GMOs: What you need to know about genetically modified food

By: Jill Buchner

Getty Images Author: Canadian Living Credits: Getty Images


GMOs: What you need to know about genetically modified food

By: Jill Buchner
You've heard the rumours at your local grocery store and you've read them on the Internet: People are talking about GMOs hiding in our food and how they're the suspected cause of everything from an increase in allergies to a surge in cancer rates. It's enough to make you wary of every supersize strawberry in the produce aisle. Are the rumours true?

What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms are organisms, such as plants and animals, that have been engineered using technology pioneered in the 1970s to allow scientists to transfer individual genes from one organism into another. For example, scientists have taken a gene from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) that's toxic to insects and transplanted it into corn to make it pest-resistant. The corn, which looks exactly the same, has been commercially available in Canada for 17 years.

"We can move DNA from anywhere to anywhere," says Rene Van Acker, professor in plant agriculture and associate dean at the University of Guelph's Ontario Agriculture College. "Genetic modification creates all types of opportunities, but a lot of people also have concerns."

Any genetically modified food currently available in your grocery store has been altered for one of three reasons, Van Acker explains: to make it resistant to insects; to make it resistant to a disease; or to make it resistant to an herbicide (so crops can be sprayed along with the weeds that farmers want to kill).

That said, foods genetically modified for other reasons may be hitting your supermarket in the next five to 10 years. More than a decade ago in Canada, for instance, an apple was engineered to prevent the flesh from turning brown, though it hasn't yet been approved for commercial growth.

It's important to note that genetic engineering is fundamentally different from changes introduced through traditional hybridization, where different varieties of the same species of plant are bred together for a higher-yielding crop, larger fruit or other desirable characteristics (the juicy Honeycrisp apple is an example). In other words, you can stop suspiciously eyeing those strawberries—there's no genetic modification behind their startling size.

How prevalent are GMOs?
In large part, the mystery behind GMOs comes from the fact that modified food is not currently labelled as such. (By contrast, European Union countries require labelling for all GMOs.) So it's difficult for us to know where engineered ingredients are and how common they are in the market.

Only a handful of GM crops are grown in Canada—corn (which may include some sweet corn), canola, soy and sugar beets—though other GM crops, such as cotton, papaya and squash, are imported. That means the majority of produce in your grocery store hasn't been genetically engineered. However, because key crops in our food supply, such as corn and soy, are used in animal feed and many processed foods, the pervasiveness of GMOs in our food isn't just rumour. Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization working to label products that avoid GMOs, says that about 70 percent of packaged foods contain some kind of genetically modified ingredient. "GMOs may be found in packaged foods as ingredients with long names, and people don't even know," she says.

Is there a risk to our health?
Any GM crop grown in or imported to Canada undergoes a regulatory process led by Health Canada, Environment Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that looks at potential health and environmental risks. This means modified foods sold in grocery stores have been deemed to be safe by Canadian government regulatory agencies. "There's been a tremendous amount of research done in the regulatory process," says Van Acker, who has spent more than 15 years researching GM crops. Short-term studies show no issues with current GM crops, but, he admits, very little of that research has involved controlled studies over a long term.

And that concerns Westgate. "The bottom line is that not enough research has been done to understand the long-term health implications," she says. A very limited number of studies have shown potential health risks in rats, but most of these have been discounted. In a 2008 Austrian study, some mice fed genetically modified corn had fewer offspring generations down the road; the study was withdrawn a year later due to an unsatisfactory analysis and report. The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology also retracted a 2012 study where rats fed GM corn developed tumours and organ damage; the study was deemed inconclusive due to the type of rats used and insufficient sample sizes.

Opinions on either side of the GMO-safety debate are highly charged, to say the least. Some of the controversy stems from the fact that GMOs raise complex questions: What do the herbicides sprayed on GMOs do to our health and the environment? Is it ethical to change DNA?

In terms of the impact GMOs may have on our health, Van Acker says clarity could come soon, as the European Union is currently funding a major long-term study in Germany, with results expected in 2016.

Can we eat GMO-free?
If you'd like to avoid GMOs until the research comes in, your best bet is to steer clear of crops known to be genetically engineered, such as corn, canola and soy. You can also buy organic or look for the Non-GMO Project verification.

Find out how many Canadians are concerned about GMOs in the results of our 2014 Canadian Living Nutrition Survey.

This story was originally titled "Understanding GMOs" in the March 2015 issue.
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GMOs: What you need to know about genetically modified food