Health Canada recently commissioned a report on consumer attitudes toward genetically modified foods. What the study unequivocally shows is that consumers are confused and don’t understand what genetically modified foods are and why we need them.

The report notes that there has been an “information void” about agricultural technologies. This void has been successfully filled by the anti-GMO movement, which has used the opportunity to spread a lot of fear and misinformation to consumers.

I’ve been involved in agriculture as a farmer, a Member of Parliament and member of grower and industry organizations for more than 30 years and things have changed a lot in that time. When I first started farming people were more closely connected to agriculture. They lived on a farm or their parents or grandparents farmed, or at the very least they knew someone who farmed. They trusted the agricultural system to produce safe, quality food for them and their families.

Today we live in a much more urbanized world where people have little connection to agriculture. They have valid questions about how their food is grown. Agriculture, and the plant science industry in particular, hasn’t always done a great job of talking to consumers and in our absence others have filled the void.

Our industry has been developing tools for farmers to help them grow crops and we have spent most of our time talking directly to them and not to the end consumers of food. We recognize that this doesn’t work anymore. Consumers no longer have an inherent trust in where their food comes from. Over the last number of years the plant science industry, and the agriculture industry writ large, have been working hard to tell the story of Canadian agriculture and earn the public’s trust.

When it comes to genetically modified foods we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first GM crops this year. This has been one of the most successful agricultural technologies in history and it’s too bad more people don’t know the story.

Corn, soybeans and canola varieties that are resistant to insect pests or tolerant to certain herbicides have helped improve the way farmers control potentially devastating insects and weeds. These crops are part of the reason farmers are growing more food per acre of land than at any other time in history. But more than that these crops have helped farmers adopt practices that are more environmentally sustainable.

And while much of the media and public attention has focused on GM crops, the reality is that genetic engineering is just one of many tools scientists are using to improve the crops farmers grow. There are a whole suite of plant breeding innovations being used to develop crops that can thrive in extreme climates, to produce foods with better shelf life, texture and flavor, and to create crops with improved health benefits. In fact, the vast majority of crops grown today in Canada and the rest of the world have been significantly improved by plant breeding innovations.  These are the kinds of innovations that are good for farmers, good for the environment and good for Canadians.

It always pains me to see people using fear to drive consumers’ choices at the grocery store. The reality is that here in Canada we have one of the safest food supplies in the world. Products of genetic engineering and other breeding tools are thoroughly regulated by Health Canada to ensure they are safe for people, animals and the environment.

Regulatory agencies and international institutions around the world, including the World Health Organization, have endorsed the safety of crops developed through biotechnology. Earlier this year a group of more than 100 Nobel laureates publicly stated that GM crops are just as safe as crops developed through other methods. Over the last two decades people around the world have eaten trillions of meals containing GM foods without a single case of harm.

Our regulatory system here in Canada is the envy of much of the world. While other countries admire the work Health Canada does to ensure beneficial new technologies make it to market while protecting human health, many Canadians know very little about the federal government’s role in regulating GM crops, and food in general, here at home. It is my hope that greater efforts will be made from both industry and Health Canada to explain to Canadians the system that ensures the food we put in our grocery cart, no matter how it’s grown, is safe.

Ted Menzies
President, CropLife Canada