Politicians call for GMO labelling. Scientists shake their heads.

Many scientists say GMOs are safe to consume

A customer browses the shelves at Pirate Joe's store in Vancouver, B.C., on August 21, 2013. The annual pace of inflation increased to 1.3 per cent in July, driven by the higher cost of food and most other categories of consumer items, Statistics Canada reported Friday. (DARRYL DYCK/CP)

A customer browses the shelves at Pirate Joe’s store in Vancouver, B.C., on August 21, 2013. The annual pace of inflation increased to 1.3 per cent in July, driven by the higher cost of food and most other categories of consumer items, Statistics Canada reported Friday. (DARRYL DYCK/CP)

Science policy often gets short shrift in federal election campaigns, so when the University of Victoria Students’ Society played host to a local candidates’ debate on Sept. 23—one devoted to science and technology—the auditorium was packed to brimming. Victoria incumbent Murray Rankin of the NDP, the Greens’ Jo-Ann Roberts, who’s running against him, and Tim Kane, running for the Liberals in nearby Saanich–Gulf Islands, fielded questions on everything from climate change to science communication. When an audience member asked if the three supported mandatory labelling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, all of them agreed. (The Conservatives declined to participate in this debate.) The consensus left some scientists in the crowd dismayed. “Ok, all 3 parties support GMO labelling,” tweeted Victoria-based conservation biologist Stephen Ban. “Boo.”

Ban isn’t alone. Many scientists say GMOs are safe to consume. For decades, these crops—such as insect-resistant corn, or herbicide-resistant canola—have been grown in Canada, yet they continue to stir up controversy. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 88 per cent of association scientists said it was generally safe to eat GMOs, but only 37 per cent of the public thought so, a wider gap than on any other issue, including climate change and childhood vaccines. Labels, critics say, create the perception that GMOs could be dangerous.

“It’s important that the public [has] information to make consumer choices,” Trevor Davies, a fisheries stock assessment scientist who followed the debate on Twitter, tells Maclean’s in an email. “GMO labelling would, ironically, have the opposite effect,” by giving people the impression that such products aren’t safe at all. “I’m not in favour of labelling GMOs,” Ban, the conservation biologist, tells Maclean’s. “I don’t think it would help anyone.”

Rankin, however, was careful to portray GMO labelling not as a safety issue, but as a consumer’s right. “I think people have a right to know what they put in their bodies,” he said. In 2014, Rankin introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for mandatory labelling of GMOs. (Vermont recently passed similar legislation.)

No doubt, the three candidates at UVic’s debate can feel which way the wind is blowing­—especially on Canada’s West Coast, where the local organic movement is especially strong. (The Conservative party does not support mandatory labelling for GMOs, which would “unnecessarily increase costs to consumers, farmers and business,” says spokesperson Megan Murdoch, adding that all GMOs must meet Health Canada’s standards before they’re approved.) By 2018, Whole Foods locations in Canada and the U.S. will require that everything with GMO ingredients be labelled; burrito chain Chipotle recently went GMO-free.

“One need not go into whether a genetically engineered food is good, bad, or different,” Rankin said in the debate. “We’ve got the right to know what we eat.” Unfortunately, even at a debate about science and technology, sometimes the science comes after the politics.

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Politicians call for GMO labelling. Scientists shake their heads.

  1. This is anti-vax, anti-fluoride, anti-science crap….and an indictment of our education system.

  2. GE is a breeding method not an ingredient. Sugar or oils (the vast majority of ingredients derived from GE crops) are identical whether they come from a GE crop or a Non-GE crop. There is zero chemical difference so there is no reason for specific labels demnotong a change that does not exist.

    We do not label food based on breeding methods. If we did then lets label all foods for all breeding methods. its only fair. I wonder what the organic food industry would think of having to put “made with ionizing radiation mutagenesis” labels on their food? Probably not much.

    The last thing important in this discussion is the cost of such labels. If politicians want to be honest with people then tell them GE specific food labels will raise the cost of food 10%. Then ask if they are in favour of such labels.


  3. My right to know if my farmer is left handed also requires a label.
    Left handed farmers are unsafe.

  4. The inconvenient truth that pro-GMO shills like Robert Wager fail to mention or will discuss is that more than 80% of all GMO food crops grown are specifically designed to be heavily and repeatedly sprayed with pesticides like roundup made with glyphosate which has been labeled as a possible carcinogen. They also refuse to discuss the fact that the agri-tech chemical and processed food industries through the Grocery Manufacturers Association created in attempt to hide the companies who support it, have spent more than $100 million in trying to defeat the four pieces of GMO food labeling initiatives alone.
    So if GMOs are so safe, why are the companies who sell them and the pesticides that they are designed to be used with spending so much to keep this from the public? Good question!

    • Starting with the “Shill gambit” does not help your post. So lets discuss your points. It is true the majority of GE crops have herbicide tolerance as an engineered trait. The herbicides that are used with the vast majority of GE crops are low environmental impact, non persistent herbicides. The next point is not close to reaality. Farmers use very little of these herbicides (~a cup per acre) and often only spray once in the entire growing season when the crop plants are only a few inches high. There is only one group that claims glyphosate is a probably carcinogen and that group is at odds with the vast majority of global toxicology results on glyphosate .

      Lets compare that $100 million vs the $2.5 billion the anti-GMO industry spends each year trying to make people afraid of GE crops each year in NA.

      There is a huge amount of outreach by companies that make GE crop. Just go look, its all there.

      Matt I am happy to answer any questions you have about this technology.


      • You don’t like the “shill” label Robert Wager? You have written a large number of posts promoting GMOs on such pro-GMO sites such as Genetic Literacy Project which has received funding from the agri-tech companies. You have proven that you have a clear mandate to pump GMOs and the use of glyphosate pesticide, the use of which has climbed dramatically in the last decade on both a gross tonnage basis as well as pounds per acre.

        And your figure that the organic industry spends $2.5 billion a year is from another well known GMO industry friend, Henry I Miller who actually appeared in an ad paid for by the agri-tech industry to defeat Proposition 37 in California.

        The sad truth is that companies like Monsanto sell GMOs that are specifically designed to be sprayed with glyphosate pesticides. They are primarily a pesticide manufacturer. This is also why they tried to buy Swiss chemical company Syngenta.

        Anyone who believes that the primary purpose of these efforts is to feed the world are kidding themselves – its all about selling more of their pesticides.

        • It is true I have written quite a few articles explaining the science of GE crops and derived foods. I have also given many talks to help the public understand the complex science. Most can be read here Robertwager.com

          If you take issue (challenge for accuracy) with anything I have said or written please bring it forward and we can discuss it.

          Apparently you are unaware the patent on glyphosate ran out years ago and now companies around the world now produce and sell this compound. Would you like to discuss the environmental impact of this compound vs the compounds it replaced? I would be very happy to. Monsanto also sells Bt crops which allow the farmer to avoid broad spectrum insecticide sprays and still maintain yields. Why would anyone work against these products?

          A couple points. GLP does not receive funding from Biotech companies (just one more myth put forward by anti-GMO industry) . Henry Miller is highly trained and has decades of experience in this area of science (he was the first director of the FDA Biotechnology Office) so yes I listen to what he has to say. If you want to learn the real science, you should too. You appear to have issue with people making a living but on if they are supporters of GE crop technology. Interesting POV.

          • shikimate pathway

          • Not sure what happened to my last post.
            It is clear that you and I will never agree on efficacy of GMOs and pesticides in our food. You clearly have an agenda to push GMOs. So you would have us believe that sites like the Genetic Literacy Project and GMO answers receive no support from the agri-tech and/or processed food industry and are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts? Good luck with that!

            So I will break the GMO debate down into simple terms for you. Products like glyphosate work by disrupting the shikimate pathway which negatively impacts plants and bacteria. We humans (at least in those who are healthy) have many more bacteria cells in our bodies than human cells which are fundamental to maintaining our health and defense against diseases. Anyone who says that sufficient long-term studies on the impact that pesticides have on these cells have been done is lying. They certainly have not been conducted by the companies that sell the pesticides or the Health Canada or the US FDA. So by eating them you are unwittingly becoming part of a large random health experiment – an experiment that has seen obesity rates skyrocket and health levels decline by participants.

            We all have a choice when we buy food. We could simply buy whatever foods we desire without concern for the ingredients which contain GMOs and pesticides made by companies that manufacture chemicals, are high in GMO products like high fructose corn syrup and hope for the best. Or we could buy foods produced by food companies, read labels and educate ourselves on the foods we eat and how they impact our health. You clearly have chosen the former.

            I value the health of myself and my family too much to unwittingly partake and the current giant food and chemical experiment and apparently a growing number of families feel the same way!

    • Matt, you do know that most conventional and Organic crops are also sprayed with pesticides? Do you know that all all crops are resistant to at least one herbicide and conventional crops are also bred to be resistant to specific herbicides? This is not a GMO thing, and herbicides and insecticides are not new to agriculture.

      • Most people do not know that 99.99% of the pesticides they consume each day are from natural sources.

        Proc. Nad. Acad. Sci. USA
        Vol. 87, pp. 7777-7781, October 1990
        Medical Sciences
        Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)*

      • Organic foods do use pesticides but on average they contain significantly lower levels of pesticides than non-organic foods. These pesticides are both less harmful and unlike GMO foods that are heavily and repeatedly dosed with pesticides, organic pesticides can for the most part be washed off.

        Clearly the best solution is to grow your own food which we do as much as we can.

  5. I have some pandemic civil defence involving food:
    GMO dandelions (presently require 3 boiling water changes), IDK how to avoid weed killer.
    GMO trees esp poplar to make them all drip maple syrup.
    GMO urban ants to be really sugary like the juicy honey ant
    s eaten in the tropics.
    Right now lots of food is wasted. Straight sugar is uunsuitable even for most of the 3rd world. But if it could be stored somewhere it would be edible in a pandemic or many other disasters. The same technologies that gradually make grain more storable (keeps cool keeps dry keeps out pests/fungi), should be funded for urban food waste “sugar elevators”.

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