Are GMOs safe?

Despite some uncertainty and fear about genetically modified foods, people in the know believe they will become an increasingly important element in the worldwide food supply.

These days, consumers are seeking greater visibility into the farms, ingredient sources and supply chain of the food they eat. Genetically modified organism (GMO) transparency is among the most prioritized details, and shoppers are demanding new depths of information on how they are regulated since GMOs and biotech foods have generated controversy among activists concerned about the safety of these poorly-understood products.

Essentially, a GM food is one derived from an organism that has had some of its heritable traits changed. This can involve traditional techniques of crossbreeding, using chemicals or radiation to change the genetic structure of an organism’s cells, or introducing a gene from one species into another, as occurs with recombinant DNA activity.

No matter how they are produced, GM foods are regulated by Health Canada, which is responsible for establishing standards for the safety and nutritional quality of all foods sold in Canada under the purview of the novel foods program of Health Canada’s Food Directorate. The regulatory framework put in place by the federal government ensures new and modified foods can be safely introduced into the Canadian diet. Safety assessment approaches are well established to address the potential risks associated with foods.

Since the program’s inception, more than 180 novel foods, including whole foods, food products and food ingredients, and novel processes, have been approved for sale in Canada. Of these, over 120 are considered to be GM foods. They range from insect-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant canola to genetically modified yeasts that reduce levels of unwanted compounds in wine.

Canada is one of the world’s top producers of a handful of GM crops, including canola, soybean, corn and sugar beets, most of which are exported to different countries around the world.

After 24 years of reviewing the safety of novel foods, Health Canada has found no published scientific evidence demonstrating novel foods are any less safe than traditional foods. It is not currently mandatory for GM foods to be labelled in Canada, so it can be difficult to know if a food product contains GM ingredients. However, as the Eat Right Ontario organization has noted, some food companies choose to label their products GMO-free.

Overall, Health Canada is responsible for food labelling policies with respect to health and safety. The department does require special labelling of all food products, including GM foods, where there are clear, scientifically established health risks or significant nutritional changes that might be mitigated through labelling, such as the presence of an allergen in food. In these situations, labelling is required to alert customers or susceptible groups in the population at large.

Should any GM food product assessed by Health Canada be determined to require labelling for health and safety reasons, the department would act immediately to ensure appropriate labelling is made. Health Canada also works with the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and the Canadian General Standards Board to develop a Canadian voluntary standard for labelling of GM foods.

To be sure, however, GMOs are not without their critics and opponents. For example, John Fagan, PhD, executive director of Earth Open Source Institute, and an early voice in the scientific debate on GMOs, is distressed with the relatively rapid growth of GMOs since the early 1990s.

“The introduction of GM crops and foods represents an unprecedented development in the history of agriculture,” Fagan said on the Earth Open Source website. “Never before has the nature of the food supply and the manner in which crops are grown been so fundamentally altered in such a short period of time.”

A similar criticism comes from the Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch organization. In a 2016 overview of GMOs, the organization suggested GMOs have not been proven entirely safe and that existing regulatory oversight 
is insufficient.

LACK OF CHOICE

This lobby group alleges that GMO food relies on dangerous pesticides and increases the control of corporations like Monsanto over food sources. Food & Water Watch also claims the rules for approving GMO crops and foods need to be overhauled and that GMO products should be labeled so people have a choice in what they eat.

“The potential long-term risks from eating GMO food are unknown,” it says. “The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) contends that there is not sufficient scientific evidence demonstrating that ingesting these foods leads to chronic harm. But GMO varieties became the majority of the US corn crop only in 2005 and the majority of the US soybean crop only in 2000. The potential cumulative, long-term risks have not been studied. These considerations should be critical in determining the safety of a product prior to approval, and not left to attempt to assess once the product is on the market.”

Neil Strand, a senior scientific evaluator in the novel foods section of Canada’s Food Directorate, suggests regulatory oversight is already robust and effective. “We are constantly looking at our approach in the assessment of all novel foods, not just GMOs,” Strand says. “We are looking to improve the regulatory system for the products but we also take a case-by-case approach, so when people come in with the product, we make sure we are requesting the studies relevant to that product to ensure it is safe before it gets on the market. We give ourselves some flexibility to ensure we’re reviewing the product appropriately.”

The Food Directorate has a time standard of 410 days from receipt of application to potential approval, so it is clearly not a rushed process.

As to charges from environmental and food industry activists that GMO regulation leaves something to be desired, Strand has a ready response. “We are certainly aware that criticism exists but our regulatory approach is based on international guidance and is the approach used not only in Canada and the US but around the world,” he says. “It is based on scientific principles to ensure these products are safe before they get on the market, and we are continually reviewing our system to ensure we are both up to date on the science and we have an appropriate approach to ensure safety.”

Health Canada outlines the full gamut of its regulatory oversight through its website and published material. A basic GMO assessment includes a review of how a particular food crop was developed, including the biological data underlying the genetic change. Assessors also compare GMO material with non-GMO counterparts in terms of nutrition, and the presence of possible toxins or allergens.

In Canada, regulation of GMOs also includes the principle of substantial equivalence. This approach allows the regulatory agency to review the substantial history of information related to foods that have long been safely consumed in the human diet. This comprehensive approach assists in the identification of potential safety and nutritional issues with GMOs.

Health Canada also ensures its novel food/GMO evaluators have the necessary scientific and regulatory capacity to regulate products of biotechnology, especially as the science continues to advance and new products are proposed for commercialization.

Federal regulators say they keep pace by using the best technology available and by continually reviewing the effectiveness of its approach. Officials say assessment of the safety of biotechnology-derived foods in Canada reflects more than a decade of work by international experts working through such agencies as the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, Codex Alimentarius Commission and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

INDUSTRY GIANTS

Despite this formidable array of expertise and experience, food activists suggest regulation of GMOs has been hurried, and that food industry giants like Monsanto, Dow and BASF have too much influence within the wider food industry.

One analyst countering the claims of GMO opponents is Stuart Smyth, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Saskatchewan, who also operates a popular blog dealing with innovations in agriculture and food science. He has total confidence in the effectiveness of Canada’s GMO regulation. “Canada’s regulatory framework for GM crops was carefully and deliberately developed over a period from 1988 to 1994,” Smyth told Engineering Dimensions. “During this process, various discussion documents were prepared that assessed various potential risks about these new plant-breeding technologies, and regulations were drafted, based on scientific rational.”

Smyth adds that requirements for plants with novel traits are based on the science of the product and not the process used to create the product. The first GM products approved were done in 1995 and for 23 years Canada’s regulatory system has consistently approved safe crop varieties and food, he says.

Smyth also defends the US system of GMO regulation and suggests that most anti-GMO activists are indulging in the politicization of science to further their own agendas. “Those critical of innovation in agriculture are unable to ground their argument in science and rely on the general lack of knowledge the public possesses about the technology and science behind crop and food production to deliberately launch campaigns that prey on this lack of awareness to demonize the food products,” Smyth says. “There are nearly 1000 journal articles that quantify some type of benefit from GM crops yet these [anti-GMO] organizations routinely say there are no benefits about GM crops. They have invested so heavily in this tactic that they have boxed themselves into a corner and are unable to admit that there are any benefits from GM crops or foods. Yield increases, fewer environmental impacts and more profit for farmers are all ignored in favour of scaring the public about GM foods, as this raises money for their lobbying campaigns.”

Smyth says GMO regulation remains effective and that it has evolved since the early 1990s when GMO first came onto the market. Nonetheless, he sees some room for enhancement. “Greater insights into the system of rules that underpin regulatory frameworks for agri-food and biotechnology products in genetically modified crop-adopting nations will provide value by clarifying the evidence used to commercialize these technologies,” he adds. 

ROLE FOR ENGINEERS

Smyth says plants with novel traits are regulated based on allergenicity, toxicity and impacts on non-target organisms. “As science evolves, such as with synthetic biology now, there could also be increased roles for engineers in these areas,” he says. “Gene drives are being constructed and it is possible that engineers could be involved in this process as well.”

Belinda Elysee-CollenP.Eng., a Toronto-based engineer with more than 20 years of experience in the food industry, is deeply concerned about food safety through her involvement with the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology but believes the main issues surrounding GMOs include ethics, the environment and personal choice. “There is no published evidence that GMO products are not safe to eat,” she says. “If a GMO-created product is not safe to eat, then they are not approved for human consumption by Health Canada or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. There are many alternatives to GMO source foods and ingredients, so the consumer does not have any problem avoiding them if they so choose.”

Debate over GMO regulation invites some thought as to the overall contribution of professional engineers to agriculture and the wider food industry. In a recent blog, Robb Fraley, the chief technology officer at Monsanto—a prime target of anti-GMO lobbyists—suggests engineers and other specialists are approaching a watershed moment in agriculture and food production. “As a result of the integration of farming, science and engineering, growers have access to meaningful insights and innovations that enable them to farm more precisely using fewer resources and produce more on each acre of land,” Fraley wrote in a recent LinkedIn post. “Our global population is growing dramatically, yet the resources of our planet are not. We need to significantly increase our food supply by 2050 to keep pace with predicted population growth, and we must do so safely and environmentally sustainably in the areas of land, water and energy.”

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