Canola and GMOs: True or False

Canola is the 2nd largest cultivated oil crop. It is mostly used for its oil which has the lowest saturated fat level of all vegetable oils and has several other nutritional benefits. The word Canola comes from the contraction of “Canadian” and “OLA” which refers to oil or could also refer to “Oil, low acid”. Canola was selected by scientists in Canada in the 1960s using traditional plant breeding to reduce two undesirable components: erucic acid and glucosinolates, which are present in rapeseed seeds, the original seed from which canola was bred. This improvement in the variety has created some misconceptions around Canola and GMOs, but what is the difference between conventional plant breeding and genetic modification? What are the regulations on GMOs around the world? In this article, we will provide an answer to those questions and we will provide you with reliable information, so you can have a clearer view on the topic. 


What is the difference between conventional breeding and genetic modification?

The aim of both conventional breeding and genetic modification (GM) concerning plants is generally to improve the characteristics of the crop. GM focuses on doing this at the gene level, and with the aid of molecular technologies, commonly in ways that wouldn’t easily occur in nature (time, territorial, or mating constraints). Conventional breeding achieves these improvements by crossing together variants with the desired characteristics and making a selection of the offspring that presents the most wanted characteristics. Depending on the desired characteristics either conventional breeding or GM might be more suitable technologies to make the crop improvements.

Genetic modifications, for example, can also result in other applications far from just improvement of the crop: like bananas able to produce human vaccines against infectious diseases, plants that produce new plastics with unique properties… But, even though genetic modification offers a new window of possibilities as many new technologies, big debates and concerns are around the topic, like human and environmental safety, labelling, consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty, and environmental concerns.

The two biggest GM concerns: Environment & Health

Regarding environmental concerns, recent studies show that GMOs can have a negative impact on the environment,  for example, the University of Virginia published a study using data from more than 5,000 soybean and 5,000 maize farmers in the U.S. from 1998 to 2011. It showed that while the large adoption of GM crops has decreased the use of insecticides, it has also increased the use of weed-killing herbicides as weeds became more resistant to them over time. As a result, farmers had to use not just more herbicides, but also various types of chemicals to overcome the herbicide resistance of the weeds. Eventually, a large dose of these chemicals can be harmful for biodiversity and increase water and air pollution. 

Another big concern about GM foods is their impact on human health. Among these, transfer of antibiotic resistance, toxicity, and allergenicity are the most prevalent. But it appears that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety yet. In 2015, 300 scientists signed a joint statement, published in Environmental Sciences Europe, which “does not assert that GMOs are unsafe or safe.” Rather, the statement concludes that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims on the safety, or lack of safety, of GMOs. Therefore, one can imagine that it is difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to form an opinion on such a subject, given the numerous scientific claims on GMOs, positive, negative, or inconclusive…

As the balance between the risks and benefits of GMOs is controversial, their cultivation, use, and consumption are authorised just in some regions of the world. It is the case for the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India which hosted 91% of GMO-cultivated areas in 2019. In total GMOs represent 10% of the total cultivated area according to the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).


World map of genetically modified organism (GMO) agriculture hectares (density equalising cartogram): North and South America account for 85% of global GMO agriculture (Paull & Hennig, 2019a).


Among the most widely GM crops grown at a commercial scale, we can find soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola, which are herbicide and insecticide-resistant with the main objective to help farmers prevent crop and food loss and to help them control weeds.

So yes, it is true that canola is also grown in its GMO version, but differing from the initial myth, the original canola variant obtained from rapeseed was developed by conventional breeding to reduce the mentioned undesired components, while the GM crop was developed to make the crop more resistant to herbicides and insecticides. However, it is important to highlight that not all the canola commercially available is GM, actually depending on the region and the legislation, both varieties can be found. 

How are GMOs regulated in the world?

What might add to the concerns of the public are the confusingly differing stances that food standards agencies take around the world. Let’s take two key markets with two completely different perspectives, the United States, and the European Union:

In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that GMOs are as safe as non-GMOs. For instance, corn is the most commonly grown crop in the United States, and most of it is GMO (92% in 2020). But many other GMO crops are cultivated on U.S. soil: soybean, cotton, potato, papaya, canola, etc.  Most of the GMOs use today, have been created to resist insect pests or tolerate herbicides.

On the other hand, most countries in the European Union have voted to ban GMOs partially or fully. According to the European Commission: “The approach chosen in the EU as regards GMOs is a precautionary approach […] This approach ensures a high level of protection of human and animal health and the environment.”. If the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) doesn’t outright ban GMOs, there are rigorous procedures in place when it comes to importing and processing GM plant materials in the EU for food and/or feed uses, or for cultivation. EFSA carries out risk assessments of GMO applications. It is up to 21 independent scientific experts who assess all GMO applications received by EFSA to ensure that it poses no risk to human and animal health and to the environment. Most assessments carried out by EFSA so far relate to GM plants including maize, soybean, oilseed rape, cotton, potato, rice, and sugar beet. After the risk assessment, risk managers (i.e. the European Commission and EU Member States) are responsible for authorising it or not. If they accept it, it normally receives a 10-year licence for the EU market. After 10 years, it must be re-assessed by EFSA before any re-authorization decision is taken.

Nowadays it is true that both GMO and conventional versions of canola exist. The prevalence of GMO canola can vary massively depending on the region. For example, 95% of canola grown in the U.S. is GMO. While in the EU, no GMO canola has yet been approved for cultivation. However, 8 GMO Canola varieties have been approved in the EU for import and processing, after an EFSA assessment that proves that the GMO varieties (do not pose a health or environmental threat)

What about Cano-ela?

Cano-ela is a food technology ingredient company. We enable new ingredients from canola crops and the fact that the seeds are GMO or non-GMO probably does not have an impact on our production process. However, considering the consumer perception and the food regulation that applies to GMOs in Europe, we now focus on only 100% GMO-free crops sourced locally. 

The latter is especially important because this is a key buying parameter for consumers of plant-based food products. A large-scale European survey from the European consumer organisation found that 36.5% of respondents would be willing to replace meat with non-GMO plant-based alternatives, a proportion which would drop to 13.6% in the case of GMO ingredients.

Our technology can also be used in other regions of the world, with the goal to produce food ingredients with no side feed stream. As mentioned above, in some regions of the world Canola GMO largely prevails. Thus, upon expanding to other geographical regions, we will have to take carefully into account new scientific insights, regulations and consumer desires. 

Cano-ela has the mission to Unlock the potential of seeds. We hope that you liked our article and that you learned interesting facts! 



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