Genetically modified (GM) foods are in your grocery cart—or are they? It is possible to find out where GM foods are, and how to avoid them.
Finding out what genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) foods are on grocery store shelves is still a major challenge for Canadians. It has been 20 years since the first GM foods were approved, but there’s still no mandatory labelling to tell us where they are. In fact, there’s little government tracking of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at all. Despite this lack of information, reliably shopping non-GM is possible.
Genetic engineering means scientists can change the traits of plants and animals by inserting new genetic material, often from many different organisms, or by deleting or moving DNA sequences around.
Directly changing the genetic makeup of organisms is dramatically different from traditional breeding, and there are ongoing scientific investigations about the possible risks. There are also public concerns about the environmental and social impacts, and even ethical questions, and yet GM products are in grocery stores now, unidentified.
Canadian GM crops
After two decades, Canadian farmers grow five GM crops:
- GM canola
- GM corn
- GM soy
- GM white sugar beets (for sugar processing)
- GM alfalfa—very small amount as of last year (for feeding farm animals, not for sprouting)
This short list is actually almost all of the GM crops currently grown around the world. There are a few others grown in small amounts and some new GM crops, and even GM animals, on the horizon, but for now most of the world’s GM foods are from just these five crops.
Processed foods and animals products
GM corn, canola, soy, and cotton account for 99 percent of all the world’s GM crop acres. GM corn, canola, and soy mostly end up as ingredients in processed food or as food for dairy cows and farm animals raised for meat. All the other GM crops on the market—GM papaya, some squashes, white sugar beet, and alfalfa—are grown in very small quantities.
Almost all of these crops are genetically modified for just two reasons: to survive sprayings of certain herbicides or to be toxic to insects.
However, GM foods may soon become more common and more diverse because of recent approvals for three new GM whole foods: GM apples, potatoes, and salmon.
Few GM fruits and vegetables
Without product labels, announcements about new GM foods can be misleading. For example, media stories about GM discoveries have led to a common assumption that GM fruits and vegetables are everywhere, when the opposite is true.
In fact, most breakthrough GM discoveries never make it out of the lab. Similarly, government approvals for new GM foods do not automatically mean they will be sold. For example, the newly approved GM apple and potato are not yet on the market, and many companies say they have no plans to use them. Some GM products appear on the market and then quickly disappear, like the GM tomato or an earlier GM potato.
Right now, the only genetically modified vegetable grown in Canada is GM sweet corn, and tests done by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) over the years only found a small amount.
Additionally, GM papaya and some GM squashes from the US can be imported. This means that most of the produce section in Canadian stores is currently free from GM fruits and vegetables.
This could change, but shopping for non-GM fruits and vegetables is currently quite simple. First, there’s no reason to check the price-look-up (PLU) codes on tiny produce stickers because the code for genetically modified foods has been discontinued.
More importantly, there are few GM fruits and vegetables on the market right now, and organic produce, which is all non-GM, is clearly identified with the Canada Organic logo.
The future of GM food
Labelling is both closer and farther away for Canadians. Last year, the US government made it mandatory for companies to reveal GM ingredients, but instead of requiring a readable label, companies can add a digital QR code to be read by smartphones.
In the end, the new US law does not require a label at all. In Canada, a recent House of Commons committee recommended against labelling, but Parliament will continue to debate it.
In the meantime, organic farmers have already rejected genetically modified seeds and are at the forefront of providing non-GM food. Organic farmers produce food according to the national standard that prohibits GMOs, as well as synthetic chemicals, and stipulates other ecological practices.
Faced with the challenge of unlabelled genetically modified foods, organics provides one clear choice that also supports a better future for food and farming.
In a groundbreaking research project called the GMO Inquiry, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) investigated the impacts of 20 years of genetically modified organisms in Canada.
CBAN documented the environmental, social, health, and economic impacts and risks in a series of six reports. This extensive research is the first of its kind in Canada. Here are some of the key findings:
- 130%: amount that herbicide sales in Canada increased since GM crops were introduced (1994-2011)
- 80%: approximate amount of corn grown in Canada that is GM
- 60%: approximate amount of soy grown in Canada that is GM
- Almost all: amount of canola and sugar beet that is also GM
- 88%: number of Canadians who want mandatory labelling of GM foods
- 48%: number of Canadians who support a ban of GM foods All of the reports and summary pamphlets are posted at gmoinquiry.ca.
New GMOs coming soon?
A GM nonbrowning apple has been approved but is not yet sold in Canada. The company that developed it says it will sell some sliced GM apples in the US first, starting this year. However, it will be several years before any GM “Arctic” apple orchards are established in Canada. This would be Canada’s first GM fruit.
There are no GM potatoes in Canadian stores, but a new GM potato could be planted in Canada for the first time this year. It is genetically modified to resist bruising and to reduce acrylamide, a possible carcinogen produced during frying. In the US, the potato is sold in bags with the name “White Russet.”
A GM fast-growing Atlantic salmon is approved, but it is not yet being produced anywhere in the world. If it is ever sold, it will be the world’s first GM food animal.
Updates at cban.ca/gmos.
How can I avoid buying GMOs?
- Avoid processed foods with corn, canola, and soy ingredients. This will remove most GM foods.
- Buy organic. Genetic modification is prohibited in organic farming:
- Buy cane sugar or organic sugar, to avoid sugar from GM sugar beets
- Buy organic sweet corn or sweet corn from local farmers who can tell you if they plant GM.
- Buy organic meats and dairy products (nonorganic farm animals are often fed a steady diet of GM corn, canola, and/or soy).
- If you’re unsure, the Canada Organic logo identifies all certified organic products.
- Avoid GM cotton: buy organic cotton clothes and bedding where possible, as well as organic feminine hygiene products.
- Choose products with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal.
GM crops grown in Canada
|Crop||Where on the shelves|
|corn||corn flakes; corn chips; cornstarch; corn syrup; corn oil, and other corn ingredients in processed foods; sweeteners such as glucose and fructose; eggs, milk, and meat*; some sweet corn|
|canola||canola oil; eggs, milk, and meat*|
|soy||soy oil; soy protein; soy lecithin; tofu; soy beverages; eggs, milk, and meat*|
|alfalfa||eggs, milk, and meat*|
*Many animals used to produce eggs, milk, and meat are fed corn, canola, soy, and/or alfalfa.
GM foods imported to Canada
|Crop||Where on the shelves|
|cottonseed oil||cottonseed oil; vegetable oil in processed foods|
|papaya||papaya in fruit juices and other processed foods|
|squash||some zucchini; yellow crookneck squash; straightneck squash|
|milk products (bovine growth hormone)||milk solids and powder; frozen desserts with dairy; imported drinks with milk ingredients; some cheese|
Details at cban.ca/gmos.