Last month, filmmaker Aube Giroux’s ‘Modified’ won the James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award for best documentary film. This film, which screened locally in 2017, has its heart in the Valley.
The awards are presented annually by the foundation in recognition of outstanding achievement by chefs, restaurateurs, authors and media professionals. The ceremony was held in New York.
Modified tells the very personal story of Giroux and her mother, whose shared love of food led them on an investigation of genetically-engineered foods.
I was thrilled to see it screened on CBC and you can still stream it on CBC Gem, but Modified has been an official selection at more than 60 international film festivals, receiving 13 festival awards since its release, including four audience favourite awards.
Giroux’s mother, Jali, always grew a big garden on the South Mountain and saved her seeds for replanting.
“My mom believed in buying local and organic before it was even a thing. Most of all, she believed that knowledge is power and that we all have the right to know how our food is produced,” she says.
In Canada, genetically-modified food (GMOs) is in the supermarket, but not labeled. According to Giroux’s telling, in the late 1990s the first GMOs were genetically engineered for two main reasons: to create insecticidal crops (i.e. plants that produce their own insecticide) and to make plants that can survive herbicide spraying.
With a mother who was skeptical about the pesticide industry, Giroux’s interest grew. After living for a time in Europe, she found out that GMO food is labelled in 64 countries around the world, but not here.
Agribusiness holds sway in North America. Not only that, Canadian politicians have voted down two GMO labelling bills despite the fact that more than 85 per cent of Canadians want to know what they are buying and eating.
Even worse, says Giroux, when a new GMO comes on the market, Health Canada doesn’t even do its own safety testing. Consumers and farmers are not consulted, she noted, before a new GMO is approved.
It is frightening to me that 80 per cent of GMOs are bred to resist herbicides. Giroux learned that is the reason for increased herbicide use. The main concern is glyphosate, which is an active ingredient in the weedkiller RoundUp.
I remember that the late Bob Stead, who was mayor in Wolfville, was against lawn pesticides like RoundUp. Halifax enacted a ban on non-commercial pesticides, which led to provincial legislation in 2010.
Costco is not selling RoundUp this year, but Google tells me Home Hardware and Canadian Tire have it on their shelves. If it’s bad on your lawn, what is this chemical doing to our food? Apparently, glyphosate is detectable in processed foods like Cheerios and Kraft dinner.
Back in February, the environmental group Safe Food Matters filed an application in federal court challenging the re-registration of glyphosate by Health Canada. This followed Health Canada’s decision to reject eight environmental and health groups’ objections to the decision to re-register glyphosate as an approved herbicide.
The eight groups, including Safe Food Matters, were calling for an independent review of the herbicide.
“We have no choice but to go to court on this issue,” Mary Lou McDonald, the group’s president, said in a news release. She added that poison is “concentrating in certain foods, and all they do is tweak the labels. The feds’ own data shows that label details aren’t followed or enforced.”
According to Mark Buchanan, an American physicist and science writer, the chemical giant Bayer AG is reeling in the United States after $2 billion in damages have been awarded to people who believe they developed cancer after years of using RoundUp. Monsanto, a Bayer subsidiary, manufactures the substance. Many similar cases are pending.
Buchanan suggests that cancer may only be part of the story. He says studies over the past decade indicate glyphosate can pollute water sources, hangs around in soil far longer than previously suspected, and routinely taints human food supplies.
An article in The Guardian last year looked into Monsanto’s targeted manipulation of the media and the suppression of evidence offered to support allegations that their weed-killer caused cancer. The public may not have faith in corporations to do the right thing but, with a federal election coming up, I think Canadians have to pressure politicians to do better by us.
Watch Modified, then start talking to local candidates about this issue ahead of this fall's election. Ask them where they stand on chemicals in our food. It’s unconscionable that Health Canada is not protecting us.
Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott is a retired journalist living in Wolfville.