The state of GM foods in Canada & USA

Lucy Sharratt from CBAN speaking about genetically modified foods

Chances are, your shelves are full of genetically modified foods, but you probably don’t even know it because these “products” do not require labeling. Top GM foods are canola, sugar, soy and corn and these foods find their way into everything from chocolate bars and ketchup, to canola oil, yogurt and non-fat ice cream. The latest threat is now meat, as genetically engineered pork and salmon might be hitting grocery shelves shortly if we can’t stop Health Canada and the FDA from approving them.

Loaded with questions on this subject, I attended a seminar held by Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) for a lecture on the state of genetically engineered foods in both Canada and United States.  This is what I learned from them.

What is it?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) or genetically engineered foods (GE) refer to having the genes of one plant (and now animals) altered with the gene of another organism. Perhaps you have heard the example of a tomato containing the genes of a fish? Monsanto, is the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered seeds and owns about 86% of all seeds.

The subject is often confusing and most information is not accessible to the public so we don’t always know what is actually going on.

Crops genetically engineered in Canada:

  1. Soy
  2. Canola
  3. Corn
  4. (White) sugar beets

*Note: Lantic sugar, the only company in Canada that processes sugar beets, just bought Rogers sugar. Info on whether or not Rogers sugar will now contain or be GM is considered trade secret and has not been released to the public. Buyer beware!

Crops genetically engineered in United States:

  1. Soy
  2. Canola
  3. Corn
  4. (White) sugar beets
  5. Cotton
  6. Papaya (Hawaii)
  7. Squash
  8. Zucchini

*Note: Just because this is happening in the states does not mean it does not affect Canada since US exports food to us.

What do we know?

GM foods first came onto the market in 1995 with promises of making food more nutritious, contain more cancer fighting properties, increase crop yields and decrease costs for farmers. At the time, Monsanto’s slogan was “Food, health, hope”.

Fast forward 15 years and we see that Monsanto has not fulfilled their promises to the public, and in some cases, the opposite has happened. They have, however, fulfilled their corporate promise (increase profit). Coincidentally, they have also changed their slogan to “Imagine”.

  • Farmers costs have actually increased due to increased costs of GM seeds and increased harvesting costs due to manual labour now being required because of superweeds.
  • More chemicals are sprayed on crops because of superweeds (from repeated use of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) which has necessitated stronger and older technology herbicides being used.
  • Threat to organic farmers losing their ‘organic license’ due to contamination of GM seeds flying onto organic farms.
  • World hunger still exists. This is a complicated one because world famine has more to do with political factors and the massive amount of meat consumption in the western world than traditional farming methods not producing enough food. I can’t remember the exact figure but I’ve heard that 70% of worldwide agriculture space is reserved for crops to feed livestock instead of humans. I’ve also heard that a reduction of just 10% of meat would allow us to grow enough crops to feed the rest of the world.

Safety of GM foods:

According to CBAN, Health Canada doesn’t conduct any of its own safety tests on GM foods but relies on data submitted by the product developer instead. The data is classified as “Confidential Business Information” and is not accessible to the public or independent scientists.

The majority of studies are conducted on mice or livestock and last no longer than 90 days which is just not long enough to understand the full effects of genetically modified foods on the human body. Ideally, a study should last 15 years but who would fund that? The agenda of these companies is to get a new crop approved as fast as possible to start making money off it.

Effects on livestock fed GM foods:

  • Increased infertility
  • Spontaneous abortions (miscarriages)
  • Liver & kidney damage
  • Sudden bird deaths in communities where GM crops are grown (i.e. corn)

Ethical problems with GM foods:

  • Completely undemocratic: Canadians (and probably Americans) were never given the opportunity to decide if they wanted the introduction of GM foods in our food system.
  • No government mandatory labels: We, as consumers, should have the right to know what we put into our bodies but our governments believe we don’t. They prefer protecting companies from loss of profits due to mandatory labeling than our health. If our government wants to approve these foods, fine, but then at least allow us the ability to decide if we want to purchase them or not!
  • No transparency or public consultations.

In Canada:

  • Bovine growth hormone (cows) originally approved by Health Canada, was overturned thanks to 4 whistleblowers at Health Canada who could only come forward because of public pressure and support from farmers.
  • Canada banned GM wheat. Monsanto has since relaunched their campaign to get it approved by Health Canada.
  • GM potatoes were taken off the market by Monsanto thanks to McCain french fries because they export to Europe and Europe does not allow the importation of GM foods (for the moment).

Next foods to be genetically modified:

  1. Rice
  2. Wheat
  3. Apples
  4. Salmon
  5. Pork (aka Enviropig TM)

What consumers can do to protect themselves?

  1. Buy organic – since labeling of GM foods or ingredients is not mandatory, this is the only way to avoid it as organic foods cannot contain GM ingredients or be genetically modified.
  2. Avoid products that contain soy lecithan, high fructose corn syrup and canola oil which are highly genetically modified ingredients and find their way into processed foods (cereals, cookies, breads, soy powders, chocolate bars etc.).
  3. Visit cban.ca for more info and current government petitions.

In conclusion:

For every study that say GM foods are not harmful to human health, there is another one that says they are. And what’s their definition of safe; doesn’t produce cancer in a mouse after 90 days? Who’s to say that we know everything we need to know about it now? I, for one, do not want to be a guinea pig for the next 20 years so some biotech company can earn profits off me.

The politics of food is now a battle of quantity versus quality with GM foods promoting higher yields and organic foods promoting nutrition. Mother nature gave us everything we would ever need to be healthy, and yet we’re trying to grow food in labs.

If you are morally ok eating food that has had its genes altered, then fine.  I, however, will be choosing organic.

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