CBC In Depth
Genetically Modified Foods: a primer
CBC News Online | May 11, 2004

The typical Canadian kitchen is likely to contain many ingredients or foods that have been genetically modified. Everything from bread to tomatoes, corn and soya oil has been produced from altered food organisms.

Some estimates peg as many as 30,000 different products on grocery store shelves as "modified." That's largely because many processed foods contain soy. Half of North America's soy crop is genetically engineered.

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

About 60 per cent 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 and the Council of Canadians 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 GMO-free foods.

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

In the U.S., new voluntary rules have been created. Most of the suggested rules came from the food industry itself.


At least 35 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. As of April 18, 2004, all products containing an ingredient that contains more than 0.9 per cent of GMOs must be labelled. Animal feed containing GMOs will also have to be labelled.

The new rules will 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.

In 1998, a moratorium on new biotech foods was introduced after consumers voiced concerns over the possible health risks associated with the modified products.

In Canada, a free vote in Parliament Oct. 17, 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 federal government has instructed a committee to look into the matter and report back.

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.

In May 2003, North American scientists, consumer groups and businesses came together to develop a set of industry-wide safety standards for genetically modified foods.

Headed by the University of Minnesota, the Safety First initiative will aim to set standards for building human and environmental safety into the development process for two classes of GM foods:
  • Fish modified for increased production in fish farms.
  • Plants modified to produce pharmaceuticals.

Canada's conundrum

CFIA officials say 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 says the industry faces huge losses if mandatory labelling is 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.

Most of Canada's canola crop has been modified as well � a fact not lost on Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser has been fighting agrochemical company Monsanto for years. The company sued Schmeiser, saying he used its canola seed illegally. Schmeiser countersued claiming Monsanto's modified seed blew onto his property. In 2002, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that found Schmeiser guilty of illegally planting genetically modified canola patented by Monsanto. In 2003, the Supreme Court granted Schmeiser the right to appeal the ruling.

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"

According to a 1999 Environics poll, 80 per cent of Canadians want GM foods to be labelled. Greenpeace Canada says that number is closer to 95 per cent.

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.



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