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.3 What is the Canadian attitude towards GM foods like? In farmers? The agriculture industry? The federal government? Environmentalists? The average consumer?
Whoa. Lots of questions there.
First, it’s really hard to measure opinions and perceptions of GM foods. It is evident, however, that public understanding of biotechnology and genetic engineering and crops is very low. Consumer preferences of GM food play out in different ways under different survey conditions which speak to “wildly differing results” of studies. Results are a function of questions asked, under what conditions and in what context. And there always seems to be a marked difference in ‘stated’ preferences (under survey conditions) and actual ‘revealed’ preferences (buying behaviour). This latter sentence probably speaks to your question of how the average consumer perceives and acts with respect to GMO foods.
Farmers? Well, it would seem that farmers like them. At least those that are not organic (organic growers cannot use GM crops according to the Canadian Organics Standards). Canada now ranks fourth in the world in terms of acres planted to genetically modified crops, up from fifth the year before with Canadian farmers in 2012 planting nearly 29 million acres of GM crops (ref). Out of a total of almost 89 million acres of farmland in the country, that represents a lot (By the way, farmers that use GE crops also use other crops produced through traditional methods of plant breeding and hybrids, etc. They have to as it is important to “rotate” crops to manage weeds and to maintain the soil health of the farmland). Other crops grown would be those produced through conventional means (traditional breeding techniques, hybrids, etc). Currently, ~ 1.7 million acres are attributed to organic production in Canada.
Canada’s economy is primary industry based: mining, oil and gas, agriculture. In 2012, agriculture directly provided one in eight jobs, employing 2 million people and accounting for 8.1% of the GDP. In that same year, Canada was the fifth largest exporter and sixth largest importer of ag and agrifood productions in the world. Ag is important. And so is any kind of crop variety that can lower inputs and enable producers to manage the land in an environmentally sustainable way.
How about government? Different jurisdictions in the world regulate food and agriculture slightly differently. Unlike the European Union, Canada’s regulations have and continue to be based (mainly) on science. The Canadian regulatory system is overseen by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada. The regulations here focus on product novelty, not the process used to create the product. Hazard is determined by the ‘trait’ of the product not the way in which it was produced. So a conventional product may be just as likely to be deemed hazardous as anything developed through genetic engineering techniques. Products produced through conventional means have different standards applied to them. Regulatory oversight is much simpler for conventional products because scientists have no idea what the exact genetic changes are in them, unlike in the case of a GMO with a similar novel trait. In practice, Canada’s regulations are very stringent for GMOs. On average, it takes 13 years and a 140M$ to develop and bring a new GM crop variety through the regulatory system. Over the past two decades, the time it takes to navigate the regulatory process has almost tripled due, for the most part, on the political actions of anti-GM interest groups (see parts 1 and 2).
Environmentalists? Well, I think that we know where the emotive, destructive and politically motivated ones stand on this topic. Until their attention shifts to the ‘next big donation-generator,’ genetically engineered anything is up for grabs. I foresee a shift though as we develop crop varieties that have more consumer benefits (nutritional value (like Golden Rice) or reduced transfats or maybe a peanut developed with the allergen knocked out of it… you get where I’m going here). Also, I think that people have to open their eyes up to what is going on in developing countries. Many of the challenges that those people face in terms of food production can be addressed with pest-resistant, virus-resistant, drought-resistant varieties. Genetic engineering techniques are precise and varieties can be developed quickly without waiting for successive generations as we have to with varieties produced through traditional breeding techniques.
I think that we have to start looking more ‘holistically’ at ag and food production. The whole thing is so deeply divided right now. You are either perceived to be pro-GM and bought wholly by industry or you are anti-GM and are the usual ‘activist suspect’ and wholly anti-GM. I think that when you get past the politics and propaganda and dig down into the evidence (and the good science) you see that things are not so black and white. Do we need to judiciously regulate products of biotech? Yes! Absolutely! Do we? YES. Does it always have to be one or the other? GM or organic? No, I’d say that is short-sighted.
What about developing a genetically engineered crops and plants that can be managed through organic methods and practices? Plausible, no? All ag is good ag in my opinion. Whether it is organic, conventional or GM. I do take issue with how agriculture production and practice is vilified in the media. The rhetoric just distracts us from the real problems that we need to tackle like waste, storage, hunger, disease, pests, drought, the environment, etc.
 And here’s the irony: Critics often hammer the seed companies about being ‘monopolistic’ (it’s an oligopoly, by the way – 6 big actors). But guess what? Even with the extension of the regulatory process, the system is no more robust than it ever was. AND because it is so costly and time intensive, the only companies prepared to take on these costs is big ag. Small and medium business can’t engage even if they wanted to. Can’t afford it.
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GMOs and Public Perceptions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.