An Introduction To Genetically Modified Foods

Hello everyone, I am so thrilled to be introducing Lara, my first ever dietetic intern.

Lara is a recent graduate from the Nutrition and Food Program at Ryerson University and is currently completing a portion of her independent internship with yours truly.

Among a host of potential topics, Lara decided to broach perhaps the most challenging of them all: GMOs.

I give her great credit for this choice because addressing this highly controversial topic area in a 3-part blog series is no easy task, but alas someone had to do it.

All articles were reviewed and copy edited by yours truly, and feedback was provided to Lara throughout the developmental process to improve her understanding of what is required to write impactful evidence-based content for the web.

With that out of the way and without further adieu I proudly present you Part I of her three-part investigative writing series on GMOs.

So What are GMOs Anyway?

By Lara Malak

The word GMO means different things to different people, but let’s establish a baseline for today’s discussion by starting with the World Health Organizations (WHO) Definition:

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” 4.

The process of genetically modifying food is done through what is known as genetic engineering. This process involves identifying the gene responsible for a trait of interest, then using biotechnology to isolate and insert that gene into the DNA of the desired organism to prepare for the final step of growing the organism 7.

Although we may think that gene engineering is a new phenomenon, farmers have been doing it for centuries 11. Selective breeding, when organisms with desired traits were mated to produce offspring with the intention of combining these traits, has long been commonplace8.

Let’s look at carrots, for example.

Carrots weren’t always orange.

In fact, they were once white, yellow and purple 3.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that orange carrots were developed. The Dutch, also known as the carrot farmers, used the selective breeding process to grow orange carrots in great abundance. This process was very successful that the production of orange carrots surpassed all the other forms of carrots 3. There isn’t much historical evidence to state why developing a great amount of orange carrots happened, but stories that have been passed down say it’s because the Dutch wanted to honor William III of England – widely known as William of Orange for political reasons 3. This is the reason why today we see an abundance of orange carrots in the grocery stores today.

Different Generations Of GMOs

There are three generational classifications used to describe Genetically Modified foods.

The goal of first-generation of GMOs is to reduce the use of agricultural inputs to control pests, such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers 9. An example of this is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, which has been genetically modified to produce its own toxin to act as a pesticide.

The process of producing the Bt corn involves in isolating the gene from soil bacterium, which produces the Bt bacteria and inserting it into corn’s DNA 6. The first generation of GMOs are mainly used and found in larger-scale industrial agriculture 1.

The second generation of GMOs aim to improve the properties of the crops. Increasing shelf life, improving nutritional value and/or drought and flood tolerances are just some examples of properties that may be targeted 9.

Golden Rice, which has been genetically modified to have more vitamin A, is a prime example. It has been primarily used to help combat malnutrition in countries, in which rice is a staple food 2.

The third generation of GMOs involves producing plant-based pharmaceutical drugs cheaper and more efficiently. These include vaccines, antibodies and therapeutic proteins. Industrial products, such as plastics, cosmetics, enzymes and epoxies are also involved in this generation 5. An example of this is producing edible vaccines for HIV, tooth decay, Hepatitis B from corn, potato, rice, wheat, barley, tomato and banana 5. Their efficiency in which they can be transported and stored and because they largely consumed are the reasons why these particular crops have been selected 5. Many medicines had to be extracted from blood donors, animal parts or even cadavers before GMO existed. This caused problems such as risk of transmission of diseases, unreliable quality and supply.

What Genetically Modified (GM) foods are grown in Canada?

Corn, canola, soybean and sugar beet are the major four GM crops grown in Canada. Although there are only four major GM crops in Canada, there are roughly 85 GM crops have been accepted to be imported into Canada for consumption since 1994 10.

Is Regulation and Labelling Required for GMOs in Canada?

Before the GM products ends up in the hands of the consumers, the products are regulated by Health Canada. Health Canada studies the safety of consuming the product and the effect it has on the environment. The evaluation is done through a rigorous safety assessment, that can take several years to complete 10.

On the other hand, labelling GM products in Canada is not required by the law, like it is in many parts of the world such as Brazil, China, Australia and Denmark, just to name a few. Although, you may have seen a “NON-GMO” label on foods, this is just the willingness of some food companies to include it 10.

Here are some other reasons why food is GM 8:

  • To produce more and for cheaper
  • To have crops bruise less easily
  • To ripen at a slower rate
  • To use less agricultural inputs, such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
  • To enhance nutritional profiles

Final thoughts

Today’s article offers but a brief overview of what GMOs are, why they exist and how they are regulated.

It’s pretty clear that GMO foods appear here to stay, and in my next article I will offer a thorough delineation as to why that is by exploring the benefits they offer to global populations.

The third and final blog, which will follow the benefits piece, will explore the “dark side” of GMOs and ask tough questions about the fears and perceptions of these products effects on our health and the environment.

Hope you guys will join me on my continued exploration of this very hot topic!




  1. Dowd-Uribe, B. (2017). GMOs and poverty: Definitions, methods and the silver bullet paradox. Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue Canadienne d’Études Du Développement, 38(1), 129-138. doi:10.1080/02255189.2016.1208608
  2. Dubock, A. C. (2009). Crop conundrum. Nutrition Reviews, 67(1), 17-20. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2008.00137.x
  3. Fenlon, W. (2012). Why the Carrot is Orange: Blame the Prince of Orange. Retrieved from
  4. Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods. (2017). Retrieved from
  5. Kim, T., & Yang, M. (2010). Current trends in edible vaccine development using transgenic plants. Biotechnology and Bioprocess Engineering: BBE, 15(1), 61-65. doi:
  6. Niederhuber, M. (2015). Insecticidal plants: the tech and safety of GM Bt crops. Harvard University; The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved from http://
  7. Powell, C. (2015). How to Make a GMO. Retrieved from
  8. Rangel, G. (2016). From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology. Retrieved from
  9. Stewart, P. A., & McLean, W. P. (2005). Public opinion toward the first, second, and third generations of plant biotechnology. In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology. Plant, 41(6), 718-724. doi:10.1079/IVP2005703
  10. Understanding Genetically Modified Foods. (2018). Retrieved from
  11. Zilberman, D., Holland, T. G., & Trilnick, I. (2018). Agricultural GMOs—What we know and where scientists disagree. Sustainability, 10(5), 1514. doi: