HALIFAX — The vast majority of Canadians believe genetically modified foods should have to be labelled at the grocery store, according to a new study, which a researcher says shows most consumers are confused about the science behind their dinner plates.
In a recent survey, researchers at a Halifax university found that nearly 90 per cent of Canadians expressed some degree of support for mandatory labelling of genetically modified ingredients, but most respondents were unsure whether they had purchased an engineered food product.
Participants were split about whether the health effects of GM foods are fully understood, according to the study, which reflects the lack of understanding among consumers, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
"Most Canadians are confused about the safety health effects of genetically modified foods in general," Charlebois said. "That's really the one thing that came out. If you compare different results ... there were contradictions from one question to another."
Before filling out the online questionnaire, the 1,046 people sampled to represent the Canadian market were informed that genetically modified foods refer to organisms that have been genetically altered in a way that would not occur naturally.
Charlebois said the technology has been around for more than two decades, and it's estimated that more than three-quarters of all food products sold in Canada contain at least one GM ingredient.
Most research into the safety of GM products, which has been largely funded by food producers and affirmed by independent analyses, has concluded that the technology has not been linked to health risks, said Charlebois.
In an effort to refute these findings, he said anti-GM groups have mobilized to wrest control of the public narrative and "demonize" the technology.
At the centre of this "highly polarized" issue, Charlebois said consumers have been left not knowing who to believe, or left out of the debate altogether.
"What's driving policy right now is this fear of scaring consumers, and the science is pretty clear on this one. Based on what we know so far, genetically modified seeds, crops or even animals, don't pose a threat to consumer health," he said.
"I'm not sure that consumers see the value in genetic engineering ... and that's a big concern."
Health Canada doesn't require labelling on GM food, saying grocery items are assessed according to safety and nutritional standards before they go to market. To date, the public health department has not turned down any applications for genetically modified foods, according to its website.
Given the cloud of controversy surrounding the technology, Charlebois said food producers have resisted federal regulation requiring labelling, fearing it could deter consumers from buying GM products.
But Charlebois believes GM literacy could boost producers' profits, arguing that transparency in packaging makes for happy customers.
"(Most) products you find in the grocery store include some form of genetically engineered ingredients, without the consumer's consent," he said. "With social media today, that's not acceptable anymore. People deserve to know, and deserve to be empowered."
Charlebois said GM labelling could make the economic benefits of GM technology clearer to consumers. The technology is often used to extend a product's shelf life or make it more resistant to external conditions, and could potentially make some foods cheaper, he said.
"By making this labelling rule mandatory, I would argue that you're actually giving a chance for consumers to befriend the technology," he said.
"We need to look at the socio-economics of genetic modification and see exactly if consumers are willing to pay for it."
As an example, Charlebois pointed to the arrival of GM salmon in Canada this year after U.S.-based AquaBounty Technologies, which has a facility on P.E.I., brought in the first shipment from Panama.
The salmon contains genetic material from ocean pout and chinook salmon to help it reach adult size faster, according to the company.
Of all GM food categories, Dalhousie researchers found that fish and seafood aroused the most concern, with around 44 per cent of respondents saying they were either unlikely or very unlikely to purchase engineered ocean products.
While non-GM foods ranked highly among respondents' top three concerns when purchasing food, according to the survey, it was beat by price.
Charlebois believes it's possible consumers will be swayed more by price than a GM label.
"We've always seen genetically modified ... foods through a food safety lens. I think we need to broaden that," he said. "My point is that (labelling) has nothing to do really with risk, it's more of a socio-economic dilemma."
The results of the survey — conducted by third-party data collector Qualtrics — were based on responses from 1,046 Canadians over the age of 18 over three days in May, and were considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
— By Adina Bresge in Toronto
The Canadian Press