At one time or another, it is likely that we have come across the colourful “NON GMO Project” logo proudly displayed on an item we put into our grocery cart. I’ve asked myself, ‘Why don’t all my food items bear this seal, claiming its un-engineered origins’? and ‘Does this mean everything in my cart without the colourful logo is genetically modified?’ The questions abound, and I find my grocery trips getting longer and longer as I read every label carefully.
Let’s take a closer look at some recent data in hopes of gaining some clarity on the hot topic of GMOs, their safety, regulation and labeling.
What does GMO really mean? The definition of genetically modified, as per Health Canada is:
An organism, such as a plant, animal or bacterium, is considered genetically modified if its genetic material has been altered through any method, including conventional breeding. A “GMO” is a genetically modified organism.
But what is it about being genetically altered that is of concern?
According to the NON-GMO Project, virtually all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. Despite biotech industry promises, none of the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.
One Canadian group lobbying against GMOs, CBAN (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network) recently published a report examining the impacts after 20 years since the first GM food was approved in Canada.
The report suggests that 10 countries produce nearly all of the GM crops, with Canada producing 6% and USA 40% of GM crops. Four foods constitute 99% of the worlds GM crops: corn, canola, soy and cotton, with Canada producing all crops but cotton.
It would seem that the fierce opposition to GMOs is unwarranted since the report suggests that we are only dealing with a small number of food items. However, according to the NON-GMO project, in North America GMOs are present in at least 80% of conventional processed food (such as cereals, lunch meats, crackers, etc).
In Canada, the approval of GMOs is quite rigorous, taking 7-10 years of research, development and testing, followed by Health Canada scrutiny and review. In the United States, once approved by the USDA as posing no risk to other plants, consultation with the FDA regarding the food safety of genetically engineered plants is voluntary. Lastly, a review of the European Commission GMO policy reveals that the European Union (EU) allows member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs in order to ensure a high level of protection to humans, animals and the environment.
It becomes clearer now why the debate abounds: even global legislatures seem to have differing opinions on their stance regarding GMOs.
In the meantime, innovation continues despite the debate on this topic. The approval of the “non-browning” apple is currently being fiercely opposed in Canada. However, this variety of apple has been approved in the United States, by the USDA. Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc (OSF) developed the non-browning apple varieties, and the fruits will be sold as Arctic® Granny and Arctic® Golden in the United States. The apples have been genetically engineered to produce less of the substance that causes browning, allowing the natural colour of the apple to be retained for longer. Since the apples are now de-regulated in the USA (as of February 2015), it is suggested that apples could be produced within 3-5 years.
If GMOs are something you are personally concerned about, then look for that “NON GMO Project” colourful logo. Many companies are turning to the NON GMO Project for their third party verification seal of approval. But remember, just because a product doesn’t have this logo, doesn’t necessarily mean it is genetically modified: verification of NON-GMOs is voluntary at this time, just like labelling of GMOs.
In sum, it’s been 20 years since the first GMO products were introduced, and it doesn’t appear that genetically engineered foods are going away any time soon. While the jury is still debating this topic: let the buyer beware.