Consumers still opposed to GM food

If given a choice, most consumers would choose to buy a non-GM food item — though most don’t read the labels

Health Canada says the results of a 2016 survey of consumer views on genetically modified foods will help the department communicate to Canadians.

However, opinions remain largely unchanged from previous research that showed consumers are skeptical about, if not completely opposed to, genetically modified foods, the report said.

“The findings from this public opinion research will be used by Health Canada to more effectively communicate to Canadians how food products derived from biotechnology are assessed and regulated under the Food and Drug Regulations, as well as the safety of these products,” said a statement issued after federal health minister Jane Philpott was unavailable for an interview.

GM foods have been on the Canadian market for decades and although government has repeatedly assured consumers of their safety, consumers remain wary.

The report, done by the Strategic Counsel market research firm last March after consulting focus groups and an online survey, found people don’t know much about GM foods, don’t understand why they are necessary, and don’t know which information to believe.

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This is a challenge for policy makers and those tasked with communicating food safety and regulatory policies, such as Health Canada, the report said.

“The massive anti-GMO movement, and accompanying volume of information, presents a significant challenge for Health Canada in terms of being a credible neutral regulator, in that there would be a strong likelihood that any decisions/announcements would be received through a conditioned lens.”

Key among the findings is consumers’ lack of basic understanding of food science and technology.

Sixty-one percent of respondents said the term genetic modification is negative, and many believe that process involves injecting foods with hormones, antibiotics, steroids or other substances.

“The term ‘Franken-food’ came up in almost every focus group in the context of discussions about GM foods, although many consumers clearly know very little about the actual science of genetic modification,” the report said.

“It is clear that, for quite some time, there has been and continues to be an information void on this issue which has been rather successfully filled by the anti-GMO view.”

The survey found 26 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable eating GM foods and only 22 percent supported their development and sale in Canada.

“It is clear that significant efforts to inform and educate Canadians would be required in order to shift views in a more positive direction.”

The results were similar across the focus groups and the survey, indicating little difference in opinions by demographics or region.

Even on the Prairies, where consumers might be considered closer to the farm, parents in the focus group were more neutral to negative in their initial impression of GM foods, compared to the general population, which tended to be neutral to positive.

“What was perhaps somewhat surprising in this location was that there was virtually no significant difference between Saskatoon and other locations in terms of their understanding of and views regarding GM foods,” said the report.

Quebec City focus group participants appeared to have greater confidence in the safety of GM foods.

But the report also identifies that nearly half of the respondents don’t understand why GM foods are necessary. Consumers don’t believe the argument that genetic modification will produce more affordable, sustainable food and ensure food supply.

More than half believe GM is a way for corporations to increase their profits, and 78 percent want their GM food labelled.

But the research also found that 76 percent of respondents still list price as the most significant factor when they buy food.

To Stuart Smyth, a University of Saskatchewan professor who researches biotechnology and innovations, it signals that consumers say one thing but do another.

“They may respond to a survey and say absolutely I want this or I want that, but when the rubber meets the road and they’re in the grocery store, it’s get in, get what you want, and get out as quick as you can,” he said.

Similarly, 78 percent of respondents believe that GM foods should be labelled but 45 percent said they rarely or never look at labels.

“I struggle to see how they can get to 78 percent of a concern level,” Smyth said. “Consumer purchasing decisions don’t correlate to what they’re expressing.”

Still, the survey found that, if consumers had a choice, 62 percent would choose to buy a non-GM food item.

Finally, the report noted that 70 percent of Canadians view the federal government as a trustworthy source when it comes to GM foods. This compares to 54 percent of scientists working for food product companies and half of environmental activists.

Smyth said governments, agriculture and academics have not communicated the technology well and it will likely take decades more to educate consumers.

The study cost $119,060.19.

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