The battle for genetically-modified (GM) crops was supposed to be over. Science won and the National Farmers Union, among many others, dropped the “frankenfood” attacks. That was 10 years ago.
But now the battle for public opinion on GM food is back. And it’s no longer the big battle for hearts and minds, just one of many. Animal activists are howling over treatment of livestock, while farm groups are trying to impress upon consumers that family farms are not factories. Crop farmers can’t buy any inputs without facing a litany of environmental concerns and have to battle in court against their own provincial government over neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds.
When it comes to animals, farmers have been quick to agree to changes that activists have told consumers they want. To be fair, some changes are good. Others are merely expensive and cosmetic. When it comes to neonics, the science sides with farmers but the province’s reaction? It wants to be cautious. Even Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal has based his anti-neonic argument on the precautionary principle, which is essentially an anti-science, anti-farming angle.
The precautionary principle has the appearance of asking for what is reasonable — a guarantee that no harm will be done. But if we used the precautionary approach to highways, cars would be banned. If anyone used the precautionary principle when it comes to getting out of bed in the morning, he would stay under the covers. No one can guarantee an accident-free day. The precautionary principle is a ruse used out of convenience. When you don’t have arguments, facts and evidence, the precautionary principle can fill the void.
The province should be shamed into shelving the precautionary principle but it survives the ruse because, as rural Ontario concedes, most voters don’t care about the nitty-gritty of farming. Any pro-environmental message, no matter how wrong, if loud and repeated long enough, can become politically correct.
That’s how the image war over genetically-modified foods never seems to go away. And here too, farmers are now losing the battle. Large corporations sense a shift in public opinion and want to cater to consumer preference.
The world’s largest soup company has announced it will now put labels on its products listing their genetically-modified ingredients. Voluntary GM labelling is fine but Campbell’s Soup goes further, supporting mandatory GM labelling on all products with GM ingredients.
The first GM salmon will likely be available in markets within two years. Walmart and Costco recently said that they will never put a GM fish on their shelves. The inference, of course, is not just that customers prefer non-GM foods but that GM food must be bad for you. Never mind that there is not one case of ill effects from GM food eaten by millions of people (however, banning the humanitarian gift of GM rice with life-saving vitamin A, means that more than 500,000 children under age five die each year in impoverished areas, particularly in Africa).
The value of GM food “is one of the most politically-charged debates in agriculture,” says University of Guelph economics professor and member of its food institute, Sylvain Charlebois. “The vocal few are really winning the battle.”
Farm groups are taking seriously the public opinion debate over their livelihood and have hit back with advertising campaigns, such as billboards, innovative ideas such as breakfast on the farm events and mail-outs of the pro-farming booklet The Real Dirt on Farming to one million Canadians. Farm groups have to join the debate even though the other side has a clear advantage. The mainstream news media — addicted to fear-evoking stories — side with activists far too often and just can’t seem to shake its love affair with environmental activist celebrities like David Suzuki and shock demonstrations, particularly when they include nudity.
Worse, the provincial government has gotten in touch with its feelings and the environmentalist movement, sending farmers to the corner on neonics, while telling them to leave their wallets on the table.
Fear not. A 17th century axiom asserts that truth will prevail. Of course, it didn’t mention that truth is a very long-term project.
Patrick Meagher is editor of Farmers Forum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org