To label or not to label for GMO?

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, have played a significant role in Canadian agriculture for the past 30 years; however, the crop science industry responsible for developing these revolutionary foods has been under increasing pressure from governments and the anti-GMO lobby to label their products for Canadian consumers.

Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says any such labelling is confusing to consumers and improperly stigmatizes Canadian food and agriculture products when there is no science to back up any possible health argument for doing so.

“We’ve always had the position that labelling should be of a voluntary nature for GMOs,” confirms Bonnett. “The reason we say voluntary labelling is because the mandatory labelling on products has always been reserved for some sort of a health risk, like allergies. And that would be based on scientific proof there could be problems of that nature if people ate that product. With GMO there is no established health risk or anything like that.”

Bonnett acknowledges Europe has had such mandatory labels in place for a number of years and the United States has brought in some labelling requirements of its own this past spring, putting pressure on the Canadian government to follow suit.

“I think we have to be sure we don’t get out in front of everybody else, even in the States there is a lot of debate yet on where the labelling is. And it’s the same for Australia and other countries. We know that Europe has sort of an anti-GMO stance, but it’s kind of interesting some of the farm groups over there are really disappointed the debate has become one of emotion and they don’t have the opportunity to use some of the GM products that are used in the United States, Canada and Australia.

“I am little bit worried if all of a sudden every new and innovative product is perceived by consumers as being a risk, without the scientific backing it could undermine the validity of some of the labelling laws that currently exist.”

Canadian agriculture, explains Bonnett, is facing a host of different issues around social license. GMO is only one of a very long list.

“This is one of those issues that falls into the area of public trust,” acknowledges Bonnett, “but I don’t think by and large there is a really good public understanding of what GMO means. It’s kind of out there that if it’s GMO it’s gotta be bad for you. We have complete cooperation right from the producer level all the way to the feet of the Canadian Ag. Ministers. We have started looking at how we can gain public trust with a number of these types of issues coming around.”

Bonnett says part of the strategy certainly has to be to let consumers know the tangible benefits of GMOs to Canadian agriculture, instead of allowing fear and misinformation continue to have their day.

“A lot of this debate is driven by a few snappy lines that grab headline attention, but doesn’t really deal with the fact that GMOs, for instance, have been used for 25 or 30 years now, and there is no documented evidence there is any risk to human consumption of those products,” explains Bonnett. “The biggest benefit has been reduced pesticide use. With the GM technology it has managed to control the amount of pesticide being used. This means soil quality is going up and less water is being used. I think that is a type of an example where the farmers have used the technology to actually better manage their soil and water quality. And that’s the type of argument that hasn’t been put out there to the public.”

Bonnett reasserts a voluntary labelling system is the best way to go in Canada, and some companies could definitely reap greater rewards from doing so.

“If you are an organic farmer you can actually voluntarily do the labelling to target the consumers you want to sell for,” he says by way of example. “That is likely a more appropriate way to do it at this point than tacking it on the existing labelling legislation. But the discussion has got to continue, there’s no doubt about that. I am worried about knee-jerking into putting a labelling system in place that just creates more confusion amongst consumers on top of what is already there. If a label means everything and anything then it really means nothing.”

Bonnett feels public outreach is key to help find the right type of system for Canada.

“We want to build transparency and build confidence with consumers. That comes from the understanding that the technology has been used and is being used, and what the options are if we don’t use them. For example, pesticide use is higher in Europe than it is in Canada. And that’s not hard to figure out. If they are not allowed to use GMOs, they have to use more pesticides to control. There is no free ride. GMOs are tools which have been used to improve productivity, control pesticide use and provide the crops Canadians want. And I think any labelling initiatives should proceed with caution,” states Bonnet.