Anti-GMO marketing preys on the anxiety surrounding modified foods, but science argues that there’s been a big misunderstanding
Health Canada defines genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) as a plant or animal that has had 1 or more of its traits intentionally altered. An “alteration” could refer to traditional crossbreeding, gene editing, genetic engineering and mutagenesis. Under this definition, everything from pesticide-resistant corn to your neighbour’s golden doodle is a GMO. Some results are achieved in a lab, while others are a result of farming and breeding processes that have been ongoing for thousands of years. Of course, the common use of “GMO” usually refers to the former example, meaning food that has had genetic engineering or gene editing outside of traditional methods. But when contrasted against the broader, scientific definition, the colloquial use of “GMO” is a misnomer that is spreading through the food industry.
Are GMOs safe? Short answer: Yes. The genetically modified and genetically engineered food that ends up on shelves in Canadian grocery stores have met the strict requirements Health Canada’s safety assessment. Their review covers the chemical safety of the food, potential allergen risks, and how the genetically modified (GM) food compares to its non-modified counterpart in terms of its nutritional value.
With trend culture emphasizing ‘earth-to-table’ recipes and organic ingredients, it’s no wonder that the perception of GMOs as a kind of unnatural ‘Frankenfood’ makes some consumers increasingly anxious.
Independent organizations like The Non-GMO Project have amplified the use of non-GMO labels on consumer food packages; however, their Non-GMO Project Verified label does not guarantee that the products are GMO-free. They cannot make that claim because it implies that a “Non-GMO” label promises that the product has no genetically-modified ingredients; hence, the label is misleading.
The anti-GMO movement’s push towards labelling in the name of transparency actually further muddies the waters for consumers, mainly because the audience for these labels are often ill-informed.
“Non-GMO” is simply another marketing buzzword. The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) Foundation’s 2018 Food & Health Survey revealed that 40% of consumers viewed a product labeled “non-GMO” as healthier than a product with genetically engineered ingredients, despite having the same nutritional information.
The anti-GMO movement has been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, the Agnes Reid Institute conducted a study on Canadians’ understanding and conceptions surrounding GMOs. They found that fewer than half of those surveyed correctly identified crossbreeding or mutagenesis as a form of genetic modification, but over 60% recognized recombinant DNA (genetic engineering) as a way to produce GMOs. This reveals the bias that has allowed GMOs to be marketed as uncommon or strange rather than something most of us could encounter everyday.
“Anti-GM advocates have successfully filled the ‘information void’” states Kathleen Harris in an article for CBC which summarized Health Canada’s report on consumer’s anxiety surrounding genetically engineered food. The lack of GMO literacy among Canadian consumers has allowed anti-GMO marketers to spread misinformation surrounding the safety of genetically-modified foods.
The Frankenfood story, retold
It’s time to set the story straight. With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening food security, consumers need to feel confident about available food. Despite the consumer’s concern, the majority of scientists believe in the safety of GMOs, and the very real gains for farmers and consumers.
The World Health Organization explains that genetically modified foods are produced because there is a benefit or advantage for the farmers, other producers and/or consumers.
“This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both” states the WHO.
GMs are often used to get desired traits in crops, including:
- Pesticide resistant
- Herbicide tolerant
- Virus resistant
These traits offer advantages to farmers, which translates to easier food production resulting in affordability on the consumer side. As the Agnes Reid Institute discovered during their study, affordability is the first concern Canadians have regarding their groceries.
GMOs also offer opportunities for more sustainable food production, something the majority of consumers agree is important. A study on the environmental impacts of GM crops published in 2018 found that the decline of pesticide and herbicide use, due to the use of genetically modified crops, had a significant impact: the lower need (and therefore use) of pesticides and herbicides resulted in an 18.4% decline in their environmental impact.
Current standards have ensured the safety and health of genetically-modified products that are commercially available. Canadians need a better understanding of the safety regulations, farming and environmental advantages and consumer benefits of GMOs before they get caught up in the ‘Frankenfood’ story. Let us be better informed, and not so easily persuaded away from good, affordable food.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers