On May 5, 2008, Conservative MP Rob Merrifield, who represents the Alberta riding of Yellowhead, west of Edmonton, stood up in the House of Commons and told fellow politicians, “My fear is that if we put a label on genetically modified foods, you have an electorate that doesn’t quite understand what that means.”
Merrifield, who also happens to be a farmer growing GM crops, was participating in a debate on Private Member’s Bill c-517, calling for labelling of genetically modified foods. Tabled by Bloc Québécois MP Gilles A. Perron, it was similar to several other bills brought before the House since 1999 by NDP, Liberal, and other Bloc MPs, proposing that any food with one or more genetically modified ingredients be sold in Canada only if so labelled. Its adoption would have put our labelling laws on par with those of 40 other countries, including Russia, China, and members of the European Union. Other MPs echoed Merrifield’s sentiment: people might misinterpret the GM label. “We’d be saying to the consumer that we’re a little concerned about genetically modified foods,” said Merrifield, “that it doesn’t meet all of the safety standards — which it does.” The bill was voted down, 156 to 101.
There are good reasons to think GM labelling might frighten off buyers. Though it is rare to find such widespread agreement on any issue, surveys repeatedly show that the vast majority of Canadians — more than 80 percent — want to know which foods contain genetically modified ingredients. A 2007 study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency indicated that Canadians are more concerned about the long-term effects of chemicals, including pesticides, and genetically modified organisms than any other food safety issue. This draws two popular strikes against GMOs, most of which are engineered to resist the application of specific herbicides. It’s a safe bet that, given the chance, large numbers of Canadians would not buy the box of crackers bearing a GM symbol.
A majority of parliamentarians apparently believe this would be unfair to the producer of the crackers. GM foods are safe, they maintain, and consumers would be avoiding them due to misinformation, ignorance, or an irrational fear of new technology.
On April 3, 2008, the day Bill c-517 was first brought forward for discussion, Conservative MP Bruce Stanton told the House of Commons, “Some 50 [GM] products have been approved by Health Canada and have gone through rigorous assessments in terms of their health safety. Only when these assessments have been completed will those products go on the market. Why should the member be concerned that these GM products need some additional labelling?”
Given Health Canada’s history in dealing with employees whose findings don’t jibe with those put forward by industry (remember Dr. Shiv Chopra, who was suspended without pay in 1999, and later fired, along with another senior scientist, after testifying before a Senate committee that they were pressured by superiors to approve the use of bovine growth hormone?), Stanton’s question would appear to answer itself. Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have conducted no independent assessments of the GM crops approved for growth and sale in Canada since their introduction here in 1995. (These include various strains of corn, soy, canola, and, as of 2008, sugar beet.) Instead, they rely on studies provided by the companies that develop, patent, and market the seeds: multinational biotech firms such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, and Pioneer Hi-Bred. Moreover, approval is contingent on a principle known as “substantial equivalence,” which means a GM cob of corn that, in terms of its makeup and properties, resembles a non-GM cob, is okay by us, regardless of what type of seed was used to grow it, or how that seed was created. This approval process was roundly criticized in a 2001 Royal Society of Canada report, Elements of Precaution, prepared by a broad cross-section of Canadian scientists and academics — from biotechnologists to agronomists to philosophers. Here’s recommendation 7.1: “The Panel recommends that approval of new transgenic organisms for environmental release, and for use as food or feed, should be based on rigorous scientific assessment of their potential for causing harm to the environment or to human health. Such testing should replace the current regulatory reliance on ‘substantial equivalence’ as a decision threshold.” It hasn’t. Nor have any of the panel’s dozens of other recommendations been adopted.
The argument against GM labelling is discordant with existing practices regarding product information in general. We know how much sodium is in a box of macaroni and cheese, and how many grams of trans fats in a handful of potato chips. By June 2009, we should also know exactly what it means when a bunch of bananas or a bag of beans is labelled organic, no matter where it comes from. If the federal government can get behind the labelling of organic foods, presumably to set standards and deter fakers, why can’t it support labels for GMOs? As Josh Brandon, agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, puts it, “It’s highly patronizing to say we can’t give this information to Canadian consumers because they won’t understand it.” That he even needs to say that is surprising. Would anyone suggest, say, that we not require a company to disclose that a T shirt was made in China because some people might have false or mistaken impressions of the manufacturing industry in that far-off land?
The reasons people want to know whether they’re buying GMOs go beyond who deems them safe. They have to do with these crops’ potential impact on the environment, on farming practices, on biodiversity in our food supply, and ultimately on who controls our food, period. A paper by Peter Phillips and Grant Isaac, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, published in 1998 in The Journal of Agrobio-technology Management and Economics, concludes that mandatory labelling of GMOs would constitute a threat to the biotech industry. They lay out a pretty thorough accounting of what’s lacking in our general knowledge on the subject. Their argument reads, in part, “Due to the level of sophistication associated with the production of GMOs, it is difficult for consumers to know or completely understand: the scientific techniques which have been utilized in the production of the good; the impact of consumption on human health and safety, both in the short-term and over the long-term; or the impact of production and consumption upon broader consumer concerns such as animal welfare, environmental protection or moral, ethical and religious concerns.”
Take that in for a moment. Reread the list of things we folks touring the grocery store aisles are uncertain about regarding GMOs. For Health Canada officials, or any MP, to suggest that all health safety issues regarding GMOs have been put to rest is eyebrow rais-ing at best; even an hour on Google will reveal that debate on this issue remains fierce, and at least halfway convincing in both the pro-and anti-directions.
A genetically modified organism is one in which genes or segments of DNA from entirely different organisms — sometimes from different biological kingdoms — have been inserted at the molecular level. This has meant, for example, implanting a gene from a soil bacterium into corn using a “gene gun” that propels DNA into cells, or “gene shuttles” that transport it in. Such meddling, in theory, holds the promise of developing foods with higher yields, higher nutritional values — rice fortified with vitamin A, for example — or better resistance to climate change and other environmental impacts. In his essay “The High-Tech Menu,” science reporter William Atkinson writes of genetic modification, “Applications are limitless. Has a traditional plant-breeding program given you barley so top-heavy with seeds that its stalks break in a windstorm? Add a stem-strengthening gene from sunflowers. Is your cold-resistant Durham Hard wheat susceptible to rust? Import a gene from a weed on which Puccinia graminis cannot grow. And so on.”