It's been 20 years since Canada approved the first genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have since been the source of continued concerns, among the people of Québec and Canada, not only because of the lack of transparency and uncertainly about the long-term effects of GMOs on human health and also the environment, but also because of economic impacts.
Today, five countries produce 90% of the world’s GMOs: the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada. Canada ranks as 5th largest producer with 6% of world production and cultivates 4 GM crops: corn, canola, soy and sugar beets (1). Among these 5 top producers, only Canada and the United States have no regulation for mandatory GMO labeling.
In addition to the costs of a mandatory GMO labeling policy in Québec, we need to address the actual productivity and profitability of GMOs and the agro-industrial model that underpins the use of GMOs and pesticides. Their economic and social impacts on everyone involved in the food chain is unclear.
Of the GMO consumed worldwide, Canada and the US produce 6% and 40% respectively, but both countries are slow to act on labeling.
64 countries already have mandatory GMO labeling policies, including two other of the largest global GMO producers, Brazil and India. Three countries have completely banned GMOs while others, including several of the European Union, prohibit its cultivation and require labeling (see map).
All the countries of the European Union have mandatory GMO labeling, as do many other industrialized countries such as Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan.
There are fights for mandatory labeling raging in nine US states (2). Vermont is the first state to implement a mandatory GMO labeling bill, to come into force on July 1st of 2016. Five major food companies - Campbell's soup, ConAgra Foods, Kellogg's, General Mills and Mars, Inc. (3) - have since announced that they will voluntarily label GMOs in the United States. However, several are not extending this action to Canada.
Consumers are increasingly linking diet with health and are watching the information that nutrition labeling provides. Quebeckers are more likely to want to "eat Quebecker" and buy according to various criteria such as local economy, production methods, organic status, GMOs, geographical location, animal welfare, environment, and fair trade. Such labels are important tools for protecting and developing agricultural markets, and providing for consumer information and safety (4).
In Québec, there are already four particular designations, and three more in development. The most famous designation is organic, while the identification of "Québec Ice Cider" and "Québec Ice Wine" has helped developing the market for apple-based alcoholic beverages. Other designations are currently under construction by the Council for Reserved Designations and Added-Value Claims (CARTV) (5).
Since 1994, many surveys have been conducted on GMOs and mandatory labeling. Support from the people of Canada and Québec for mandatory GMO labeling has always ranked above 75% and, according to the latest Ipsos Reid poll, 88% of Canadians are in favour of mandatory labeling of GMOs (6).
To see the surveys concerning GMOs conducted in Canada over the last 20 years, click on the link below:List of surveys on genetically engineered foods between 1994 and 2015
At a time of globalization, outsourcing and diversification of supply, traceability is needed to quicly respond to food safety crises and to adequately meet health, environmental and economic standards.
While we are presented information about the caloric, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein and vitamin content of many products we consume (7), allowing us to make healthier choices, one can wonder why GMO and pesticide content is never disclosed. Consumers can’t make the choice not to eat GMOs, or eat less of them, if they can’t know what’s on their plate and where it’s from, a sensible choice considering that the principal property of the GMOs currently commercialized is its resistance to a pesticide that could be significantly dangerous to our health and ecosystems.
Despite all of the industry’s promises to farmers after twenty years, the facts indicates that GMO crops support only a few large agribusiness corporations more than farmers. Farmers, like the general public, are not consulted by the federal government before new GMOs are introduced. New GMOs do not meet the needs of all farmers, but can mean significant economic loss. For example, the 2009 contamination of Canadian flax by a GM flax resulted in the interruption of our exports to the EU, which represents close to 70% of the Canadian flax market. (8)
More recently, the federal government’s approval of the GM apple and GM alfalfa despite vigorous opposition from the Federation des producteurs de pommes du Québec (9) and the Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA) (10), seems to indicate that this technology aims to profit only a handful of large corporations.
This model decreases the social and economic autonomy of local populations, notably through patinting, and mortgages the natural capital available for future generations.
In addition to reducing soil fertility and genetic diversity, this model impacts rural development with a loss of jobs through industrialization. From 1961 to 2001, the number of farms dropped from 95,777 to 30,539, and 70% of total farming profits were generated by just 20% of them –those with a gross income above 250,000$ (Statistics Canada) (11). This means increasing impoverishment, debt and marginalization for many farmers.
Industrial and chemical agriculture has become a major source of pollution, particularly of the Québec rivers (insérer le lien vers la section environnement), and is now widely recognized as a risk to increasing the costs of public health (insérer le lien vers la section santé).
GM crops were first introduced as a mean to simplify work in the fields for farmers, especially through the use of herbicides. For years this allowed many farmers to increase their planting surface and their revenue. Ultimately, however, profits continued to end up in the pockets of large agribusiness corporations.
These GM crops have increased the use of pesticides and resulted in the subsequent emergence of "superweeds", making farmers even more dependent of company chimicals. Although predictable, biotechnology companies have always denied the potential emergence of "superweeds" and, since their advent, place blame on farmers by claiming that company instructions were not adequately followed.
For two years in Québec, we have witnessed a reduction in GMO plantings (see Table 1) (17) and a rise in organic farming. In fact, organic foods are the largest growing market sector worldwide. According to the Canadian Organic Trade Association, the market for organic products in Canada reached $ 3.7 billion in 2012 and has tripled in value since 2006, exceeding growth all other agricultural food sectors.
Since 2001, there has been an increase in organics of 66.5%; since 2006, an increase of 4.4%, representing 1.8% of all farms, Quéwbec being the province with the highest increase (18). There are approximately 37.2 million hectares of agricultural land that are certified organic, and about 1.8 million certified organic producers (19) in Canada. Field crops, which include wheat, corn, soybeans and oats (20) and also hay, are the largest category of certified organic crops (21). A recent study from the Moulins de Soulanges, the Meunerie La Milanese and the Institut de recherche et de développement en agroenvironnement (IRDA) shows that organic wheat would be 3 times more profitable per hectare with a profits of $ 1,343 / ha over $ 451 / ha for intensive. (22)
According to 2013 survey conducted for Filière biologique du Québec in 2013 (23), the most popular incentives for buying organic products were health (83%), local economy (80%) and taste (63%). These are essentially the same concerns that prompt a majority of Quebecers to want products made without GMOs. Consumers who buy organic products would spend only $ 17.50 (24) more per week, and research shows that consumers from all socio-economic classes choose the organic products, countering the belief that they are too expensive (25).
For more information, please consult the GMO Inquiry 2015 entitled Are GM crops better for farmers?
For several years the number of farms in all regions of Québec has been decreasing. In 2016, more than 200 farms could be dismantled (26) when it was just announced, in January, just as 250 Québec dairy farms were dismantled in 2015 (27).
Meanwhile, over the past for years there has been a 300% increase in enrolment in the organic agriculture department at the Cégep de Victoriaville (28) over the last four years. This demonstrates a real interest from farmers in an ecological production model focused more on a local economy.
More and more farmers are moving to organic to meet the rising consumer demand, but also to farm in a way that is more consistent with their personal values.
Taking into account the precautionary principle, Canada, having signed the Rio Declaration (29) has a duty to preserve soil fertility, the quality of water, biodiversity, the physical and financial health of human beings, and to transition towards agricultural models that are ethical, sustainable and just.
For more information, please consult the GMO Inquiry 2015 entitled Are GM crops better for farmers?
For more information, visit www.vigilanceogm.org
(1) James, C. (2015). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2014. ISAAA brief No. 49. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA): Ithaca, NY
(2) Chow, L. (29 January 2016). 8 Battleground States in the GMO Food Labeling Fight. Ecowatch.
(3) Nestle, M. (2 April 2016). No amount of « free form » labelling will make processed food good for you. The Guardian.
(4) Biron, A. (2013). Perception de la profession de diététistes et de ses enjeux par des diététistes et des étudiants finissants en nutrition du Québec. Mémoire présenté à la Faculté de médecine en vue de l’obtention du grade de maîtrise en Nutrition, Département de nutrition, Université de Montréal.
(5) Conseil des appelations réservées et des termes valorisants (CARTV)
(6) Polls on GM food labeling, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). Consulté en avril 2016. http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/Labeling/Polls-on-GM-Food-Labelling.-Canada
(7) Données nutritionnelles, Aliments et nutrition. Santé Canada. Consulté en avril 2016.
(8) Learn the lesson of flax contamination. Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). Consulté en avril 2016.
(9) Pommes Artic GD743 et GS784, Aliments et nutrition. Santé Canada. Consulté en avril 2016.
(10) Lignées de luzerne J101 et J163 tolérant le glyphosate, Archivée – Information sur les aliments nouveaux- Biotechnologie alimentaire, Aliments et nutrition. Santé Canada. Consulté en avril 2016.
Information sur les aliments nouveaux – Luzerne KK179 à teneur réduite en lignine, Aliments et nutrition. Santé Canada. Consulté en avril 2016.
(11) Lévesque, L.. La Presse Canadienne. (21 février 2015). OGM : les producteurs de pommes inquiets. Le Devoir.
(12) (2012). Résolution Congrès de l’UPA – Décembre 2012. Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA).
(24 mars 2016). Cas probable de contamination à la luzerne GM : l’UPA fortement préoccupée. Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec (UPA).
(13) Gareau. P. (2007). Impacts environnementaux et sanitaires liés au modèle agricole industriel : pistes de solution. Mémoire présenté à la Commission sur l’avenir de l’agriculture et de l’agroalimentaire du Québec, Réseau des groupes écologistes du Québec (RQGE).
(14) Grandes cultures. Institut de la statistique du Québec. Consulté en avril 2016.
(15) Statistics Canada. Tables 002-0005 - Farm operating expenses and depreciation charges, annual (dollars); 002-0008 - Farm debt outstanding, classified by lender, annual (dollars); 002-0009 - Net farm income, annual (dollars); Table 002-0001 - Farm cash receipts, annual (dollars). CANSIM (database). 14 : Health Canada. Pest control Products Sales Report for 2011.
(16) (2012. Modifié le 2012-07-12; cité le 2013-02-20). Agriculture et Agroalimentaire Canada. Production biologique 2012 http://www4.agr.gc.ca/AAFCAAC/display-afficher.do?id=1183748510661&lang=fra
(17) (2006). Trousse de transition vers l'agriculture biologique: grandes cultures. Fédération d'agriculture biologique du Québec.
(18) (16 janvier 2016). Les limites d’un herbicide. La semaine verte, Saison 2016, Épisode 3.
(19) (2011, modifié le 23 mai 2012, cité le 2013-07-17). Données sur les exploitations et les exploitants agricoles: fait saillants et analyses, Chapitre 5. Statistique Canada.
(20) (2012, modifé le 2012-07-12; cité le 2013-02-20). Production biologique. Agriculture et agroalimentaire Canada.
(21) Ménard, M. (29 mars 2016). Les agriculteurs font de meilleures marges avec le bio. La Terre de chez nous.
(22) (2013). Faits saillants du sondage auprès de la population québécoise sur la consommation de produits biologiques. Filière biologique du Québec.
(23) Biron, A. (2013). Perception de la profession de diététistes et de ses enjeux par des diététistes et des étudiants finissants en nutrition du Québec. Mémoire présenté à la Faculté de médecine en vue de l’obtention du grade de maîtrise en Nutrition, Département de nutrition, Université de Montréal.
(24) (2013). Canada’s organic maket : national highlights 2013. Canada organic trade association.
(25) (8 avril 2016). Nombre « jamais vu » d’encans agricoles au Québec. Radio-Canada.
(26) (19 mars 2016). L’intérêt pour l’agriculture explose au Cégep de Victoriaville. Radio-Canada.