Happy consumers may buy more food

While America was pondering who to elect as president, California was contemplating Proposition 37.

It would have required genetically modified organisms in food to be labelled. It failed at the ballots, but it has inspired a broader referendum about our continental food supply.

Some think it could influence Canada’s policies on food labelling in the not-so-distant future.

Regardless of the outcome, California should be commended for engaging its constituency on this important debate.

GMOs exist for a number of legitimate reasons, and the outright ban of GMOs in food, as some have suggested, would be unwise.

Current estimates suggest 50 to 70 percent of food sold in Canadian grocery stores contain GM ingredients. In short, they are everywhere, and the reason for this is simple: evidence shows that GM seeds make agriculture more efficient and therefore significantly affect food prices.

Studies suggest that the average grocery bill for Canadians could go up as much as $400 per year should the use of GM ingredients be prohibited. Such a threshold keeps many Canadians from being food insecure.

As well, to suggest GM ingredients pose a threat to consumers is scientifically precipitous. Most studies that draw this conclusion are either methodologically unsound or contain flawed data sets.

Science has demonstrated that products containing GMOs are safe for human consumption. However, they have been on the market only since 1994, and more research is obviously warranted.

We should not be surprised by numerous interest groups who remain adamantly against the biotechnology industry and their products.

For years, companies in this sector focused only on selling the virtues of their technology to farmers.

As a result, consumers were left out of the learning curve and left to deal with the spectre of the biotechnological unknown on their own.

Seeing an opening, lobby groups that oppose GMOs successfully occupied this information gap, which is why California had a plebiscite on the issue.

Left to the devices of these lobby groups, consumers became fearful of GMOs, which are pejoratively called “frankenfoods.”

The process leading to the seemingly sudden arrival of GMOs on our dinner plates did not respect the democratic leanings of our food systems, and the biotechnology industry is now paying the price.

The many benefits stemming from the biosciences should be clearly demonstrated to consumers. To that end, labelling is an interesting option.

GMOs clearly need to be demystified, but consumers are owed an explanation for their existence.

Labelling remains the most effective and powerful tool to properly communicate risks to consumers in real time, at points of sale.

For example, since August, it is now mandatory in Canada to mention allergens on food labels. It was the right thing to do to protect more than one million Canadians who suffer from food allergies. In the case of GMOs, what hangs in the balance is consumer trust.

We are now at a point where consumers deserve more clarity. Most can handle the science behind the food products they buy.

The food industry will always get the consumers it deserves, many of whom are currently overwhelmed with a sense of suspicion and distrust of GMOs. Conveying the proper information could be a game changer for consumers and industry.

Unlike Canada, California has the economic power to be a trendsetter. Proposition 37 was filled with loopholes and special exemptions, which would have made the legislation costly to implement.

Still, we should take note and engage Canadian consumers on this important issue.

A collective discussion on GMO labelling is not just about labelling, but more importantly it is about food democracy: giving consumers a chance to make well-informed choices.

Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph.

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