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The GMO scare: Fear and confusion in the grocery aisles

If consumers can be convinced they should be nervous or fearful of something, it's an easy step to sell them things they don't need. Sadly, this kind of marketing is plaguing the world of agriculture and food retailing.

Robert Saik, chief executive officer of Agri-Trend Group of Companies, is a professional agrologist and a long-time watcher of trends in agriculture. In his nifty little book, The Agriculture Manifesto: 10 Key Drivers That Will Shape Agriculture in the Next Decade, he takes on the fear mongering currently gripping the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It's a short but fascinating read that raises plenty of questions around the future of Canadian agriculture.

Mr. Saik is quick to defend anyone's right to choose what kinds of food they purchase. And he also notes that he works with many organic farmers that produce excellent quality food products that cater to specialized markets. What he takes issue with is the way the anti-GMO lobby is generating fear for its own economic gain – and make no mistake, the anti-GMO interests are just as rife with corporate giants and profit motivation as are the big GMO companies.

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"Whether it's popular media, TV talk shows, self-appointed food experts and authors, health magazines or radio commercials, we are being bombarded by advertising that is designed to confuse or create fear," Mr. Saik writes. It's a marketing ploy that is thousands of years old: If there's a way to confuse or scare someone, there's a way to capitalize on it.

I'm an economist, not a food scientist, so I'm completely unqualified to argue one way or another on the GMO debate. But the economics of it are clear. GMOs are enabling food production to increase at a rate that has a chance of keeping pace with global population growth. Organic production is not sustainable for the seven billion people on the planet – and to suggest we should ban all GMOs in favour of locally grown organic food is folly.

"It's been estimated that if we go back to pre-1960s agriculture, which today would be defined as organic in nature, we would have to make a decision as to which three billion or so people would need to exit the planet,' Mr. Saik says.

The point is that Canada's agricultural sector and policies regarding GMOs will need to be ready in the coming decade to battle against an onslaught of what Mr. Saik calls "anti-science" fear mongers.

Marketing to people's fears is nothing new, yet people have a strange inability to recognize that they're victims or learn enough about the issue to make a more rational decision. The explosion in anti-bacterial sprays, wipes, gels, cleansers and even tissues has been a marketing stroke of genius that preys on consumers' fear of germs. Are we much healthier as a result? Many experts think that we've actually oversanitized our surroundings to our own detriment.

But our grocery store shelves are probably the very best place to be wary of the fear mongers. Does "organic" really mean better quality and health outcomes? Maybe, but maybe not.

In every purchase we make, someone stands to profit. There is nothing evil or immoral about this – it's simply commerce. Those selling us organic foods may actually want us to be healthy, but they also want something even more: our consumer dollars. Awareness of this is important.

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Ideal consumers would ask themselves a series of questions. Is my suspicion of GMOs and chemicals strong enough to convince me to buy organic? Am I 100 per cent confident in the authenticity and validity of the "organic" label? Do I understand well enough the actual science of GMOs, and am I aware that all the food we eat (organic or not) has undergone some type of engineering in the past?

If a consumer can answer yes to all of these questions, and if they have the disposable income to manage it, buying entirely organic, non-GMO products may be the right decision. But if they are the 99.9 per cent of us who can't, we're at risk of allowing fear and confusion to decide for us.

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline

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About the Author

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline. More

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