Canadians anxious but ill-informed about genetically engineered food

A new report finds Canadians are critical yet overwhelmingly confused about food that has been genetically engineered, but they want mandatory labels to help inform their grocery choices.

Consumers call for clear, mandatory labels, but are unclear themselves on what a GM food is

A comparison shows the faster growth and size of a genetically modified salmon. Newly released research finds Canadians want mandatory labels for GM foods. (AquaBounty)

A new report finds Canadians are critical yet overwhelmingly confused about food that has been genetically engineered, but they want mandatory labels to help inform their grocery choices.

A research report commissioned by Health Canada finds consumers have "strong feelings" about being able to identify genetically modified products when they're shopping, and 78 per cent are calling for clear labelling on packages.

"There was a prevailing belief among participants that there should be greater transparency to consumers and, once raised, many questioned why government in particular should be resistant to providing consumers with more information that would help them make more informed decisions," read the findings from The Strategic Counsel.

Given the choice, 62 per cent would buy a non-GM food over a GM product out of fears of health hazards or impacts on the environment.

Consumers don't understand science

But the research, which was conducted through focus groups and online surveys to gauge public perceptions, also reveals that consumers have little understanding about the science of what many dubbed "Frankenfood." Often, it's confused with goods that have had additives like preservatives or hormone injections.

"Lack of awareness and understanding affects their confidence in the food supply and raises their level of concern," the report says.

Some of the words commonly used by participants included "fake," "mutations," "man-made" or "mass produced."

According to Health Canada's website, all GM foods are "rigorously assessed" for safety prior to being allowed on the market. But labelling is now voluntary.

Push for labelling

NDP MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault says Canadians have every right to know what they're eating, and he has tabled a private member's bill to require mandatory labels.

"The more information we give to consumers, the better," he said.

Canadians want labels on genetically engineered food. (Tzido Sun/Shutterstock)

He pointed to a new GM labelling law in Vermont that requires processed foods sold in the state that contain genetically engineered ingredients to say so on the label. Similar laws exist in countries across Europe.

But negative views revealed in the research highlight a "difficult challenge" for Health Canada ahead.

Anti-GM advocates have successfully filled the "information void," the report reads.

"Consumers' initial response and reaction to the topic of GM foods is certainly not positive and clearly presents some formidable challenges for Health Canada communicators and policy-makers with respect to addressing the level of confusion, misinformation and generally low awareness/understanding that currently exists."

'Pushback' expected

According to Health Canada's website, a GM food is one derived from an organism that has been changed through:

  • Traditional crossbreeding techniques.
  • Using chemicals or radiation to alter genetic makeup.
  • Introducing a gene from one species into another species.

A company typically takes seven to 10 years to research and obtain approval for sale, and only 120 genetically modified foods have been approved by Health Canada to date, ranging from insect-resistant corn to genetically modified yeast that cuts certain compounds in wine. 

In May, Health Canada provoked controversy when it approved the first genetically modified food animal  for sale after "rigorous" scientific reviews. 

While a high number of participants opposed GM food in any form, the report said regulatory, safety and approvals processes could give greater comfort to those "sitting on the fence."

"However, the extent of likely pushback cannot be underestimated. From the survey, only 26 per cent of respondents indicated they would be comfortable eating foods that have been genetically modified, and just 22 per cent support the development and sale of GM foods in Canada. It is clear that significant efforts to inform and educate Canadians would be required in order to shift views in a more positive direction."

Other findings:

  • The argument that genetic modification helps produce more affordable, sustainable food draws some empathy for developing nations where population growth and supply of arable land are challenges, but hold "little sway" in Canada, one of the world's leading agricultural producers.
  • Consumers aren't convinced that GM foods are as safe, tasty or nutritious.
  • Most see the market for GM foods as one created as a means to increase corporate profits, not to address demand or evolving preferences.
  • Consumers are just as concerned about GM as they are about herbicides and pesticides and growth hormones.

The research, carried out by The Strategic Counsel for a cost of $119,000, was completed in late June and recently publicly posted online.

It was based on focus groups in five centres and an online survey of 2,018 respondents. Data is based on an online survey of 2,018 Canadians, aged 19 years and older between March 24 and March 29, 2016. A margin of error is not available due to the sampling method for the survey.