American GM food labelling will affect Canada

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working on how to implement the labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods. How the USDA proceeds and how consumers react to the labels will have ramifications on both sides of the border.

The nationwide American initiative was mandated by Congress in 2016 as a way to ward off the patchwork of GM labelling rules springing up in various states, such as Vermont. However, while there will eventually be one set of labelling standards, the devil is in the details.

From May 3 to July 3, the USDA invited public comment on what it called a National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. Months later, it’s still wading through thousands of submissions and trying to determine a way forward.

The first problem is differing definitions of bioengineered. Most people view bioengineering or genetically modified as meaning the transfer of genetic material from one species to another outside conventional plant breeding. But where does that leave the newer technology of gene editing where no genetic transfer occurs?

The first problem is differing definitions of bioengineered. How do we decide what needs to be labelled?

Threshold levels are another thorny issue. GM crops such as soybeans, canola and corn are moved in the same bulk handling system as non-GM crops such as wheat, barley and flax. If you enact zero tolerance, even a bit of grain dust could be enough to spark non-compliance.

And what about highly refined food products such as soybean oil, canola oil and cornstarch? Those made from GM or non-GM grains are virtually indistinguishable, since the protein has been removed. Do you still have to label these?

And what if a food product contains just one per cent canola oil? Does that make it a bioengineered food?

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) based in Washington, D.C., ran a survey of American consumers and found lower acceptance and less willingness to pay for foods labelled as bioengineered. The label raised human health concerns.

“Despite broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to consumers, a majority of Americans seem to be convinced otherwise,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC, when commenting on the survey findings.

Canada and the United States trade over C$47 billion in agricultural products annually. Even without the labelling of GM foods in Canada, American labels will have an impact on this side of the border.

It’s too early to know exactly how the U.S. labelling laws will be applied or their impact. However, there will no doubt be groups advocating a similar approach in Canada. Plus, with the amount of cross-border trade, what happens in the U.S. matters to Canada.

From an AgriSuccess article (November 2018) by Kevin Hursh.