Just what foods are GM?

Posted on June 17, 2013

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by Stuart Smyth

GM-tomato-on-forkOver the past month or so, there have been numerous protests against biotechnology firms and products. Many of the signs that people were shown waving in the protests were perplexing to say the least. Demonstrations of this nature do raise the question as to what foods could be constituted as GM foods.

In Canada, it has been estimated that genetically modified (GM) foods and food ingredients are detectable in 11% of foods consumed and might be present (but often not detectable) in up to 75% of the processed foods sold in stores. Examples of this include cheeses that contain GM enzymes and gum that uses sweeteners derived from GM corn. The use of GM ingredients in food processing is predominantly for minor additives that are a small fraction of the total content of the food product. While it would be difficult to define gum as a food product, sweeteners derived from GM corn are used in a wide variety of consumables.

In terms of whole food products that we might consume, there are two products that are GM and could be included in our diet. GM papaya and GM sweet corn are both currently produced for human consumption. An estimated 85% of papaya produced in Hawaii is from GM varieties. In the early 1990s, the Hawaiian papaya industry was facing a devastating virus that was rapidly reducing production to the point of it no longer being economically feasible. Virus resistance was bred into the GM varieties, resulting in a current strong and healthy industry. In December of 2011, the Japanese government approved the importation of GM papaya after a 13 year assessment process.

GM sweet corn is estimated to account for about 40% of sweet corn production in the US, based on seed sales. Prior to GM sweet corn, the only way for producers to minimize the presence of insects in their fields was to spray insecticides, and to do this often. In the US, sweet corn accounts for less than 1% of total corn acres, but accounts for 40% of insecticide applications. Some estimates suggest that producers are able to reduce their insecticide use by 85%.

Two other GM whole foods have appeared on the market, but were subsequently withdrawn. GM tomatoes were produced in the US, but the cost of production was substantially higher than the benefits of a longer shelf life. GM potatoes that required fewer insecticides were also briefly available, until the fast food industry rejected using them due to pressures from the environmental non-governmental organizations. The incredibly ironic thing was that producers had reported that prior to using GM potatoes, heavy rains would wash the insecticides from the fields to the waterways, killing fish.With less insecticide use on the GM potatoes, fish kills noticeably declined. A logical person would see the decline in fish kills as an environmental benefit.

None of the other whole foods that we consume as part of our daily diet are GM. GM varieties of canola and soybeans exist, but are not consumed as whole foods, but are rather used as ingredients in animal feed. In terms of an average human’s annual diet, the consumption of whole GM foods would account for a fraction.

Food production has always been based on the premise of ‘producing more with less.’ GM sweet corn is a good example of this as the use of insecticides is substantially decreased. The same could be said of the short life of GM potatoes.

Ultimately, consumers want to purchase safe, nutritious food. Whether the food product is a whole GM food or a processed food that includes GM ingredients, the products we purchase are safe. Consumption of such products are not an issue of concern for the vast majority of Canadian consumers given the lack of labeling for GM content. If consumers truly demanded labeling for GM the food industry would comply with this demand. The fact that they have not, indicates that only a small percentage of consumers have indicated a preference for product labeling.

As the global population continues its surge towards 9 billion, the consumption of GM foods will need to increase. Protesting the production of GM foods is a luxury afforded to affluent societies. As the Food and Agriculture Organization has indicated that in order to meet growing demands, the production of agricultural products will need to increase by an estimated 70% worldwide, and by almost 100% in developing countries. That long-held staple of agriculture, ‘produce more with less’ supports the increased production of GM foods.

Related articles:

Papaya: A GMO success story
Japan approves sale of Hawaii's genetically modified papayas
GM potato research raises hope, history and controversy in Ireland
Health Canada: Genetically Modified (GM) and other novel foods Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S
Dr. Stuart Smyth
is a Research Scientist at the University of Saskatchewan