Should GM labels educate the public?

It seems many Canadians’ outlook on genetically modified organisms match their thoughts on the environment.

That is, they hold the environment dear to their hearts, but won’t compromise much on policies that hit their pocketbooks.

In a study released by Health Canada earlier this year, 61 percent of participants said the words “genetic modification” leave negative impressions. Only 26 percent of respondents said they are comfortable eating genetically modified food, and only 22 percent support the sale and development of GM foods in Canada.

By comparison, only 40 percent of Canadians oppose oil pipelines, and the politics of oil is even more polarized.

Yet, in a story on page 61 of this week’s Western Producer, professor Stuart Smyth, who is research chair in agri-food innovation at the University of Saskatchewan’s agriculture college, says it’s food prices, not attitudes, that largely govern people’s spending habits.

Indeed, it is the right of citizens to want their cake and eat it too.

So, how do lawmakers do the right thing and continue to support GM foods, which have never been shown to be anything but safe over decades of consumption, while still being seen by Canadians to have their interests at heart?

The most likely outcome is GM labelling, declaring that certain foods do or may contain genetically modified ingredients.

Public support for labelling is 78 percent, according to the survey (although only 45 percent say they actually look at labels).

Are we willing to let labels do the job of educating the public?

Health Canada’s study found that “consumers’ basic understanding of food science and technology is low.”

It found that anti-GMO groups are the most effective source of information for many consumers.

If labelling does come to Canada, the public will be shocked. Labels will be on so many foods in supermarkets that they will either be quickly ignored, or they’ll spark a backlash by consumers who were unaware that GMOs are so ubiquitous.

The study concludes that a sustained program of public awareness is necessary to project the science and safety of GMOs to Canadians.

There have been efforts in that direction, but it’s clear they are not enough.

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