Here's what Canadians need to know about genetically modified and gene-edited foods
TORONTO -- Scientists are growing genetically edited tomato plants that can produce twice as many tomatoes. Mushrooms are tweaked so that they do not go brown. There’s an American restaurant chain that uses a special, soybean plant-based oil, genetically edited to produce less saturated fats and zero trans fats.
Gene-editing sounds similar to genetically modified organisms (GMO), but uses a relatively new technique, CRISPR, which makes gene editing simpler, cheaper and significantly faster.
It is a revolutionary tool that can “edit” genetic material with high precision, by turning a gene off or introducing a variation, to create higher-yielding, more nutritious, and disease-resistant crops, for example. Unlike GMOs, foreign genes from other species are not added in, though the changes are permanent and can be passed on through seeds. Researchers are using the tool to try and solve a wide range of food-related challenges. Gene-edited crops have the potential to keep croplands productive despite changing climates and could also reduce farmers’ reliance on fertilizers. It could also make raising livestock more efficient, more sustainable, and more humane.
Genetically modified foods, on the other hand, have been around for decades and use genetic engineering to transfer or introduce new genes. Canola, for example, is a genetically modified product, created by humans in a lab in Manitoba. But GMOs, sometimes pejoratively dubbed “Frankenfoods,” have faced criticism by consumers, environmentalists and others concerned over health safety and the environmental impact mixing genes from different species might cause.
The general consensus among scientists and such international bodies as the World Health Organization, and the U.S.-based FDA and the National Institutes of Health, however, is that genetically modified foods remain safe to eat.
While there are no gene-edited foods on Canadian grocery shelves at the moment, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in Food Distribution and Policy at Dalhousie University, says it’s likely inevitable they will be one day.
“If it’s happening in the United States, eventually it will come to Canada,” he told CTV’s Your Morning. “When you look at Health Canada regulations, certifications and approvals aren’t necessary at this point, so that's why you’re likely going to see gene-edited foods in our supply chain without any approvals whatsoever.”
Unlike the European Union, which typically regulates based on the process to make the food, North American regulators tend to look at final outcomes, Charlebois said.
“So if we don’t see a difference, certification isn’t necessarily required.”
In the European Union, labelling is required on all food products containing more than 0.9 per cent of approved GMOs and must be traceable to its origin.
“In Canada, we have a voluntary (GMO) labelling policy,” said Charlebois. “The reality is that 75 to 80 per cent of everything you see in a grocery store that’s been processed would have a genetic modified ingredient - and really, you can’t tell as a consumer.”