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Bill's Defeat was our Victory

26.oct.01, Douglas Powell, K-W Record, A15

At the crux of the labeling debate is a simple question with various answers depending on how it is asked: what do consumers want when purchasing food?

26.oct.01, Douglas Powell, K-W Record, A15
The defeat of a private member's Bill Wednesday evening that would have seen the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods is a temporary victory for Canada's science-based regulatory system and, despite the claims of activist groups, a victory for consumer choice.
Undoubtedly, more private members Bills calling for such labeling will be introduced and the House of Commons already seems committed to expending time and energy on the issue through hearings at the standing committee on health; this, even though both the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Biotechnology Committee (of which I am a member and which did consult Canadians) decided after months of examining the issue that voluntary labeling is the way to go.
Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and others quickly gave notice they would intensify their activities, working to solidify the spin that the Bill's defeat was a blow to consumer preference and the result of corporate influence (except that if the corporations were so influential this discussion wouldn't even be happening, to say nothing of the sustained and misleading lobbying efforts carried out by a variety of activist groups).
At the crux of the labeling debate is a simple question with various answers depending on how it is asked: what do consumers want when purchasing food?
We are repeatedly told that 95 per cent of Canadians want genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. So for a fourth-place Liberal leadership hopeful like Health Minister Alan Rock, perhaps he thought it was a no-brainer to proclaim his support for mandatory labeling in the weeks leading up to Wednesday's vote.
But surveys lie. When Americans were asked earlier this year if there was anything they wanted to see added to food labels, 80 per cent said, "nothing." About two per cent said they wanted to know if a food or its ingredients had been genetically modified.
Mr. Rock was a no-show for the vote and has been conspicuously silent on the issue since.
Contrary to the pre-vote assertions of Minister Rock, in every country where mandatory labeling of GM foods is either in development or the early stages of implementation, regulators have allowed for an extensive network of exemptions and loopholes in order to make such labeling practical and comparatively inexpensive. The result is that many food ingredients that are obtained from GM crops are exempted, and foods that are classified as GM -free may actually contain a significant percentage of ingredients that come from GM sources. Consumers who buy such foods on the basis of their GM-free classification are being seriously misled.
And despite claims of consumer choice, the real intent of the mandatory labeling crowd is to eliminate the use of the technology altogether. It works.
In those countries with supposed mandatory labeling regimes, retailers are loath to carry foods with GM ingredients (they do, but that's part of the hucksterism so commonplace at grocery stores these days). So whatever benefits the technology may offer, like reduced pesticide use, healthier crops and more environmentally sustainable farming, are not available for consumers to choose. The ultimate irony is that Canada does not have mandatory labeling for known health risks, such as safe handling labels on all raw meat, or warnings on unpasteurized juices, labels which are mandatory in the U.S. Mr. Rock's pre-Thanksgiving salvo was not about gratitude for the bounty of Canada, or advice on how consumers can lower the incidence of foodborne illness by using a meat thermometer when cooking poultry. It was about politics.
As the celebrated cookbook author Irena Chalmers recently wrote, "What is wonderfully invigorating about these kinds of saints v sinners debates is how uplifted both sides become, as they practice the art of listening by talking louder and proclaiming their invincible rectitude to consumers - who are largely indifferent to the issues at hand. Consumers generally prefer to concentrate their energies on food that is fast, cheap, safe and convenient - these being the same four components that have led us to embrace indoor plumbing."
At the grocery story, cost is king, followed by taste and nutrition. A study made public earlier this month by Stuart Smyth and Peter Phillips of the University of Saskatchewan (http://www.agbio-management.org/) predicted cost increases of 15 to 20 per cent for segregated food systems, such as those required under a GM labeling system. At the farm market in Hillsburgh, Ont. where my colleagues and I have grown and sold genetically engineered sweet corn alongside conventional corn for two years, the number one question from consumers this year was, Is it peaches-and-cream?
Canadians deserve clear, meaningful and verifiable food labels, certainly better than what we currently have. The Caccia Billl would have made things worse.

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor and director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph