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Canadians want transparency about genetically-modified foods: study

A farmer watches a load of corn delivered to a grain elevator. It's estimated that more than 75 per cent of all food products sold in Canada contain at least one GM ingredient.
A farmer watches a load of corn delivered to a grain elevator. It's estimated that more than 75 per cent of all food products sold in Canada contain at least one GM ingredient. AP File Photo/Jeff Roberson

A new study has found that Canadians are confused about the health-and-safety effects of genetically-modified foods — with a lack of transparency from regulators and industry professionals the reason to blame.

The data comes from a countrywide survey conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, which sought to measure Canadian attitudes towards genetic engineering in food and assess the nation’s trust towards Canada’s food safety and regulatory system.

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More transparency needed

The study found that 366 of the 1,046 people who were surveyed (35 per cent) believe that Canada understands the health effects of GM food products, while 460 people (44 per cent) said that we don’t understand them.

Researchers say that it points to a level of general confusion among the Canadian public towards GM foods — this is despite a majority of respondents saying that there is sufficient testing of GM foods in Canada.

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Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management at Dalhousie’s Rowe School of Business and the lead author of the study, says it points to Canadians wanting answers on what is in their food.

“I think more people are hoping for more transparency while being reassured by science,” he said in a phone interview.

Charlebois says that Canadian consumers are lacking a social contract with food producers due to a lack of transparency.

LISTEN: Dr Sylvain Charlebois joins Danielle Smith to explore the second phase in his research into Canadians’ perceptions of GMO foods

Canada’s current regulations only require voluntary labelling of genetically-modified foods or food ingredients — meaning that very few people are aware if or when they consume genetically-modified food.

Charlebois says the results of his study strengthen that hypothesis.

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The results found a majority of Canadians are uncertain that they have purchased genetically-modified food. Just over half of respondents, 52 per cent, were unsure when asked about purchasing plant-based products that contain GM products, with the number increasing slightly when asked the same about animal-based food.

WATCH: Canadians are first to eat genetically modified salmon

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Canadians are first to eat genetically modified salmon – Aug 8, 2017

This is despite estimates that more than 75 per cent of all food products sold in Canada contain at least one GM ingredient.

“I think Canadians would appreciate knowing what they’re buying, perhaps allowing them to see the benefits of what is being grown by bio-technology,” said Charlebois, explaining that since genetically-modified status is unknown, people might not realize that a genetically-modified product may be more affordable.

“Right now, most of the benefits are for the industry, not necessarily for the consumers.”

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Age plays a role in trusting current regulations

The study found that age was a factor in whether a respondent believed Canada’s current regulations were sufficient.

In general, 61 per cent of respondents to the survey said voluntary labelling was insufficient. But the figure indicates division among Canadians when broken down by age.

According to the survey, those over 45 are more likely than the average Canadian to believe that voluntary labelling is insufficient, and the number spikes the older the age group. The study found 81 per cent of people who are 75 or older say the current regulations are insufficient.

Roughly 55 per cent of Canadians between 35 and 44 years of age say labelling is insufficient, with the figure continuing to decrease the younger the age group.

Strong support for mandatory labelling of GM food

The study found that Canadians are overwhelmingly in favour of mandatory labelling of genetically-modified foods or food ingredients on packaging.

Of the respondents, 89 per cent of people said they agreed with the idea, while only three per cent disagreed.

WATCH: The fight for mandatory GO labelling

Charlebois says the study found that support for mandatory labelling is strong across the country,

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“Most Canadians are expecting something different from both policy-makers and the food industry — some jurisdictions are making labelling mandatory but it’s not happening in Canada,” he said.

Charlebois says that the industry has resisted mandatory labelling because of a fear that it will scare people off of genetically-modified food. But his data says that is not the case.

“What our impression is, is that people are beyond that. They’re looking for transparency overall.”

However, Charlebois says the study found that strong support for labelling doesn’t mean Canadians believe genetically-modified food to be unsafe. Rather, those who were surveyed said that price would be the significant factor if mandatory labelling was implemented.

The survey’s margin of error was 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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