Biotech supporter | Prof says industry has failed to educate consumers
Canada’s biotech sector has failed to communicate the benefits of genetically modified food to consumers, which is why a University of Guelph professor supports mandatory labelling of GMOs.
Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of marketing and consumer studies at the Ontario university and an expert in food safety and distribution, said the science shows that GMOs are safe. However, a large segment of the public doesn’t trust the science because they don’t trust the biotech industry.
“It’s not so much a matter a safety; it’s more a matter of trust,” Charlebois said.
“(People) don’t really trust the companies; therefore they feel that GMOs are unsafe.”
Farmers Feed Cities, an Ontario ag awareness organization, conducted a survey this fall to determine how Canadians make food choices. The survey found 41 percent of Canadians believe GMOs are safe for consumption.
“This was a nationwide survey, equally distributed across the country,” said Dennis Jansen, a communications assistant with Farmers Feed Cities.
Charlebois, who supports the biotech industry, said the survey data indicates companies have failed to sell the public on the global benefits of genetic modification, such as food security and reducing food prices.
“These things may be true, but consumers need to be convinced.”
He said mandatory GMO labelling would force biotech companies to engage with the public and “demystify the science behind GMOs.”
Owen Roberts, who has taught agricultural communications at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College since 1995, said the key word is transparency when dealing with GMOs.
As a result, he said, the agriculture industry and the public need to talk about mandatory GMO labelling in Canada.
“In the name of transparency, it (GMOs) will be out in the open. Maybe some people won’t buy genetically modified food (if its labelled), but they also won’t have to guess.”
However, a short-term communication blitz on GMOs won’t cut it, Roberts said.
“This absolutely cannot be a one time effort,” he said.
“With those kinds of figures (only 41 percent of Canadians believing GMOs are safe), this has to be a major, concerted effort that the industry makes to explain a challenging technology to consumers.”
Charlebois agreed that the biotech industry doesn’t dedicate sufficient resources to consumer awareness.
For example, he said Bayer Crop Science, BASF and Monsanto spend millions on product research at the University of Guelph but spend little on consumer research.
“They’re not supporting research around consumer trends or consumer behaviour and they should,” Charlebois said. “That’s where the battle lies.”
Roberts said 20 years ago the prevailing thought was that consumers would view GMOs as just another technology. He said that decision still haunts the industry.
“My perception is that it is still suffering from the original lack of communication,” Roberts said.
“(The industry) still doesn’t put enough resources into consumer education.”
The biotech giants did create CropLife, a trade association to represent the plant science industry.
However, Charlebois said CropLife Canada dedicates most of its resources to public policy.
“It’s a lobby group and consumers don’t trust lobby groups.”