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Understanding Genetically Modified Foods



Have you ever wondered where food comes from? When we think about it, a picture of a farmer planting seeds often comes to mind. But did you know that some seeds are genetically altered in a laboratory before being planted? These seeds are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and produce genetically modified (GM) foods.
 




What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?

A GMO is an organism, like a seed, that:

  • Has had its genes (DNA) altered to act in a way that does not happen naturally and/or
  • Contains genes from another organism.

For example, some genetically modified soybeans contain a gene that comes from soil bacteria. This gene helps the soybeans grow even when sprayed with herbicide. Some genetically modified corn has a gene that produces a toxin. This toxin kills an insect called the corn borer and allows the corn to grow without damage. These types of genetically modified foods are considered safe for humans to eat.
 

What GM foods are approved in Canada?

Since 1994, over 81 GM foods have been approved in Canada including:

  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Lentils
  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Soybeans
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat

Even though these foods have been approved, only a few food crops are genetically modified in Canada.


How are GM foods regulated?

Before a GM food can be sold in Canada, Health Canada makes sure that it is safe to eat. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency makes sure that GM foods will not harm the environment.


How do I know if I’m eating a GM food?

GM foods do not have to be labelled in Canada or the United States. Labelling of GM foods is very difficult. This is because a GM food like corn can be used as an ingredient in many other foods like cereal, yogurt, frozen entrees and canned soup. All of these foods would need to be labelled as having genetically modified ingredients.

As a Canadian consumer, you will likely not know if the foods you buy have been genetically modified. In other parts of the world like Europe, it is mandatory to label GM foods.


What are the benefits of genetically modified foods?

GM crops have been developed to have certain benefits. GM foods may:

  • Grow well even when sprayed with pesticides
  • Have less disease caused by insects or viruses
  • Resist damage due to weather, like frost or draught
  • Ripen slower and last longer during shipping
  • Bruise less easily
  • Have more of a certain nutrient like vitamin A found in Golden Rice, a genetically modified rice crop developed in Europe

GM crops may produce more food with less waste. This means food could be available at a cheaper cost.   

Some crops are genetically modified to be more durable than a regular crop. In the late 1990’s, Health Canada approved the Flavr Savr™ tomato. The tomato ripens at a slower rate which allows it to develop more flavour. Certain soy and sunflower crops have been genetically modified so that the oils made from these crops are more stable and can be heated to higher temperatures. This could allow these types of healthier oils to replace shortening and trans fat in the food supply.


What are the risks of eating GM foods?

Cross-contamination

Crops that grow GM plants may contaminate other fields that are close by. This may happen if the seeds from a GM crop blow into a neighbouring field. Many countries now have ways to lower the risk of cross-contamination, but this is still one of the biggest risks of GM crops.

Crop variety

Some experts say that the variety of foods that the world produces may be lowered due to GM crops. This is because farmers may choose to plant only a few types of GM crops since they may produce larger amounts of food.


Are there plans to do research on GM foods?

Health Canada does not plan to do research on GM foods since they are not seen as a risk to Canadians.


What should I do if I’m concerned about eating GM foods?

Since GM foods are not required to be labelled in Canada, it is hard to know whether you are eating them or not. If you are concerned about GM foods, there are a few ways to limit them in your diet.

Try the tips below:

  • Buy organic foods. Organic foods are not genetically modified.
  • Plant a garden. When you buy plants or seeds, ask if they have been genetically modified, but chances are they are not.
  • Call food companies. If you are interested to know if a certain food contains GM ingredients, the food company may be able to answer your questions.
  • Visit specialty stores. Some smaller food companies label their products as “GMO-free.”
  • Voice your opinion. Call food companies, contact Health Canada or the CFIA and let them know you would like GM foods to be labelled.


The bottom line

GM foods have been grown and sold in Canada since 1994 and will likely continue to be part of the food supply. As a Canadian consumer, you will likely not know if the foods you buy have been genetically modified. However, Health Canada makes sure that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.

Visit Health Canada for more frequently asked questions about GM foods.

If you have more questions, call an EatRight Ontario Registered Dietitian at 1-877-510-510-2 or send an email.

Copyright © Dietitians of Canada 2014. All rights reserved.

Dietitians of Canada acknowledges the financial support of EatRight Ontario by the Ontario government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.