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The debate over GMO labelling heats up

The push is on to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Some called it a turning point in the debate over genetically modified ingredients.

One day after the world rang in 2014, General Mills revealed it was manufacturing its original Cheerios without genetically modified ingredients.

The company planned to advertise this move to U.S. consumers by affixing the label “Not made with genetically modified ingredients” onto each cereal box.

Anti-GMO groups proclaimed victory: Not only was one of the world’s largest food companies eliminating so-called “Frankenfood” from the iconic cereal brand, but it was using its new GMO-free status as a marketing tool.

In Canada, food makers are not required to label products with genetically altered ingredients. In fact, their ability to even voluntarily stamp products with “contains GMOs” or “GMO-free” labels must follow a national standard.

But as debate over food labelling heats up, some are beginning to ask the question: Should Canada introduce mandatory GMO labelling?

READ: Cheerios not seeing a sales boost from GMO switch, company says


According to Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph, and a member of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Expert Advisory Committee, the push for GMO labels is an understandable reaction to longtime silence from the biotechnology industry.

“For years, companies in the sector were only focused on selling the virtues of their technology to farmers,” he says. Consumers were left in the dark, forced to rely on anti-GMO groups who gladly stepped in to fill the information gap.

Now, Charlebois notes, the industry is paying for its mistakes. Connecticut and Maine recently passed laws that would force companies to label food with GM ingredients. The rules would only take effect once more states pass similar legislation, but that is a possibility.

The U.S.- based Center for Food Safety says GMO label bills are under consideration in nearly half of American states.

READ: Grocery manufacturers sue Vermont over GMO label law


Attempts to create GMO label laws have been tried in Canada before. The most recent took place in October when a private member’s bill was reintroduced to Parliament after an earlier defeat. Could such a law ever get the OK from Ottawa?

“If ever, it will take a lot of time,” says Andreas Boecker, an associate professor at the University of Guelph who studies attitudes to genetically altered food. Mandatory labels would only make sense if GMOs posed a health risk. And right now, Boecker notes, “there is no evidence that would conclusively support that.”

Susan Abel, vice-president of safety and compliance at Food and Consumer Products of Canada, echoes that sentiment: GMO labels, she says, imply a safety concern where none exists. In her view, labels would only create confusion for grocery shoppers.

But groups such as Greenpeace not only take issue with the assertion that GMOs aren’t a health threat, they argue labels are needed to preserve food democracy.

“Canadians want, and have a fundamental right, to know what is in their food,” says Yossi Cadan, campaigns director at Greenpeace Canada.

Cadan acknowledges changes to GM food wouldn’t happen overnight, but notes, “It makes sense to start labelling the foods which contain the highest percent- age of GMOs and continue until any food containing a GMO is labelled.”

Indeed, mandatory labelling is a real possibility in Canada, explains Charlebois. Consumers are “owed an explanation” about what’s on their dinner plates, he says.

Of course, implementing a mandatory GMO label law would take time and money. And according to Stephen Yarrow, VP of plant biotechnology at CropLife Canada, the new rules “would put pressure on the already rising costs of food to consumers, with no meaningful benefit.” Boecker agrees, adding there’s a risk of a snowball effect.

“If some consumers demand that government requires GMO labelling, then other consumers can equally demand that the working conditions along the production of food be stated on a label.”

READ: Getting ‘clean’ in 2014 with food labels


While the war over GMO labels wages on between lobby groups, associations and politicians, action is emerging in supermarkets as well. The GMO-free seal of the Non-GMO Verified Project (a non-profit certifying body) is rapidly appearing on more products as CPGs look to prove their foods aren’t genetically altered.

Lucy Sharratt, of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, thinks grocers should get ahead of the issue by establishing GM-free produce sections and by not carrying GM sweet corn (or GM apples and salmon if they come to market). That wouldn’t be a stretch, says Greenpeace’s Cadan.

“As we found in our work around oceans, grocers can be quite nimble and adapt their sourcing.”

It’s debatable, though, whether taking a stand on GMOs helps sales. Two months after banning GMOs from Cheerios, General Mills’ boss, Ken Powell, said his company had received supportive comments but no sales lift. His conclusion: GMOs aren’t a worry for most customers.

But people’s ambivalence shouldn’t be confused with trust in GMOs. That, says Charlebois, can be won by industry, but it will take some work. “Over time, we are likely to see more consumers feeling more comfortable with what biotechnology has to offer.”

One Cheerio at a time.

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