by Derek Brigham and Yolanda Nuanyan Wang
What comes to your mind when you hear that a certain food is Genetically Modified? Perhaps you feel uneasy, uncertain, or maybe you look for that non-GMO label. But do you know what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are exactly? To answer this question, let's go way back... all the way back... to 600 BC! You see, this is how far back we can date the process of plant breeding.
Plant breeding is what farmers have been doing for thousands of years; breeding different crops together in order to yield desirable traits. Through plant breeding, farmers were able to make crops more resilient to pests or drought, have higher yields on the same land, or even look and taste better. Our food supply has evolved greatly since agriculture first started, and plant breeding is a big reason why! Farmers have only gotten better at plant breeding. When they first started breeding selected crops together, they could get any mix of traits - they had no control over what traits continued on or what traits were lost. It was a game of chance. Over time, as our scientific understanding of genetics grew, farmers and plant scientists were able to develop better methods of plant breeding, including methods such as mutagenesis (used in organic farming) and GMOs.
The World Health Organization defines GMOs as "organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.""It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species."
With conventional breeding methods, it can take up to 15 years to produce a new variety with desired traits. But with genetic modification, this process is dramatically accelerated. The technology can be used for different reasons, including resistance to drought, insects, and other organisms that would otherwise threaten plants’ growth and survival. As a result, genetic modification increases crop yield and can help alleviate food insecurity issues due to increasing global population.
Other benefits of GMO crops may include: maximize resource use and benefit the environment, improve nutritive value of food, improve taste, reduce food waste, improve appearance of food, and increase shelf life.
Currently, there are only 11 GMO crops approved for use in the world.
So far, Canada has only approved six GMO crops to be grown, these include canola, corn, soybean, sugar beet, potatoes, and alfalfa.
GMO crops are not required to be labelled in Canada, although many companies have adopted a non-GMO label as a marketing initiative. The non-GMO label is being used on a wide variety of food products, including foods that are not GMO (such as wheat products).
Here, we will provide you with information on GMO foods in terms of food safety, nutritional value, food production, and environmental impacts so you can make informed decisions the next time you go grocery shopping.
GMOs are the only type of crop that require government regulation, all other types of plant breeding are not regulated.
GMOs are tested for allergenicity, toxicity, as well as safety for humans, livestock, and insects. They are the most rigorously tested and regulated crop we have. GMOs have been evaluated and endorsed by regulatory agencies around the world, including the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Health Canada. On average, it takes around 13 years for a GMO crop to pass government regulation. All GM foods are reviewed by Health Canada and found to be as safe as non-GM foods.
Specifically, Health Canada looks at the following to determine if a GMO is safe for Canadians:
How the food crop was developed, including the molecular biological data which characterizes the genetic change;
Composition of the novel food compared to non-modified counterpart foods;
Nutritional information compared to non-modified counterparts;
Potential for introducing new toxins; and
Potential for causing allergic reactions.
To date, Health Canada has never reversed its approval of any GMO food product as there is no scientific evidence showing GM foods are less safe than their traditional counterparts. Concerns regarding the transfer of modified genes from GM foods to the human body have been raised however, according to the WHO, the probability of genetic material moving between organisms is low. Therefore, gene transfer is unlikely to be an issue of concern.
One might wonder whether GMO foods are as nutritious as conventional foods.
According to Health Canada, all GMO foods approved for sale are just as, or more, nutritious as their conventional counterparts.
Some GM crops are nutritionally enhanced to benefit consumers. For example, GM soybean and canola oils have been modified to produce a healthier oil than conventional crops.
Did you know? Predictions are that farmers will have to feed ten times as many people on the same amount of land as they did 100 years ago! By 2050, we will need 70% more food to feed our population.
GM foods have benefits for both producers and consumers. Crop protection is the main benefit enjoyed by producers, as genetic modification can lead to higher yields than their conventional counterparts through reduced losses to pests, weeds, disease, and drought. This benefit is passed onto consumers through lower prices due to higher food availability and acceptability. However, this point is widely debated due to the rising monopoly of GM crop producing companies. This blog post is solely discussing the science behind GM foods, but if you are interested in learning more about how small farmers are being affected by GMO production, let us know and we will write another blog post!
GM foods also present both risks and theoretical benefits for the environment. It was thought that GM farming practices would beneficially result in reduced use of pesticides and the use of less environmentally pervasive herbicides. However, it has been proposed that the use of herbicides in both GM and non-GM farming reduces biodiversity due to their targeting of weeds, which are utilized by pollinators such as honey bees and butterflies for habitats and food sources. Without these weeds, the populations of pollinators may decline, as reported in 2015 by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a group that raises awareness around GM foods. Increased biodiversity bestows a greater chance of survivability of a species when under extreme conditions or faced with a disease. It has been reported that an estimated 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost due to genetic modification.
GMOs may present advantages for producers and consumers, but these are not without downfalls. Hopefully with further development, we can address the challenges of GMO crops while keeping the benefits. It is completely up to you whether or not you choose to include GMOs in your diet, but we hope after reading this article you are able to make an informed decision. Check out the infographic below for a great summary!
Health Canada. (2020). The safety of genetically-modified (GM) foods.
World Health Organization. (2014). Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods.