Canada doesn’t label GMO foods even though 88% of us say we should

Canadians say that want to be able to make informed choices about the food they eat Aube Giroux, director of Modified

NOTE: CBC Docs POV is documentary series that offers one person's perspective on the topic presented. The series presents viewpoints on issues that matter to Canadians.

When I got my first video camera 17 years ago and started filming my mom in her garden, I couldn’t have imagined that, years later, that shaky footage would become the building blocks for my first feature documentary film, Modified. Nor could I have ever imagined that when the film was finally complete, the one person I most wanted to share it with would no longer be there to see it.

I grew up in Quebec and Nova Scotia’s bucolic Annapolis Valley. No matter where we found ourselves, my mom would always find a way to plant a big garden where she proudly grew much of the food we ate, saving her seeds to replant each year. Though they never had much money, my parents were “frugal foodies” and always found creative ways to put delicious, healthy food on the table. 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.

GMOs are on the market, but not labelled in Canada

In the late 1990s, the first genetically modified organisms (GMOs) came on the market. They 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.

My mom was skeptical about the industry’s promise of higher yields and reduced need for pesticides. She wanted to learn more, and her insatiable curiosity was contagious. I soon found myself exchanging books with her, attending conferences and learning as much as I could about these new foods. But it was only after living in Europe for two years, where the law mandates that GMOs be clearly labelled on food products, that I began to ask why, if they are labelled in 64 countries around the world, we don’t do the same here in Canada.

That seemingly simple question led me on a 10-year search for answers, taking me from my mom’s lush garden to the offices of agribusiness industry executives. From the green cornfields of Iowa to plant breeding labs, to the streets of Paris, California and Washington, and finally back home to where it all started.

Agribusiness is a key stakeholder in government decisions

While making Modified, I saw members of Parliament vote down two GMO labelling bills — against the wishes of 88 per cent of Canadians who want to be able to make informed choices at the grocery store. I gradually realized that my film wasn’t just about food; it was also about democracy and a moment in time when large corporations hold a profound degree of influence over our government.

It has always seemed to me that providing consumers with basic information about how our food is produced is pretty common-sense. Yet, in the U.S., the agribusiness industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fight GMO labelling, including $45 million in California to fight a 2012 GMO labelling bill, and $192.8 million between 2013 and 2015 to influence federal GMO legislation.

In Canada, when a new GMO comes on the market, Health Canada doesn’t do its own safety testing. Instead, it relies on studies submitted by the companies themselves, which are not required to be peer-reviewed. Moreover, Health Canada’s evaluation of this industry data is done behind closed doors. Aside from a summary, the government’s GMO assessments are hidden from the public and even from independent scientists. Consumers and farmers are not consulted before a new GMO is approved.

In 2001, the Royal Society of Canada’s biotechnology expert panel released a scathing report that rebuked how our government regulates GMOs. Out of the panel’s 53 recommendations — intended to make our regulatory system more transparent, scientific and democratic — our government implemented a total of two.

I learned while making this film, that more than 80 per cent of GMOs are engineered to resist herbicides and that this has drastically increased herbicide use. In fact, according to Canada’s own food regulator’s report, nearly one-third of Canadian food now tests positive for glyphosate herbicide residues. It appears that GMOs never fulfilled the industry’s promise of reducing pesticide use.

The movement toward sustainable agriculture

The way we grow our food is killing our planet. Our intensive use of pesticides is contributing to a catastrophic decline of the world’s insect populations, including pollinators like bees and butterflies. Industrial agriculture is also one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and the primary cause of dead zones in our lakes, rivers and oceans. Scientific studies increasingly link exposure to pesticides to a wide range of illnesses, from respiratory disorders to endocrine disruption to cancers.

More and more Canadian farmers are turning to regenerative and organic farming methods. By sequestering carbon, enriching the soil and increasing farm biodiversity, these methods lie at the heart of the type of sustainable agriculture that many Canadians would like to see. 58 per cent of Canadians buy organic products every week, but farmers need much more support to meet this growing demand.

Some people will say my film is anti-GMO, but I am not against genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a powerful technology that can have many useful applications, and it has enhanced our understanding of how genes and diseases work. But like any technology, it’s all about how we choose to use it and regulate it.

How to improve public trust in our food system

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food is currently holding hearings to help industry and government improve public trust in our food and agricultural system. Meanwhile, the Canadian agribusiness industry has engaged in public relations campaigns designed to combat public distrust over the use of GMOs, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. The industry has noticed that consumers are increasingly turning away from conventional industrial agriculture and demanding more sustainably grown food.

I think that the best way to earn public trust is not through slick PR campaigns, but by bringing some much-needed changes to our regulatory system so that it serves the Canadian public instead of industry interests. A good starting place would be to implement the Royal Society of Canada’s 53 recommendations. Until that happens, Canada needs a GMO labelling law so that we can make our own choices about what we put in our bodies.

My film journey into GMOs began in my mom’s garden, at her side while she harvested our dinner. But the journey ended without her. Two years into production of my film, my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Five months later, she passed away at 56. In the years that followed, I struggled to complete Modified. But I knew that I needed to finish it as a tribute to the food legacy she passed on to me, and an homage to her belief that sustainable agriculture is the cornerstone of delicious meals and healthy communities.

Watch Modified on CBC Docs POV.