Do You Know What You’re Eating?

Canadians want labels on GM foods. But would we understand them?

On May 5, 2008, Conservative MP Rob Merrifield, who represents the Alberta riding of Yellowhead, west of Edmonton, stood up in the House of Commons and told fellow politicians, “My fear is that if we put a label on genetically modified foods, you have an electorate that doesn’t quite understand what that means.”

Merrifield, who also happens to be a farmer growing GM crops, was participating in a debate on Private Member’s Bill c-517, calling for labelling of genetically modified foods. Tabled by Bloc Québécois MP Gilles A. Perron, it was similar to several other bills brought before the House since 1999 by NDP, Liberal, and other Bloc MPs, proposing that any food with one or more genetically modified ingredients be sold in Canada only if so labelled. Its adoption would have put our labelling laws on par with those of 40 other countries, including Russia, China, and members of the European Union. Other MPs echoed Merrifield’s sentiment: people might misinterpret the GM label. “We’d be saying to the consumer that we’re a little concerned about genetically modified foods,” said Merrifield, “that it doesn’t meet all of the safety standards — which it does.” The bill was voted down, 156 to 101.

There are good reasons to think GM labelling might frighten off buyers. Though it is rare to find such widespread agreement on any issue, surveys repeatedly show that the vast majority of Canadians — more than 80 percent — want to know which foods contain genetically modified ingredients. A 2007 study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency indicated that Canadians are more concerned about the long-term effects of chemicals, including pesticides, and genetically modified organisms than any other food safety issue. This draws two popular strikes against GMOs, most of which are engineered to resist the application of specific herbicides. It’s a safe bet that, given the chance, large numbers of Canadians would not buy the box of crackers bearing a GM symbol.

A majority of parliamentarians apparently believe this would be unfair to the producer of the crackers. GM foods are safe, they maintain, and consumers would be avoiding them due to misinformation, ignorance, or an irrational fear of new technology.

On April 3, 2008, the day Bill c-517 was first brought forward for discussion, Conservative MP Bruce Stanton told the House of Commons, “Some 50 [GM] products have been approved by Health Canada and have gone through rigorous assessments in terms of their health safety. Only when these assessments have been completed will those products go on the market. Why should the member be concerned that these GM products need some additional labelling?”

Given Health Canada’s history in dealing with employees whose findings don’t jibe with those put forward by industry (remember Dr. Shiv Chopra, who was suspended without pay in 1999, and later fired, along with another senior scientist, after testifying before a Senate committee that they were pressured by superiors to approve the use of bovine growth hormone?), Stanton’s question would appear to answer itself. Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have conducted no independent assessments of the GM crops approved for growth and sale in Canada since their introduction here in 1995. (These include various strains of corn, soy, canola, and, as of 2008, sugar beet.) Instead, they rely on studies provided by the companies that develop, patent, and market the seeds: multinational biotech firms such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, and Pioneer Hi-Bred. Moreover, approval is contingent on a principle known as “substantial equivalence,” which means a GM cob of corn that, in terms of its makeup and properties, resembles a non-GM cob, is okay by us, regardless of what type of seed was used to grow it, or how that seed was created. This approval process was roundly criticized in a 2001 Royal Society of Canada report, Elements of Precaution, prepared by a broad cross-section of Canadian scientists and academics — from biotechnologists to agronomists to philosophers. Here’s recommendation 7.1: “The Panel recommends that approval of new transgenic organisms for environmental release, and for use as food or feed, should be based on rigorous scientific assessment of their potential for causing harm to the environment or to human health. Such testing should replace the current regulatory reliance on ‘substantial equivalence’ as a decision threshold.” It hasn’t. Nor have any of the panel’s dozens of other recommendations been adopted.

The argument against GM labelling is discordant with existing practices regarding product information in general. We know how much sodium is in a box of macaroni and cheese, and how many grams of trans fats in a handful of potato chips. By June 2009, we should also know exactly what it means when a bunch of bananas or a bag of beans is labelled organic, no matter where it comes from. If the federal government can get behind the labelling of organic foods, presumably to set standards and deter fakers, why can’t it support labels for GMOs? As Josh Brandon, agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, puts it, “It’s highly patronizing to say we can’t give this information to Canadian consumers because they won’t understand it.” That he even needs to say that is surprising. Would anyone suggest, say, that we not require a company to disclose that a T shirt was made in China because some people might have false or mistaken impressions of the manufacturing industry in that far-off land?

The reasons people want to know whether they’re buying GMOs go beyond who deems them safe. They have to do with these crops’ potential impact on the environment, on farming practices, on biodiversity in our food supply, and ultimately on who controls our food, period. A paper by Peter Phillips and Grant Isaac, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, published in 1998 in The Journal of Agrobio-technology Management and Economics, concludes that mandatory labelling of GMOs would constitute a threat to the biotech industry. They lay out a pretty thorough accounting of what’s lacking in our general knowledge on the subject. Their argument reads, in part, “Due to the level of sophistication associated with the production of GMOs, it is difficult for consumers to know or completely understand: the scientific techniques which have been utilized in the production of the good; the impact of consumption on human health and safety, both in the short-term and over the long-term; or the impact of production and consumption upon broader consumer concerns such as animal welfare, environmental protection or moral, ethical and religious concerns.”

Take that in for a moment. Reread the list of things we folks touring the grocery store aisles are uncertain about regarding GMOs. For Health Canada officials, or any MP, to suggest that all health safety issues regarding GMOs have been put to rest is eyebrow rais-ing at best; even an hour on Google will reveal that debate on this issue remains fierce, and at least halfway convincing in both the pro-and anti-directions.

A genetically modified organism is one in which genes or segments of DNA from entirely different organisms — sometimes from different biological kingdoms — have been inserted at the molecular level. This has meant, for example, implanting a gene from a soil bacterium into corn using a “gene gun” that propels DNA into cells, or “gene shuttles” that transport it in. Such meddling, in theory, holds the promise of developing foods with higher yields, higher nutritional values — rice fortified with vitamin A, for example — or better resistance to climate change and other environmental impacts. In his essay “The High-Tech Menu,” science reporter William Atkinson writes of genetic modification, “Applications are limitless. Has a traditional plant-breeding program given you barley so top-heavy with seeds that its stalks break in a windstorm? Add a stem-strengthening gene from sunflowers. Is your cold-resistant Durham Hard wheat susceptible to rust? Import a gene from a weed on which Puccinia graminis cannot grow. And so on.”

But the level of intervention Atkinson advocates is indisputably more radical than traditional crossbreeding practices, which don’t bring together genes that couldn’t hook up on their own in nature. Herein lies the uncertainty. Among the questions raised with regard to genetic manipulation of organisms are: Will gene tampering affect the allergen or toxin content of a given food? Will crops modified for insect resistance kill “good” insects? Will herbicide-resistant strains infiltrate and change the properties of closely related species? The answers to such questions remain unclear. UBC biochemist Brian Ellis, co-chair of the panel that wrote that hard-hitting Royal Society of Canada report, says recent research reveals that while unanticipated changes do occur in genetically modified plants, unexpected changes are also happening in crossbred, or sexually bred, plants. “There are a lot of changes associated with expression of a new gene in an organism,” says Ellis, “but there are also huge variations in gene expression and protein patterns in classically bred varieties.” This is not exactly comforting. “As technologies get more and more powerful, we learn how little we know,” he adds. “Not to diminish what we’ve learned, but the intricacies of these systems are amazing.”

In March 2007, the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology published the findings of an independent reanalysis of data from a Monsanto study of rats fed GM corn. Unlike Monsanto’s scientists, who claimed no detrimental effects from the same data, the new researchers reported evidence of liver and kidney toxicity in the rats, and concluded, “With the present data it cannot be concluded that GM corn mon863 is a safe product.” Two months later, Scientific American reported that as a result of contact with GM crops, a species of ragweed in the US had evolved to resist herbicides. Another study revealed that genes from modified grass travelled up to twenty-one kilometres from their plants of origin, turning up in “normal” and closely related plants. Finally, Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported in April 2008 that although one billion acres of GM crops have been planted in the US since 1996, “a full accounting of the relative costs and benefits accrued from the widespread planting of GE plants is still unavailable.” The article’s authors describe the situation as a “grand experiment” that cannot be analyzed because “we lack well-documented maps depicting the varying prevalence of crops with specific GE traits each year.”

GM crops in Canada are not uniformly tracked, but as of June 2007, according to Statistics Canada’s Field Crop Reporting Series, 49 percent of the soy grown in Ontario was genetically modified. However, due to the globalization of food, an estimated 70 percent of the processed food on grocery shelves in Canada contains genetically modified ingredients — from canola oil and sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup, to seemingly innocuous soy lecithin, an ingredient in most chocolate bars. The Greenpeace shopping guide “How to Avoid Genetically Engineered Food” puts the GMO “sad face” on hundreds of products, including most soft drinks; all beer brewed by Labatt and Molson; Heinz Pablum; several cereals by Kellogg’s, General Mills, Kraft and President’s Choice; No Name peanut butter; Blue Bonnet margarine; Oreo cookies; Kraft Dinner; Hamburger Helper, and so on.

Buying organic would seem the obvious solution, and has indeed been floated as another argument against the need for GM labels. Rob Merrifield told the Kootenay Co-op Radio show Deconstructing Dinner that “if the public in Canada is concerned about genetically modified foods, what they really need to do is buy organic and grow organic food. Then they can be assured that they’re not getting genetically modified.”

Well, mostly. For now. According to Matthew Holmes, managing director of the Organic Trade Association in Canada, cross-contamination from GM to organic crops is already such a concern that at least one of his organization’s members is buying up farmland to ensure that necessary buffers don’t one day disappear. Meanwhile, the Canadian Organic Standards are based on a “process” rather than a “purity” protocol. That means organic foods will be certified and labelled according to how they are grown and prepared. Organic standards have always been applied in this manner, but due to the existing prevalence of GMOs in the environment, producers and growers may not be able to guarantee a 100 percent GMO-free product. From Holmes’s perspective, GMOs are thus threatening the one growing system that offers a sustainable alternative to standard agricultural practices. “We’re advocating a model where we can still farm generations from now,” he says. “If we continue on the model we’re on, our soil and water systems will be so compromised, there will probably be a collapse of some sort.”

If 2006 was the year of global warming, in part thanks to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, 2008 may go down as the year of the GMO — or the year of Monsanto, a corporation that has become synonymous with the GMO issue. In May 2008, Vanity Fair published a lengthy investigative report by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele on Monsanto’s history as a chemical company (complete with a legacy of PCB-laced toxic sites), its evolution into a global seed-producing giant, and the bullying tactics it uses to protect patent rights on its GM seeds. Monsanto’s rise to “the world leader in genetic modification of seeds,” with 647 biotechnology patents, hinges on a 1980 ruling made by the US Supreme Court that paved the way for the patenting of seeds, once seen as non-patentable life forms. The ruling, write Barlett and Steele, “turned seeds into widgets, laying the groundwork for a handful of corporations to begin taking control of the world’s food supply.” The French documentary The World According to Monsanto, released in Canada a few months later, tells a similar tale. In essence, the patents allow Monsanto to force farmers to sign contracts stipulating that they will not save and reuse seed, but rather must purchase fresh seed from the company each planting season. To enforce these agreements, it employs teams of private investigators to spy on farmers, and slaps a lawsuit on any farmer with an unauthorized Monsanto plant growing on his property, whether it blew there or was planted there. Curt Ellis, co-producer of the 2007 documentary King Corn, explains how fundamental a change this is: “Because farmers can’t save seeds and improve their crop year after year, this takes the control from farmers and dumbs down farming. The more we move food production out of local areas into distant hands, the more we become dependent.” Barlett and Steele boil it down further: “Whoever provides the world’s seeds controls the world’s food supply.”

It is generally accepted that biodiversity is healthy, not just for long-term sustainability, but in weathering acute crises: if we’re growing just one crop of corn across most of the continent, a disease hitting that particular strain will wipe out our entire corn supply. Then what? Then we turn to seed savers like Bob Wildfong. He heads Seeds of Diversity, an organization with 400 volunteers across the country who collect and trade old, rare, and heritage varieties of seeds for their own gardens and small farms, as well as for storage in Agriculture Canada’s seed banks. Seed saving became trendy back in the 1970s, as a hobby for those who wanted to grow and protect heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. Since then, large-scale commercial farming has increasingly reduced the varieties of crops grown for widespread consumption. In the face of this, organizations like Seeds of Diversity are marrying their original heritage-focused mandate with one more urgent and pressing: the protection of biodiversity in our food supply. “GMOs are forcing the gene pool even narrower,” says Wildfong. “We’re making sure there are backups. We’re making sure we’re not counting on the varieties in commerce to be able to feed us forever.”

Wildfong is not inherently anti-GMO, but he wonders what benefits we’ve been offered so far by GMOs to counter the risks they pose. “We could have miraculous foods that reduce blood cholesterol, and eat french fries that are healthy instead of unhealthy,” he says. “What we’ve got instead is herbicide tolerance — plants resistant to the herbicides the same company sells. It’s not a strategy for improving our food. It’s a strategy for selling more chemicals. As a society, is that a benefit that makes this worthwhile to us?”

Unlikely as it seems, people might well decide that it is worthwhile. But they haven’t been given the chance to make that call.

The night Bill c-517 was voted down in the House, the national news agency Canwest sent out a 142 word brief with the headline “Bill Proposing Labelling of GM Foods Defeated.” A week later, the Winnipeg Free Press printed a letter to the editor from reader Colleen Hailley, who wrote, “How disappointing that little to no attention was given to something that many Canadians have a right to know about: what is in our food.”

Colleen, we hear you.

Anita Lahey
Anita Lahey’s most recent book is The Last Goldfish: A True Tale of Friendship.