Genetically modified foods: a primer

What's genetically modified in your kitchen? How common are GM foods? Do GM products need to be labelled? Answers to those questions and more.

What they are, where they're found and rules for labelling

Most processed foods in Canada contain at least some genetically modified ingredients, but labelling is not required. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

The typical Canadian kitchen is likely to contain many ingredients or foods that have been genetically modified.

Most processed foods in Canada contain at least some genetically modified ingredients. That's largely because many processed foods contain corn, canola and soy. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 93 per cent of soybeans and 88 per cent of corn grown in the U.S. in 2012 were genetically modified. In Canada, 97.5 per cent of the 2012 canola crop was genetically modified, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications reports.

The term "genetically modified" refers to the alteration of genetic material. Specifically, it means the genes of one organism have been "cut out" and then "pasted" into another organism.

GM plants are often created to resist disease and eliminate the need for pesticides. Desired characteristics, such as a hardier texture, higher nutritional value or faster growth, are chosen to produce a kind of "super food."

Consumer concerns

Most of our processed foods contain some genetic modifications, but consumers in Canada would be hard pressed to find out what is and isn't altered.

Advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network argue GM foods are a health risk. They say the food industry should be more transparent in its creation and testing of GM foods. They also point out that there are no long-term studies on the effects of modified foods on human health.

They want an independent testing agency to monitor the effects of modified foods.

Greenpeace Canada has released its own shoppers' list of foods that are free of genetically modified organisms, or "GMOs."

Consumers in Europe have exerted more pressure on their governments. Both Nestlé U.K. and Unilever U.K. have dropped GM ingredients from their products. But their North American arms have not.

According to Andreas Boecker, an associate professor at the University of Guelph whose research includes studying consumer acceptance of GM foods, there have been no recent surveys looking at Canadian attitudes toward GM foods.

However, a 2010 University of Alberta study, based on a 2008 survey of 5,000 Canadian meat consumers, found about 50 per cent express "relatively high" levels of concern about GM feed given to animals raised for meat production. 

And a survey conducted in 2012 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.


The European Union and more than a dozen other countries have adopted mandatory labelling for any product that has been genetically modified. The European Parliament passed laws in July 2003 on GMOs, lifting the seven-year ban on the introduction of new biotech products.

In Canada, 97.5 per cent of the 2012 canola crop was genetically modified, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications reports. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
The current rules allow GMOs as long as they are clearly labelled. It requires grocers to label products containing more than 0.9 per cent biotech material, and force producers to trace the products at all stages of the production. Threshholds for labelling in other countries range from 1 per cent (Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia) to 5 per cent (Japan, Taiwan, South Africa).

In Canada, a free vote in Parliament in 2001 defeated a bill by Liberal MP Charles Caccia. His private member's bill, C-287, would have required mandatory labelling of genetically altered foods.

Instead, the Standards Council of Canada adopted a standard for voluntary labelling of GM foods in April 2004.

Health Canada has taken the position that GM foods are just as safe as conventional foods. Food must be labelled in Canada if it is pasteurized, irradiated, or contains possible allergens such as peanuts.

Food manufacturers are allowed to put voluntary labels such as "fat-free" or even, as one East Coast potato company said, "derived from plant biotechnology," but there are no rules concerning GM foods.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, under the auspices of Health Canada, deals with food safety and other trade-related requirements. It monitors quality, packaging, labelling and testing of food products.

The CFIA will inspect a food product and call it "GMO-free" if it's to be exported to a country that requires such a label. But there are no rules governing GMO labels for food products sold within Canada.

Consumer groups charge the government has been slow to react to changes in the food industry. But the government says it wants to have the infrastructure in place to ensure whether a food has been altered.

Canada's conundrum

CFIA officials have said it's hard to have enforceable rules because of the complicated food growing processes in Canada.

Farmers can grow different varieties of corn or wheat. Some are modified while others are not. Although farmers try to grow GM crops in separate fields, it's hard to guarantee that the different crops won't get mixed somewhere in the process.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has said the industry would face huge losses if mandatory labelling were implemented. The fear is that consumers will see the labels as a warning and avoid these foods, and that food processors will reformulate their products to avoid GM foods rather than place labels. It also says labels will increase the price of foods produced and processed in Canada.

It's hard to keep some foods completely GMO-free, which leads to the question: What should the label say? "May contain genetically modifed products"?

Consumer groups say people just want to know what they are putting in their mouths. Any labelling would at least provide them with information so they can make their own decisions about what they are eating.


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that tomatoes are sometimes genetically modified. A previous version of the story also stated that bread may contain genetically modified ingredients. In fact, that is possible if the bread contains soy, corn or canola oil. However, there is no genetically modified wheat on the market.
    Sep 13, 2013 3:23 AM ET