Understanding Genetically Modified Foods

corn of cob

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 they grow into genetically modified (GM) foods. Health Canada makes sure that all foods, including GM foods, are safe for us to eat. Read on to learn more about GMOs and GM foods.

What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?

A GMO is a plant-based organism, like a seed, that:

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

GMOs are used to grow GM foods.

What GM foods are approved in Canada?

Since 1994, about 85 GM foods have been approved for sale in Canada. This includes GM foods grown in Canada and GM foods that have been imported from other countries. Only four main GM crops are currently grown in Canada including canola, soybean, corn and sugar beet. Most of these GM crops are exported to other countries.

How are GM foods regulated?

Before a GM food can be sold in Canada, Health Canada makes sure it is safe to eat and will not harm your health or the environment. Health Canada completes a thorough safety assessment on all GM foods before they are allowed to be sold. A safety assessment can take many years.

Are GM foods labelled?

No. GM foods do not have to be labelled in Canada. However, some food companies choose to label their products “GMO free”. Labelling of GM foods is challenging. This is because a food like GM 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.

What are the benefits of genetically modified foods?

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

  • Resist damage due to weather, like frost or draught
  • Grow more easily in some environments (like dry soil conditions)
  • Produce more crop, helping to keep food prices lower
  • Ripen slower and last longer during shipping
  • Bruise less easily
  • Need less pesticides (like herbicides and insecticides)
  • Have less disease caused by insects or viruses
  • Have more of a certain nutrient like vitamin A found in Golden Rice, a GM rice crop used to fight malnutrition in developing countries

What are the potential concerns of eating GM foods?

Some common questions asked about GM foods include:

  • Can GM foods cause allergies? There is no evidence that GM foods increase the risk of allergic reactions.
  • Can GM foods cause resistance to antibiotics?  There is no evidence to show that any antibiotic resistant genes used in GM foods can be transferred to humans.
  • Can GM crops contaminate regular crops? GM crops may blow into fields close by that grow regular crops. Preventing this is very difficult. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is addressing this concern.

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

If you are concerned about eating GM foods, try the following tips:

  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • Voice your opinion. Call food companies, contact Health Canada at or the CFIA and let them know you would like GM foods to be labelled.

Bottom line

GM foods available in Canada are considered safe for us to eat. While Canada does produce some GM crops, most of them are exported. Labelling GM foods is not required in Canada, so it can be difficult to know if a food product contains GM ingredients.  If you are concerned about eating GM foods, call food companies to see if they use GM ingredients, look for “GMO free” foods, try buying organic foods or plant your own garden with GMO-free seeds.

Last Update – November 7, 2018

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