Public’s anti-GMO perception tainted by media, say Green Party, NFU

Organization officials say because they questioned the need for GM food and pushed for scientific testing on its safety, they have been labelled GM opponents

Dozens of Canadian organizations are dedicated to halting the march of genetically modified food with messages from mild skepticism to radically militant and doses of real science sprinkled throughout.

Here’s a look at two of the best known: the Green Party and the National Farmers Union.

Green Party

Leader Elizabeth May, the party’s only MP, says its main concerns are GM labelling, resistance to new GM crops and global food supply.

“We’re very concerned about additional products entering the marketplace,” she said.

“The farming community has been strongly against genetically modified alfalfa and genetically modified wheat.”

May said the Green Party is not as radically militant as it is portrayed in the media, but she conceded that the jury is still out regarding GMOs and their potential impact on human health. She said her party’s concern goes beyond human health and extends to future food supplies on a global scale.

“One big concern has to be the security of our global food system,” she said.

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“Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have saved their own seeds for the following year. The effect of genetic modification and technology use agreements has been to prevent farmers from saving their own seeds. Is it a good idea for one or two corporations to control all the world’s seed?”

She draws a comparison between photocopiers and seeds. When all the photocopiers in the globe were Xerox, that monopoly was understandable because Xerox invented photocopiers.

Monsanto did not invent seeds, yet it is trying to establish a global monopoly by exerting intellectual property rights over seeds.

“There’s a pretty strong lobby to ridicule people who are concerned about GMOs,” she said.

“We’ve always had a fairly nuanced position, but that doesn’t come out in the media. Canada suffers from a decline in journalism in all areas. We don’t have nearly as many reporters covering agriculture as we once had. They don’t have the time to dig into difficult subjects to explain them to the public.

“Some of the anti-GMO groups have hurt their own cause by flaunting words like Frankenfoods. If media are short-staffed, they don’t have time to dig into those stories.

“Who wants GMOs? Consumers certainly haven’t asked for them. They’re not in the farmers’ interests. They are only in the interest of Monsanto. So, why are we doing this?

National Farmers Union

The perception that the NFU is anti-GMO is wrong, said Swift Current, Sask., farmer Stewart Wells, who was president of the NFU in 2001 when the Royal Society of Canada released its GMO report.

At that time, Wells presented the NFU’s position to the House of Commons agriculture committee.

He said that’s exactly when public perceptions began to become twisted. The report lists 58 recommendations upon which the federal government needed to act. Once they had been followed, there would be no need to label GM foods.

“That was 2001. To this day, the federal government has not acted on even one of those 58 recommendations,” said Wells, who added that the federal government turned the recommendations around so the headlines read simply that GM food need not be labelled.

“The statement adopted by our grassroots members said we were not opposed to the science dealing with genetically modified foods. We said the work had to be performed according to what is called precautionary principles.

“Scientists should employ the same precautionary principles Health Canada applies when licensing new drugs, but we dared to ask questions about GMOs, so we were branded way back then as anti-GMO.”

The precautionary principle is an approach to risk management that places the burden of proof on the proponents of a policy that is suspected of causing harm but for which there is no scientific consensus.

Wells said the NFU is not using the precautionary principle to prevent GMOs from ever reaching the market.

“When we had these discussions at the grassroots level, the example that came up most often was the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.

“Some new drugs are rejected in the testing stage.  Others that do pass, do so only after very rigorous testing, but they do pass.  Others, like thalidomide, are banned years later when their impact becomes known.  That’s what we had in mind.

“We just want the highest degree of safety possible using today’s best practice testing technologies.”

Wells said GMO advocates often use a concept called “substantial equivalents.”

If it looks like a potato, then it is a potato. If it looks like an apple, then it is an apple. Substantial equivalents ignore testing the genetic makeup of that potato or apple or canola plant.

“The companies took the idea of substantial equivalents and rammed it down everyone’s throats,” Wells said.

“That was their big mistake. When they did that, they got pushback from European and North American consumers who realized this genetically modified apple is a new organism that never before lived on the face of our planet. Why should we accept that it’s safe.

“The GMO promoters and our governments were unwilling to do the necessary feeding trials and the exhaustive testing.

Instead, they cite the notion of substantial equivalents. When their tactic became obvious, consumers, farmers and some scientists started to become really suspicious.

“So the next question people asked was, ‘who benefits from GMOs.’ By now, we see the benefits don’t go to the farmer or the consumer. The benefits go to major multinational companies like Monsanto.”

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