A primer on GMOs

GMO All You Need To Know

What are GMOs?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are the result of a laboratory process of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another species in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic: they are also known as “transgenic organisms.” This process may be called either genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM).

Genetic engineering is quite distinct from selective breeding. Whereas selective breeding occurs through mating or cross pollinating two somewhat similar organisms, genetic engineering uses transgenic or recombinant DNA technology to transfer genes across species.

One example of such a cross is Bt corn, a seed variety developed by Monsanto to include genes taken from the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis.  Bt is toxic to the European corn borer, an insect that eats and destroys corn stems. Bt corn is thus resistant to such insect attacks.

But with such different physiologies, corn and bacteria would not naturally meet to exchange genetic information. This gene exchange could only occur in a scientific lab.

Two varieties of corn however, could cross pollinate from pollen being carried and transferred by the wind. A lab is not needed to share genes in this case.

GMOs and Food

Many products have been developed using genetic modification. More than 70% of the foods on our supermarket shelves contain derivatives of the eight GM foods on the market, including: soy, corn, oil from canola and cottonseed, sugar from sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, and a small amount of zucchini and crook neck squash. Most bird seed and livestock feeds also contain GMO ingredients.

The reasons for their development range from reducing pesticide use on crops, to increasing nutrition and crop yields. However there are concerns about the presence of GMOs in our food, including potential impacts on human health, the environment, the economy and traditional cultures.

With no clear answer as to whether the potential costs of using GMO’s are outweighed by potential benefits, many citizens are asking that foodstuffs with GM ingredients be labeled. In this way, consumers can make more informed choices about the products they eat and the companies they support. Labeling allows the consumer to decide whether they feel comfortable buying and eating food with genetically modified ingredients.

Mandatory labeling of food with GM ingredients exists in the European Union, Russia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Mandatory labeling does not exist in Canada, however recent changes have made it easier for companies to voluntarily label GM-ingredient containing foods.

As a member of various free trade organizations, Canada is obliged to prevent barriers to trade. Up until recently, labeling food items with GM ingredients was considered to be a barrier to trade and doing so would incur severe penalties, imposed by the free trade group. A new bill (Bill C-257) has been introduced by Alex Atamanenko, MP for BC’s Southern Interior and the Agriculture Critic for the NDP, which would see mandatory labeling of GM foods. For additional information about labeling GM food and recent progress, visit the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network’s website.

What to do?

The debate about GMO’s has many factors to consider. There are undoubtedly potential benefits and potential risks. Balancing the two is a matter of personal choice, however this is only possible if the public has access to the information they need to make an informed decision. Labeling GM food is one part of enabling informed decision-making. For more information about specific risks and benefits, look to a variety of sources with good credibility. Check out our list of resources for some examples.


Take Action

  1. Support Bill C-257, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act and instate mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.
  2. Contact your local MP’s office to find out how they are representing your interests regarding GMOs.
  3. Contact Gerry Ritz, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food, to express your concerns or support Bill C-257 via email at: gerry.ritz@parl.gc.ca
  4. Talk to your local farmers and ask them what their stance is on GMOs and why.
  5. To avoid products with GM ingredients, check out the Greenpeace Shopper’s Guide, or the Non-GMO Shopping Guide for avoiding GE foods


More Information

We have scoured the web to find some interesting and useful pages about GMOs. Here is a small list, if you want a full list, visit our GMO Resource Page.

Union of Concerned Scientists: Current Uses of Biotechnology in Agriculture
The Union of Concerned Scientists, founded at MIT, is a science-based non profit organization…

Local MP Jean Crowder: Analysing the Effects of GE Seeds
Local MP Jean Crowder speaks at the House of Commons, in favour of the NDP bill to analyse the…

Farmer to Farmer: The Truth About GM Crops
A short documentary following British farmer Michael Hart as he investigates the reality of farming…

Deconstructing Dinner Podcasts
An archive of podcasts from previously syndicated radio show, Deconstructing Dinner. Hosted by Jon…

Click here to view all our GMO resources.