invokes traceability within the food system. And no matter what the headlines say, that means costs. When people think GMOs and labeling, they most often think big seed companies (like Monsanto) and big retailers (like Walmart). The ag and food production value chain is long and complex, comprised of many different actors including producers/farmers, elevator managers, grain distributors, seed companies, food processors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, etc. If governments were to enact mandatory labeling , costs would be incurred throughout that value chain (all actors). And those costs would be passed onto the consumer. In addition to increased food costs, mandatory labeling of GMOs would have other effects. According to the results of a recent study conducted by MIT professor Juaniuan Zhang, consumers assumes that the government knows more than they do about the safety of the food supply. So, if the government requires labels on food, consumers will suspect that there is something wrong with it. Thus, a GMO label runs the real risk of looking like a warning label. On a related note, our current food labeling system (regulated by the federal government) operates on some fundamental tenets. First off, labels on food products are reserved for foodstuffs that carry a documented health risk (eg. allergen) or in cases where products represent a substantive change in nutritional composition. Scientific evidence affirms that GMO foods are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods (see studies mentioned above). Labeling them for consumers (mandatory) would be misleading. Labels, by law, cannot be misleading. The other argument here is that if people wish to avoid GMOs, they can. There are third party certified labels for “non GMO” (The Non GMO Project) and you can always choose to buy “certified organic” (US and Canada). So, a GMO label seems a bit redundant. Now, voluntary labeling on the part of the food industry is a whole other issue. Some argue that industry should have been more proactive long ago and incorporated what is referred to as “positive” labeling strategies for products with GMO ingredients. It may have mitigated some of the controversy that has gone on for the past 20 years. This voluntary labeling thing is not out of the realm of possibilities for now either. But the devil will be in the details. How and what to label is the real question. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Here’s two sides to the issue that are very illustrative and from people that I view as evidence-based and ‘reasoned’: Check out Mark Lynas’ take on labels and his argument for ‘transparency’: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/10/why-we-need-to-label-gmos/ Also, I like this post by my colleague Chris MacDonald on “Right to Know What I am Eating” on his blog “Food Ethics”: http://food-ethics.com/2010/09/28/the-right-to-know-what-im-eating/
GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 4 (of 5)
 There are often statements in the media “If you are so proud of your products, Monsanto, why don’t you label them?” This shows that people really don’t have an understanding the ag and food value chain. These companies (like Bayer, BASF< Dow, Monsanto, etc) market to farmers. Period. And those seeds (if they are genetically engineered) are VERY WELL labeled as such. Now, the reason that these big companies get involved in funding “say no to GMO labels” is because they are supporting and advocating for the interests of downstream industry actors (like food companies). They are also taking into consideration what impacts labeling would have at the farm, elevator, transport levels too. Segregation costs (and other administrative and management costs) are big costs.
 At the government level, these costs would be incurred by the public purse, of course.
8 thoughts on “GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 4 (of 5)”
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I am now on shaky ground with several friends due to my opposition to a local labeling initiative. (It failed narrowly.) The detail that put me firmly in the opposition camp was the requirement for front of package labeling. That seemed to me to be designed to foster fear mongering, and we know that scary claims get much more press than boring claims that all is well.
During the lead up to the vote on this initiative, I made several attempts to engage in a rational discussion of GE/GMO issues with almost zero success. If I pushed back (in a civil tone, I thought) on pro-labiling arguments that were irrelevant (Monsanto is evil), or cited poor studies (Seralini), or were just anti- industrial ag, voices rapidly escalated to the point that I abandoned the effort.
I’ve followed links to information about how tricky it is for producers to pro-actively label foods as “GMO free.” (Try this FDA link if you’re curious: http://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm.) That made me pause! I think there is some merit in the idea of voluntary labeling of products that do or don’t contain genetically engineered elements, but the whole labeling thing is more complex than I realized. For now, people who object to genetic engineering are free to buy organic, but why couldn’t organic practices be used with some varieties of engineered crops in the future and be labeled organic?
In general, I favor access to information, so it was unusual for me to oppose a requirement for more consumer information. In addition to the “front of package” requirement, however, I thought a lot about what kind of information is actually provided by a notation that a food product has genetically engineered elements. Turns out, not much. Doesn’t tell you what kind of modifications are involved, what companies or organizations were involved, what farming practices were used, how much pesticide residue or salmonella or e-coli contamination is still on the product, whether farm workers were treated well or not, or the carbon footprint of the product. In other words, lots of information that I would find interesting has nothing to do with genetic engineering and no one is about to require any of it.
I will continue to follow the debate about genetic engineering of plants and animals. I think that there are likely many reasons for a decline of monarch butterflies, but I think it’s fair to study the question of whether Bt corn is or isn’t more toxic than corn that is sprayed with Bt ,and we shouldn’t demonize scientists who would ask that question. That said, researchers need to be held to high standards and statements to the press need to be responsible and not feed into fear mongering. Overall, I have a lot of concerns about agriculture in general, but genetic engineering per se is not high on my list of concerns.
I appreciate the links you offered.
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