Although many farmers took up placards this week to protest the possible introduction of genetically modified alfalfa into Canada, experts say that for the average Canadian consumer, the issue of bioengineered foods barely registers.

"These concerns among farmers and informed groups of consumers does not translate to the average consumer. They are too far removed from the concerns of the farming community," says Andreas Boecker, an associate professor at the University of Guelph whose research includes studying consumer acceptance of GM foods.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, first hit the market in 1994 — the first product was the "Flvr Svr" tomato, designed to stay ripe for longer. Since then, there has been ongoing debate over the safety and environmental sustainability of these so-called "frankenfoods."

What are GMOs, or genetically modified organisms?

Genetic modification is a process where scientists can combine genetic traits from entirely different plant and animal species, essentially "cutting" a trait from one organism and "pasting" it into another.

This is done to give crops desired traits that don't occur naturally — such as resistance to pesticides, diseases or insects — usually to improve yield.

One of the major environmental concerns behind GMOs is cross-pollination, where genetically modified crops designed for a specific purpose contaminate surrounding crops, acting as a kind of weed.

Over the years, we have heard warnings that GM foods could destroy agricultural diversity, create potentially harmful strains of crops or put local farmers out of work. Boecker says that while there haven't been any recent surveys looking at Canadian attitudes toward GM foods, studies from the mid- to late-2000s suggested that a majority of people in Canada have no strong views on the matter.

"And if you go by shopping behaviour," Boecker adds, "most foods that they buy have some share of GMOs."

Apathy or lack of information?

Thousands of products in Canada's food chain contain some form of a genetically modified item — and because there are no mandatory labelling requirements, it’s difficult for consumers to know which ones do.

Ottawa has approved dozens of GM crops, but most are not actually grown or sold in Canada, except for corn, canola, soybeans and the sugar beets used to produce white sugar. Products that contain any of these items, including most processed and packaged foods, likely contain genetically modified ingredients. Many meats are also affected, since animals are often fed GM crops.

Registered dietitian Christy Brissette, who is working on a masters in nutrition at the University of Toronto, says that many Canadians do have concerns about GM foods, but that they lack the knowledge to make informed decisions at the grocery store.

"It's definitely a hot topic. It's something that clients and patients ask about a lot," says Brissette, adding that there is a lot of misinformation about GM foods.

In fact, a survey conducted last year by the B.C. Growers' Association found that 76 per cent of Canadians feel that the federal government hasn't given them enough information on GM foods. Another nine per cent said they’d never even heard of GM foods.

"I think a lot of people have seen what happened in Europe, with a lot of lobbying to European governments demanding that these foods be labelled so that consumers can then make educated choices," Brissette says. "I think Canadians want that same kind of transparency."

Boecker agrees that most consumers are not well-informed when it comes to food science, but he is skeptical that mandatory labelling of GMOs would lead to any sort of sea change in the way Canadians shop.

Tips to avoid GMOs

While foods that contain GMOs are not required to be labelled in Canada, registered dietitian Christy Brissette says there are tactics to help consumers to avoid them:

  • Choose organic foods. "Anything labelled as organic cannot be genetically modified."
  • Cook meals from scratch. "Some of the biggest culprits … in our food supply are things like corn and soy, so by avoiding processed foods and packaged foods, you are avoiding genetically modified foods."
  • Develop relationships with local farmers. "There are great farmers' markets across the country.… By actually speaking to the farmers, you can become educated."
  • Avoid sugar. "Granulated sugar comes from sugar beets, which are genetically modified."
  • Plant your own fruits and vegetables.
  • Look for smaller food companies that voluntarily label their products as GMO-free.
  • Become an advocate for stricter legislation. "Go ahead and contact companies and express to the government that this is something we want labelled."

"The average Canadian family is very busy … both parents work, so there's little time to be spent on food shopping and preparation," Boecker says. "Convenience and value for money are the biggest drivers of purchasing decisions."

While a series of food scandals in Europe during the 1990s — including the mad cow disease epidemic in Britain — led to stronger, more outspoken views on genetic engineering in that region of the world, Boecker doesn't see Canadians following suit.

"At the moment, I can't see any event that could trigger a turning point. So far, not a single study has provided evidence of health risks," says Boecker. "You would need, not necessarily a catastrophic event, but firm, solid scientific evidence."

Assessing the risks of GM foods

So far, scientific evidence into the health risks of eating GM foods is scant.

While there have been several studies suggesting that GM foods are not as similar to their non-altered counterparts as previously thought, Boecker points out that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad for you.

Health Canada's official stance on GM foods is that they are safe for consumption.

But Brissette says that a lack of evidence doesn't mean people should shrug off their concerns.

"In my mind, it's still a proceed-with-caution area. We've only had GMOs sold in Canada since 1994, so we haven't had any studies on the long-term effects on our health or the environment," she says.

"We won't know until years and years down the line."