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From Scientist to Consumer

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From Scientist to Consumer

Parents want to know what theyâ??re feeding their childre.

Parents want to know what they’re feeding their children. That’s what the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) thinks-in fact, they’re counting on it to help gain support for their latest campaign to demand mandatory labelling of genetically-engineered (GE) food.

The CHFA launched its campaign Parents For a Safe Food Supply in March. Well-known activist and geneticist David Suzuki and representatives from organic farming, the health food industry and health food stores gathered to lend their support to the initiative. Together they drew a picture of how the natural health industry can best ensure the safety of the customer, with labelling only as the first step to eventual banning of GE food.

Suzuki is calling for an outright banning of the commercial use of biotech food technology. But he recognizes that North Americans have been forced into a massive experiment against their will and that labelling can restore at least some personal control.

"If you go to the drugstore and pick up something like an antihistimine you’ll see multisyllabic names on the label," he says. "You haven’t got a clue what’s in there, but the information is there if it matters to you."

In the same way, he suggests, those who don’t understand the science behind GE foods can follow a gut reaction and choose not to eat such foods if they are labelled. And he notes that this gut feeling is not limited to consumers. No insurance company will insure against negative effects from GE foods.

Donna Herringer, president of the Canadian Health Food Association, is hoping that the labelling campaign will at least provide assurance. The association has asked retailer members to contact suppliers and get the information regarding GE ingredients. Many stores have created or are creating labelling and signage to highlight GE-free foods.

Last year the CHFA held a campaign that resulted in 30,000 signatures on petitions asking for labelling. This didn’t get the desired attention, so the association decided to appeal to parents.

"As a mother, I want to know what I’m buying," says Herringer. She’s hoping that other parents feel the same way and will add their names and support to the petitions in health food stores.

A Better Shelf Life

Store owners like John Benedetti of Capers Health Food store are also concerned. Along the counter in his store are copies of the petition and several handouts on modified food. But while the customers are becoming educated, they are unable to apply their education to the shelves.

Benedetti is also taking the steps suggested by the CHFA to increase the number of certified GE-free foods, but it isn’t easy.

"It’s an arduous task to get affidavits from our manufacturers and suppliers," he says. "The few that can and do [provide] are represented on a small table–it’s very small percentage of the offerings in the store."

Organic farmer Stephen Gallagher is a board member of the BC Association of Regenerative Agriculture, the primary organic certifying body in the lower mainland of British Columbia. He points out that any product labelled 100-percent organic is also GE-free. He also cautioned that while he supports the mandate of the labelling petition, he, like Suzuki, would like to see the organisms outlawed.

"Genetically-engineered food merits a level of concern that is even greater than chemical farming," he says. "There’s no way to keep them from our fields."

Suzuki is also skeptical of the biotech industry’s claims that buffer zones around fields isolate GE-seeds. He referred to one farmer who grew three GE crops, each with a different resistant gene. The weeds surrounding these fields contained a combination of all three of these resistant genes, proving that cross-pollination was not only possible, but inevitable.

Occasionally industry will use this same argument, along with the concern that we don’t know what kind of mixing of raw materials happens in storage or transport, to say that labelling is impossible. Suzuki disagrees. He points to Europe and Japan, who insist on mandatory labelling.

"It can be done, just a matter of working out ground rules," he says. Health Minister Allan Rock has made recent statements favoring mandatory labelling. Agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief, while not opposed to mandatory labelling, has made no public commitment to pursue the issue.

Suzuki suggests that economics is the stumbling block. On the global economic scale, Canada is a tiny country, but it has a prominent biotech industry.

"The government figures it is a way of carving economic niche in the global economy," he says.

Herringer agrees that labelling is the lowest common denominator, but adds that mandatory labelling triggers far-reaching changes. The labelling initiative is the first step to converting products to GE-free. Some companies have already completed the process of establishing GE-free status and label their food accordingly.

"When manufacturers realize that’s what people want, they’ll make it available," says Herringer. And in the law of supply and demand, that which nobody wants tends to disappear.

Psst–Got Any Organic Lecithin?

Michael Theodor is a natural and organic food broker. He’s also chair of the CHFA food caucus. He’s aware of the difficulties of turning theory into practice.

Right now, he explains, this is taking place in two ways. Under the current system, where there is no mandatory labelling, natural health product companies are bearing the labelling cost. A manufacturer may have a key ingredient that’s organic and certified GE free. The company provides an affidavit that certifies that the crops are grown without genetically-engineered seed stock.

The ideal and rare second process is the 100-percent organic product. This is extremely difficult, because a product may have several organic grains and soy, but the flavoring, such as vanilla, may be processed in such a way that it might be modified. The company then can’t say that the product is 100-percent GE-free.

Theodor estimates that less than 10 to 15 percent of manufactured products in a health food store would fall into the 100-percent GE-free category.

"It takes a lot of time," he says. "This isn’t something that’s going to happen in three months."
Supply and money are also logistical challenges.

"Canada and the US are behind in the [learning] curve," says Theodor. "There are a lot of things that aren’t available. They have to be sourced from off-shore and this makes the product more expensive."

For example, Theodor recalls a discussion with a supplier who mentioned having soy lecithin in his product. Theodor quickly established that it was from Europe, as there is no organic soy lecithin in Canada or the US.

It will take time for organic farmers to catch up with the demand, but it’s essential, according to Suzuki. Not only is large-scale, modified and sprayed farming unhealthy, it is unsustainable, he says. He says the conservative demand of labelling can be a step to an organic goal.

"This is an issue I really think can be won, because what we’re asking for is quite reasonable."

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