GMOs (genetically modified organisms) continue to be a polarizing issue in Canada, raising questions of safety, transparency, and food security.
Food fight anyone? The case for or against genetically altering foods (and whether or not to label said food) is deeply polarizing, and the fight is far from over. Here is an update on the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to GMOs in Canada today.
GM … what?
Our government technically uses the term genetically modified organism (GMO) to refer to foods that have had their genetic material altered in any way—even through traditional breeding.
What we often really mean when we refer to GMOs (including in this article) are organisms altered by genetic engineering (GE) or recombinant DNA technology, which means genetic modification through the transfer or removal of genes. This is done to achieve a perceived benefit, such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, but the practice has had many adverse consequences.
GM crops and foods have been here in Canada for 16 years. While this may seem like old news, the issues and arguments surrounding their use persist.
Global food security
GM foods were promoted as a solution to world hunger—an argument that is still often used by those in favour of GMOs. But organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation have argued that they have not solved world hunger, and have created even more problems, including pesticide- and herbicide-resistant bugs and weeds that require more chemicals to control, thus increasing costs and creating more environmental concerns.
Moreover, by hindering biodiversity (nature’s safeguard against disaster), the industrial monoculture system that GM crops are a part of can actually pose a huge threat to global food security, potentially leading to increased world hunger.
Placing an emphasis on a few crops rather than many different crops and varieties with much genetic diversity can spell disaster if disease, pests, drought, or extreme weather threaten those few crops, with nothing for us to fall back on.
It’s also possible for GMOs to escape into surrounding fields, thereby contaminating the crops growing in them and further reducing biodiversity.
Many environmental and health groups argue that GMOs haven’t been proven safe, and some GM crops such as corn have been approved without sufficient human (or environmental) health assessments.
Recently, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility came together to stress that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety and that much more high quality research needs to be done.
It’s important to note that Health Canada does not do its own testing for GMO safety. Instead, it relies on studies done by the biotechnology companies themselves, which poses a question of conflict of interest.
“Our government relies on data that is submitted by the companies that want to sell these products,” says Lucy Sharratt, coordinator at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). “That is a fundamental flaw.”
For instance, according to a 2011 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe, the common 90-day trials on rodents are not long enough to determine safety in terms of chronic issues.
In fact, Health Canada groups GM foods into the larger category of Novel Foods, which includes crops created from conventional plant breeding, leading Sharrat to declare that “our government has essentially assumed that GM foods are safe, and has built a regulatory system on that assumption.”
Intellectual property rights
According to the World Health Organization, patents are a concern when it comes to GMOs. Companies, not individual farmers, own the GM seeds, which leads to problems of patent infringement if farmers wish to save, share, and sell seeds—which they have traditionally done for centuries.
Neither Canada nor the US requires foods with GM ingredients to be labelled. By contrast, the European Union has required all GM products to be labelled since 1997. This effectively means that we don’t really know what we’re eating.
Already developed but not yet approved in Canada are GM “non-browning” apples, alfalfa, and salmon. These foods are opposed by consumers and growers alike and may harm the economy, but are close to approval nevertheless. “We are very concerned that there’s no democratic debate about this technology in Canada before it’s put on our grocery store shelves,” Sharratt says.
Another controversial crop is GM sweet corn. There are three different types of corn crops: sweet corn (which we eat as a whole food), popping corn, and field corn (used in animal feed and processed foods). Until recently, only field corn was genetically modified, but now sweet corn is for sale on Canadian grocery store shelves, at roadside produce stands, and even at farmers’ markets.
Gone … for now
GM pigs, wheat, tomatoes, and potatoes are all off the agenda for now, as Canadian consumers and farmers effectively voiced their dissent against the new technologies. They’re considered victories by CBAN, but that doesn’t mean the issues won’t come up again.
Sharratt cautions that by the time this article is published, it’s possible that things will have already changed, as the issues are so fast moving. She recommends checking CBAN’s website (cban.ca) for the most recent information.
Recently, two high-profile votes for mandatory GM labelling have been shot down in Washington and California. But it’s not because consumers don’t want labelling, says Sharratt.
“In Washington,” she explains, “$22 million was spent by Monsanto and food companies [according] to put out TV ads and send mailings to households to tell people that food bills will rise if labelling is put into place … biotech companies have a lot of money, and the votes don’t pass.”
In recent years, there’s been an explosion of anti-GMO activism and non-GMO labelling projects, spurred by individuals, companies, organizations, and even retailers.
Non-GMO Project Verified expands
With no mandatory labelling for GM products in the US and Canada, the independent verification system Non-GMO Project took matters into its own hands. Companies may join the program and bear the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on their packaging if they comply with the project’s strict rules. Over the years, the Non-GMO Project has flourished, and qualifying products now include skin care products, cosmetics, and supplements.
Media activism inspires
Activism doesn’t just mean signing petitions and writing letters. Art and media can be powerful ways to keep issues top of mind. The new film GMO OMG (Jeremy Seifert, 2013) is one example: in the documentary, the film’s director and concerned father, Jeremy Seifert, attempts to understand what GM foods really mean for us, our health, and the environment.
Natural health retailers step up
It’s not surprising that many health food stores have taken the reins. Whole Foods Market, for example, showed itself as a world leader with its commitment to mandatory GMO labelling for all of its products in Canadian and US stores by 2018.
Smaller stores, too, have shown a strong commitment to anti-GMO activism. Bruce Martin, general manager of Community Natural Foods in Calgary, is part of this movement. He states, “In our business our customers have clearly expressed to [us] that they want the right to know what is in the products they buy from us.”
Martin says that new customers, though less aware, come to the store to learn, and the number of these conversations have been increasing recently, due to media attention about GMOs.
Martin and his staff are helping educate customers by advising them “to look for either the organic certification or the Non-GMO Project label.” They make things easier yet by “highlighting the Non-GMO Project products on shelf to make them easier to identify. [Each] those two identifiers should give customers the peace of mind to enable them to avoid GMO consumption.”
Sharratt adds that “the odyssey that consumers are on to try to figure out what’s in their food system means that we’re all learning a lot, which can be a good thing. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s time well spent, because not only does it mean that we’re having discussions about what is healthy food, but we’re also learning a lot about farming, which gives us more control over the food system.”
With all of the ongoing issues that GMOs present, it’s clear that organizations, individuals, and retailers will continue to stand up for what they believe in and fight for our right to transparent, safe food. “When consumers and farmers work together, we can really create an unstoppable protest,” Sharratt says. “The fight is now.”
Labelling regulations aside, we can educate ourselves and do our best to choose GMO free with three simple strategies.
- Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. These products can be found throughout natural health retailers, in many departments.
- Choose certified organic products, which are not allowed to contain GM ingredients.
- Avoid common GM foods and ingredients. Check out the “Common GM crops” sidebar (page 86) for more information.
Learn more and take action!
Feeling inspired? Check out these environmental and health organizations to learn more about GMOs and to find out how to get involved.
- Canadian Biotechnology Action Network cban.ca
- David Suzuki Foundation davidsuzuki.org
- Just Label It! justlabelit.org
- Non-GMO Project nongmoproject.org
- Organic Trade Association ota.com
Don’t forget that your voice is powerful. As any activist organization will tell you, every conversation and email counts! Here are ways to get the ball rolling:
- Ask your grocery store why they don’t carry more GMO-free products.
- Let your favourite natural health retailer know that you purchase non-GMO products.
- Write to your local politicians to tell them why you support GMO labelling.
- Tell your favourite brands to go non-GMO.
- Share the issue with your friends and family.
- Write to alive to tell us what you think.
A retailer’s perspective
Bruce Martin of Community Natural Foods shared some of the key issues about GMOs that affect him, his customers, and all Canadians.
- Some non-GMO products aren’t certified organic or Non-GMO Project Verified, but without mandatory labelling from the Canadian government, well-intentioned consumers could be missing out on non-GMO products.
- “GMOs have not been proven safe,” says Martin. He stresses that the testing time to determine GMO safety is too short and points to numerous international statements from scientists around the world declaring this.
- Martin maintains that the Canadian government should do appropriate safety testing immediately—it is only the government who may do this because of the restrictive patent protection on GMO technology.
- There have been more questions and conversations at the retail level in the past 18 months than ever before, likely because the increased media coverage around GMO issues, including the Washington and California votes, has increased Canadian shoppers’ awareness of the issue.
Common GM crops
The only GM crops grown in Canada are canola, corn, soy, and white sugar beet, but they have saturated the market. Crops that can be imported into Canada and consumed here include cottonseed oil, papaya, squash, and some milk products.
Aside from GM sweet corn and squash, we consume most GM products in packaged foods, when we don’t even realize they’re there. Here are some common places where we’ll find them (unless certified organic).
|GMO food||Products that may contain GMO food|
|corn||corn products (flakes, chips, tortillas, cornstarch, corn syrup); some glucose and fructose sweeteners; and dairy and meat products (since the animals consume GM feed)|
|canola||canola oil and dairy and meat products (since the animals consume GM feed)|
|soy||soy products (oil, lecithin, beverages, tofu) and dairy and meat products (since the animals consume GM feed)|