What’s the GMO Situation in Canada?

by Melissa Diane Smith, author of Going Against GMOs

When it comes to avoiding GMOs at the grocery store, Americans and Canadians are pretty much in the same boat. However, there are a few differences.

A shortened version of the information I gathered on this topic appeared in “How to Avoid GMOs at the Grocery Store” by Gail Johnson on Yahoo Canada.

GMO Situation in CanadaGenetically modified foods entered the Canadian food system 20 years ago, yet most people don’t know they’ve been eating them because those foods aren’t labeled. That’s because mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods isn’t required in Canada (or in the United States) like it is in 64 other countries around the world. But even without mandatory labeling, there’s a growing movement of people who are concerned about genetically modified foods and want to avoid them.

Here I answer questions of interest to Canadians about the controversial issues surrounding GMOs, why there’s a movement of people who want to avoid them, and how people can learn to avoid GMOs when they shop.

What exactly are GMOs, and why are they important?

GMOs are genetically modified organisms, also known as genetically modified foods. GMOs look the same as foods grown naturally, but they are created in a laboratory and very different on the inside: They’re most often genetically engineered to produce their own internal insecticide or to be herbicide tolerant—to resist (and not die from) repeated applications of herbicide such as Roundup. Many times, they have both of these traits.

GMOs are important because they’ve become what I consider to be the food issue of our time, yet many people still don’t know much about them. The more people learn about them, the more people want GMOs labeled, and the more people want to avoid them.

A 2015 national Ipsos Reid poll commissioned by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network found that 88 percent of Canadians want genetically modified (GM) foods labeled on grocery store shelves, and more than half oppose genetically modifying crops and animals to produce food.

Why should people stay away from GMO foods?

In both Canada and the United States, there’s a growing movement of people who want to avoid GMO foods, and there are many reasons for that.

For one thing, most people simply don’t like the fact that companies don’t want to disclose whether GMOs are in their food. A key question that arises in consumers’ minds is if GMOs are safe and healthy for us, why would companies want to hide the presence of GMOs in their products? Canadian teen non-GMO labeling advocate Rachel Parent, the founder of Kids Right to Know, speaks out often about this issue.[1]

Poll results have revealed that six in ten Canadians are not confident in government safety and the regulatory systems for GM foods. Many people are concerned about potential health risks from eating GM foods. There’s good reason for that: Animal research suggests possible serious health risks associated with eating GM foods, including infertility, immune system problems, gastrointestinal problems, organ changes, and tumors.

Most genetically modified crops on the market are sprayed with large amounts of herbicides, including those that have been declared probable and possible carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), and they pollute our land and water and get on and in our food. The herbicide that is used on most GM crops kills frogs, and it also kills milkweed, the primary food for Monarch butterflies. So, there are big environmental concerns.

There are also farmer’s rights and food security reasons to want to avoid GMOs. Chemical companies have been purchasing more of the world’s seeds, genetically modifying them, and patenting them, so a handful of companies control our seed and food supply—and farmers can no longer save and pass down those patented seeds. When people realize that corporations have been taking over control and ownership of more of our food for their benefit, they realize it’s an anti-democratic issue. Many want to stand against it, which is why the non-GMO movement is growing like wildfire.

What should people look for when buying food to avoid GMOs?

To avoid GMOs, shoppers need to learn that there are 11 primary at-risk GM foods commonly found in grocery stores. They can remember those foods as 3 Cs, 2 Ss, 2 As, 2 Ps, a Y and a Z. They are:[2]

  • Corn (as in corn oil, cornmeal, cornstarch, corn syrup, hominy, polenta, and other corn-based ingredients)
  • Canola (as in canola oil)
  • Cottonseed (as in cottonseed oil)
  • Sugar Beets (as in “sugar” in an ingredient, which is almost certainly a combination of sugar from both sugar cane and GM sugar beets)
  • Soybeans (as in soybean oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, soy milk, tofu, and other soy-based ingredients)
  • Alfalfa, which is fed to livestock[3]
  • Apple, which could be arriving in some stores in Canada this fall[4]
  • Papaya (from Hawaii and China), often in fruit juices and other processed foods[5]
  • Potatoes (GMO non-browning varieties, which were approved by Health Canada in March and could be in Canadian supermarkets this fall)[6]
  • Yellow Squash and Zucchini (a small amount of imported varieties of these vegetables grown in the U.S. are GMO)

Consumers can avoid the genetically modified foods entirely or choose those foods only when they are labeled Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified. Avoiding processed convenience foods goes a long way in helping you avoid the most common GMOs.

What’s the difference between Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified foods?

Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified label are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s only third party standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients.

Products that are labeled Organic cannot contain any GMO ingredients. They also must be produced with strict limits and prohibitions on the use of irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, and synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.[7] However, some GM crops such as corn can spread through wind drift and contaminate organic crops, and organic certification does not require testing for GMOs. So, for the most protection against GMOs, choose products with both the Non-GMO Project Verified label and the Organic label—or just avoid foods made with the 11 direct sources of GMOs.

What else is important to know about how to avoid GMOs?

In addition to the direct sources of GMOs, there are also indirect sources of GMOs that can be avoided. Conventional meat, eggs, and dairy products are often raised on feed that contains GMOs. The best way to avoid these is to switch to eating organically raised beef and chicken, wild-caught fish, and organic eggs and dairy products. Look for meat , eggs, and milk products clearly labeled as organic, and preferably organic and 100% grass-fed. Or look for fish, poultry, eggs, meat, and milk products labeled as Non-GMO Project Verified.

Canadian consumers also should know that this May, amidst environmental and transparency concerns, health authorities in Canada approved the sale of genetically modified salmon, making it the first genetically altered animal to be allowed for consumption in the country. All genetically altered foods previously approved by Health Canada and allowed on the market have been crops. The genetically changed salmon is said to be ready for sale in 16-18 months, while conventional fish need up to three years to come to the market. The eggs of the salmon are produced at a facility in Prince Edward Island, and fish mature into adults at a farm in Panama. The environmental groups, Ecology Action Centre (EAC) and Living Oceans Society, filed a lawsuit and are continuing their challenge to allow production of GM salmon in Prince Edward Island,[8] and the EAC in Nova Scotia also has joined with U.S. environmental groups to sue the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approving GM salmon.[9]

The salmon is scheduled to appear on Canadian supermarket shelves within 18 months, and like all GMO products in Canada, if it comes to market, it will not be labeled.[10] However, nearly 80 major food retailers with more than 11,000 stores in North America have pledged to not purchase or sell genetically engineered salmon.[11] Ask the supermarket where you shop in Canada if it has pledged not to sell GM salmon.

Another important thing to know is that although the use of genetically modified recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production in cows is banned in Canada, it is not banned in the United States. In Canadian supermarkets, rBGH can be hidden in some imported products from the U.S., such as milk solids and powder and frozen desserts with milk. The best way to avoid this hidden GMO, once again, is to seek out organic or Non-GMO Project Verified milk products.

Going Against GMOs can be purchased on Amazon and on Amazon Canada.

Copyright 2016 Melissa Diane Smith


[1] Email interview with Rachel Parent, June 27, 2014, and https://www.facebook.com/KidsRightToKnow.

[2] GE Crops and Foods (On the Market). Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-On-the-Market.

[3] Genetically Modified (GM) Alfalfa in Canada Update and Background – April 5, 2016. http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-Not-on-the-Market/Alfalfa/GM-Alfalfa-Update-and-Background-April-5-2016.

[4] Apple: Canada Approves GM Apple. Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, March 23, 2015, http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-Not-on-the-Market/Apple.

[5] http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-On-the-Market.

[6] Canada approves GMO potato. GM Watch, March 23, 2016. http://www.gmwatch.org/news/latest-news/16831-canada-approves-gmo-potato.

[7] What Does Organic Mean? Think Canada Organic. http://thinkcanadaorganic.ca/organic101/.

[8] Auld, Alison. Environmental groups challenge approval of genetically modified salmon eggs. CTV/The Canadian Press, November 15, 2015, http://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/environmental-groups-challenge-approval-of-genetically-modified-salmon-eggs-1.2659233.

[9] GE Fish: GM Fish Approved by Health Canada. Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Fish.

[10] Canada approves ‘safe and nutritious’ genetically modified salmon. RT, May 20, 2016. https://www.rt.com/business/343757-canada-gmo-salmon-safe/.

[11] Campaign for GE Free Seafood. Friends of the Earth, http://www.foe.org/gefreeseafood.

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