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Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Genetic modification (GM) refers to organisms where the genetic material has been changed through any method, including traditional methods like selective breeding.

Genetic engineering (GE) is used when a gene has been taken from one organism and put into another.

In Canada, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) used as food or feed must be approved before gaining access to the market. The approval process is covered by numerous regulations and is done by Health Canada for foods, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for seeds and livestock feed, and Environment Canada for new substances intended for environmental release. Approval is required for both locally produced and imported products.

GMOs for food purposes are classified as novel foods, a category of foods including products never used before as food; or foods that have been produced in a new way, such as genetic engineering (GE); or foods altered by traditional methods such as selective breeding. All novel foods are evaluated by Health Canada for possible safety concerns for humans, animals, and the environment. Approved foods are listed in Health Canada's Novel Food Decision list. Feeds approved by the CFIA are listed in the Decision Document - Determination of Environmental and Livestock Feed Safety. To date, all GM foods are from plants. There are no genetically engineered animals approved for food use in Canada.

The safety assessment of a GM food takes between 7 to 10 years. The producer(s) of the GM food must get information about the safety issues relevant to the product and about regulatory requirements. A proposal is then submitted to the appropriate government agency, where a full safety assessment is done with full scientific testing. Things considered in the testing process include:

  • how the GMOs were developed (what genes and technologies were involved);

  • the composition and nutritional quality of the product;

  • the potential for toxins or allergens;

  • the ability to become weeds or invasive species, or to otherwise disrupt the local ecology, if the GMO is to be released into the environment.

The safety evaluation mostly focuses on the differences that are identified between a GM and its conventional counterpart. Most of the conventional food consumed does not require safety assessments; they are assumed safe due to a long history of safe use. GM foods go through much more safety testing than non-GM foods.

There is no requirement for labeling of GM foods, unless there is a health or safety risk that can be avoided through a warning on the label, or if the nutritional quality has been changed compared to the original food. Labeling is voluntary under the Canada-wide standard entitledVoluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods that Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering.

Approved Genetically Modified Organisms in Canada

As of April 2008, 104 novel foods and processes have been approved by Health Canada, and 71 novel feeds were approved by the CFIA. The Novel Food Decision list on the Health Canada web site has approved novel foods and descriptions of how they were evaluated. Not all the foods on this list are genetically engineered; the list also includes novel processes, feeds, and additives. Certain crops on the list may not be grown in Canada, like papayas, and are imported from foreign countries. The availability of novel foods in local grocery stores depends on several factors, such as availability, growing season, and the market. Some approved novel foods are no longer available.

The most common novel traits of GM crops are herbicide tolerance, such as glyphosate resistance; and resistance to insects, via toxins originally produced by the bacterium Bacillusthuringiensis (Bt). Glyphosate resistance in wheat (Round-up Ready® wheat by Monsanto) was the subject of much debate until 2004, when Agriculture and Agri-FoodCanada stopped its development. Glyphosate resistant corn, cotton, soybeans, maize, sugarbeets and canola are approved in Canada.

Certain crops may have both GE and non-GE varieties approved for the same trait; for example, herbicide tolerant canola and corn exist in both GE and non-GE forms. A number of less-common novel traits are approved, including tomato with delayed ripening; potato, squash, and papayas that are resistant to viruses; omega-3 enhanced eggs and wine yeasts.

Information Sources

Agricultural and Biotechnology Strategies. (2008). GM Database. Retrieved from,http://www.agbios.com/dbase.php (Page no longer available)

Canadian Food Inspection Agency. (2008). Decision Documents - Determination of Environmental and Livestock Feed Safety. Retrieved from,http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/plaveg/bio/dde.shtml

Canadian General Standards Board. (2006). Voluntary labeling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering. Retrieved from, http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/cgsb/on_the_net/032_0315/standard-e.html 
New link: 
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/other-requirements/method-of-production/ge-factsheet/eng/1333373177199/1333373638071

Health Canada. (2008). Novel Food Decisions. Retrieved from, http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/gmf-agm/appro/index_e.html

Thompson, S. (2004, January 16). Canada abandons development of Roundup Ready wheat.The New Standard. Retrieved from, http://newstandardnews.net/

Health Canada. (2005). The Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods. Retrieved from,http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/sr-sr/pubs/biotech/reg_gen_mod_e.html

Date modified: 2012-07-31

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