GMO battle lines: Canadian agriculture at a crossroads

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


Dr. Andreas Boecker of the University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics has studied the GMO debate since its infancy, when the anti-GMO movement came in on the heels of the BSE crisis in the mid-1990s Europe. Having worked on the policy end of things in his native Germany at the time, he specialized in consumer research on risk perception of new food technologies. He witnessed the tidal wave of anti-GMO backlash which eventually led to Europe’s current mandatory labelling system, and the suspension of most scientific research on the subject, as the fires of politics burned their way through European academia and Europe’s struggling agriculture industry. It was felt that governments and corporations alike had lied about BSE, saying there was no proven harm to humans, so what else were they lying about? This sums up the mood in Europe back then, and is the root behind the ongoing smearing of GMO in European society to this day, says Boecker.

“Before that Genetically Modified foods had not been a public issue in Europe, but after that it very rapidly became one of the most publicized issues in modern agriculture,” remembers Boecker. “Anti-GM campaigners got a lot of support from consumer organizations very quickly. The anti-GM campaigners have been very successful in portraying the whole technology as something that is potentially very risky, and as a non-manageable risk once these things were released.”

Boecker, who left Germany to pursue study of more neutral opinions on GMO in Canada, says the fallout from the anti-GMO campaign is very evident in European society; especially its legacy of mandatory labelling requirements.

“When you look at the labelling requirements in Europe, it has to be labelled on each product,” explains Boecker. “Anti-GM campaigners can actually blackmail food processors. If branded food manufacturers use genetically modified ingredients they have to put it on a label if it exceeds the 0.8 per cent threshold. At that moment, the anti-GMO campaigners are going to have flashmobs in front of supermarkets. The next day they will see the sales of that product go down and the companies’ stocks. So neither retailers or manufacturers, you could say, dare to use GM ingredients in a very open way.”

European agriculture also struggles with productivity issues, disease outbreaks in crops and political policies which shackle producers, making them less competitive and efficient, says Boecker. Rigid GMO policies have become another major anchor dragging European farmers down, he says. He uses the example of corn farmers in Europe to drive home this point.

“In my home country of Germany they have made field trials of (GMO corn) so expensive that you can’t even do research about them,” states Boecker. “In some provinces they have even prohibited planting of them. If you look at the numbers most GM seed applications have been accepted in Europe, but are not being used due to member states’ political decisions.”

He says the reactionary, and often misinformed, public mood in Europe on many topics related to agriculture isn’t helping much either. It makes it tough to be a farmer in Europe these days, and Boecker predicts European society will eventually reap the consequences of its continued interference with, and handicapping of, the system.

“It’s a real problem for European agriculture,” confirms Boecker. “There has been crisis after crisis. The latest crisis is the milk crisis. Dairy producers a lot of them are at risk of going out of business because of a largely failed policy. At some time in the near future there is going to be a wake up call.

“At the moment, nobody can actually tell the Europeans how much these policies have cost them. In the a number of years, they will see how much they have fallen behind and how much money they have spent unwisely on bad policies.”

Boecker says part of the blame for the situation has to fall squarely on the food, agriculture and crop science industries themselves, which have never had a clear message on GMOs to combat the largely ideological criticisms cast at them.

“If the industry is so positive about this technology, why don’t they change gears and be more open about the benefits? This should say this is genetically modified, and it is for these and these reasons. It’s beneficial. I think we are going to see a change in the industry to be more open and proactive about it. And address potential risks in a much more open way. As it stands, they have really played into the hands of the anti-GM campaigners.”

Boecker acknowledges Canadian consumers are not as obsessed with this issue as other countries are, and the government has largely sided with the agriculture industry on GMOs, resisting any kind of mandatory labelling system. However, Boecker says Canadian agriculture and food companies cannot simply close the door, ignore the pounding and hope this issue will go away.

“I would have to say if there is going to eventually labelling in Canada, but we have to be very careful not to follow the European model. I come from Europe and I am saying that, and a lot of scientists in Europe are saying that, because what does the label actually say? It doesn’t say anything about what is actually involved in the product, it is simply a black mark on what has become an increasingly demonized technology.

“I think now that the U.S. has adopted their piece of legislation there is an opportunity to harmonize. And we should not forget at the beginning of this year companies like Campbell Soup and General Mills went ahead voluntarily supported federal level labelling in the United States, and these are major players in Canada too.”