Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a source of controversy in recent years. As products advertised as "natural", "clean" and "organic" have grown in popularity, GMOs have been villainized as unnatural and hazardous to your health. Genetically modified (GM) foods are painted as Frankenstein versions of their original selves.
But do most people know what GMOs are? And whether the negative hype is supported by evidence?
GMOs are organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material or DNA has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The genetic material of GMOs can be altered for one of three reasons:
- to provide a new, desirable characteristic
- to remove an undesirable characteristic
- to supplement a desirable characteristic that occurs naturally
The most common GM crops grown in Canada are canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet.
The concept of GMOs had been around long before they actually became a reality. It wasn't until the early 1990s that GMOs were commercialized and the first GM foods were born. The "Flavr Savr" was a tomato modified to slow softening so that it could stay fresher for longer and it was one of the first GMOs on the market deemed safe for consumption by the United States Food and Drug Administration. However, this particular food was not on the market for long due to issues with taste acceptance.
The benefits of GMOs are often overshadowed by the many unregulated professionals who claim there are associated risks with growing and consuming GM foods. The biggest potential benefit of growing a GM crop for a producer is in crop protection. Growing crops modified for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance could lead to greater production and savings on pesticide use for the producer, as well as an environmental benefit from reduced insecticide use and the toxic effects that come with it. As well, GM foods may be less expensive than non-GM foods for consumers if producers are able to have a more successful crop, without the added expense of pesticides.
Most intergovernmental organizations such as the World Health Organization and the European Commission have supported the safety of GM foods that have passed certain safety standards.
So if there is evidence to show that these foods are safe for consumption, why the controversy on this topic?
A quote from the European Commission's report on European Union-funded GMO research may provide the most reasonable explanation for this: "science can certify the existence of danger, but not its absence." Studies that fail to find evidence of risk can be used to support the argument that a GM food is safe, but they can never confirm that a risk does not exist which can also help to provide fuel for those who do not believe in the safety of GMOs.
Concerns regarding the risks of GM foods have centered on several theories. One more common concern is the possibility of gene manipulation/insertion leading to the creation of new compounds that could be detrimental to human health. Another theory is that the development of GM foods could lead to the formation of new allergens. The creation of anti-nutrients has also been floated as a possible negative component of GM foods. Anti-nutrients can interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, causing the potential for deficiencies.
When it comes to controversial topics in food and nutrition, the opinion of a well-known science and health "expert" can sometimes scaremonger the general public into believing the negative hype generated by that individual. As an example, David Suzuki has strongly opposed GMOs and has said that "any politician or scientist who tells you these [GMO] products are safe is either very stupid or lying."
Unfortunately, by discrediting those who are conducting and communicating the evidence we have available on GMOs, he is contributing to the misinformation surrounding them. Suzuki stepped down from his foundation's board of directors in 2012 amid concerns that his often unsupported, controversial views could jeopardize the foundation's non-profit status in Canada.
Despite those who claim the contrary, Health Canada has not found any published scientific evidence demonstrating that GM foods are less safe than their traditional counterparts. Food products sold in Canada and containing GM ingredients are also not required to be labelled as genetically modified. Food labelling in Canada is only mandatory if there is a health or safety issue with a food, which might be mitigated through labelling. However, there is a standard for volunteer labelling of genetically engineered food for those companies who choose to inform the consumer.
Like many other topics in nutrition, there are still questions left unanswered regarding the benefits and risks associated with GM foods. As new research becomes available, opinions may be swayed one way or another and future Health Canada recommendations will likely need to be re-evaluated.
To find more information and to learn what GM foods have been approved for sale in Canada, go to: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/genetically-modified-foods-other-novel-foods/approved-products.html
-- Kelsey Leckovic is a Registered Dietitian with Northern Health working in chronic disease management.