Food Labelling: The Right to Know if You’re Eating GMOs

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

Margaret Campbell

After a year of public campaigning, teen activist Rachel Parent will finally get her meeting with Minister of Health Rona Ambrose to discuss the labelling of foods that contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Canada. News that Ambrose will meet with Parent— who started the non-profit Kids Right to Know— comes only weeks after research released by Consumer Reports found that a high percentage of North American food products labelled ‘natural’ actually contain GMOs.

South of the border, recent midterm elections in the United States saw residents of both Colorado and Oregon vote on whether packaged foods containing genetically engineered ingredients should be labelled as such. Both measures were defeated, although narrowly — fewer than 51 per cent of voters cast their ballot against labelling in Oregon. Back in May, Vermont enacted the country’s first law requiring the labelling of food containing GMOs. That law is scheduled to come into effect in 2016.

GMOs are organisms that have had their genes altered to act in an unnatural way, or that contain genes from another organism. In Canada, about 70 per cent of the processed food found in grocery stores includes some genetically engineered ingredient — yet there are no laws in the country requiring that they be labelled to reflect this.

The lack of laws or legislation governing GMOs in Canada has been increasingly criticized by those who link the continued growth and consumption of generically modified crops to skyrocketing allergy rates, immune reactions, and liver problems. Public opinion polls conducted over the past decade have found that between 80 and 90 per cent of Canadians support the labelling of GMO foods.

NDP Member of Parliament Murray Rankin has recently introduced a motion into the House of Commons calling for the mandatory labelling of all food products containing genetically engineered ingredients. This motion has been endorsed by a wide range of supporters, including Whole Foods, the National Farmer’s Union, and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). But it remains caught up in the bureaucratic process. When it comes to regulating GMOs, Canada has fallen drastically behind the times.

Internationally, 64 countries already require that genetically modified foods be either labelled, restricted, or banned entirely – including China and South Africa. The European Union has been a world leader in this area, requiring the labelling of all such products since 1997. Regulations are so stringent in the EU that GMO labels are required even if the product is not packaged or does not have detectable traces of GMO in the final product.

There is, however, some disagreement on how stringent GMO regulation should be across Europe. In 2008, the European Union’s highest court fined France €10 million for its delay in updating domestic laws to line up with established directives. Yet, just like in Canada, public opinion in France tends to oppose the production and consumption of genetically modified foods; a 2011 poll found that 80 per cent of respondents were opposed to the cultivation of GMO crops in open fields. In May of this year, the French parliament approved a law prohibiting the cultivation of any type of genetically engineered maize. National bans on genetically modified crops also exist in Austria, Greece, Hungary, and Italy.

In contrast, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – which share responsibility for developing the policy on labelling GMO foods in Canada – have approved over 81 genetically modified foods since 1991. Canada is also one of five countries which combine to produce 90 per cent of the world’s genetically engineered crops.

Minister Ambrose has publicly maintained that there is no evidence that genetically modified foods are unhealthy. Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology company, has affirmed that it has never tested GMO safety on humans given that they are ‘substantively equivalent’ to natural organisms. On the other hand, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology have argued that engineered crops lead to inflammation and many related health issues.

Despite releasing its own report in June 2014 acknowledging that Canadians want the federal government to act on GMO labelling, Health Canada has no plans to conduct any long-term studies on the health impact of genetic engineering unless “products which represent true novelty to the food supply [are] proposed for commercialization.”

Canada’s federal government has no apparent interest in enacting legislation to govern GMO labelling. But labelling is not just a safety issue. Food labels provide information on everything from allergy risks to the presence of substances people choose to limit, and Canadians who choose to limit their GMO consumption should have that information made easily accessible to them – as is now the case in many developed countries. Proper labelling of food products will be particularly relevant if the government continues to show little interest in conducting further scientific research into the potential health consequences of genetically modified foods.

Margaret Campbell is in her second year at the School of Public Policy and Governance and is spending her fall semester studying at the Paris School of International Affairs. Her policy interests include education, gender and family policy, and criminal justice reform. Having just finished a summer co-op placement in education labour relations within the Ontario Public Service, Margaret is interested in gaining a better understanding of the policies in France that promote a healthy work-life-family balance. She is also looking forward to eating macarons while wandering her new neighbourhood of Montmartre.

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