Yes, There is Non-GMO Canola!
Our readers write to us almost every day to ask why they saw canola in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. There’s a fairly pervasive misconception that all canola is genetically modified, but this is not true! Non-GMO canola does exist; when you see canola in a product bearing the Butterfly, you can rest assured that it’s non-GMO canola because we test (major) high-risk crops that go into your food.
Canola’s story starts with the rapeseed plant, which is a member of the Brassicaceae family like cabbage, beets, mustard, and turnips. The name of this plant comes from rapum, the Latin word for turnip. While we think of this as a Canadian crop, rapeseed has been a traditional part of Asian cuisines for more than 4,000 years. It did not become widespread in Canada until it was used to make industrial engine lubricant during the Second World War.
In the 1970s, researchers at the University of Manitoba started working to alleviate two potential problems with rapeseed: erucic acid (which has been connected to heart problems) and glucosinolate (which just tastes bitter or pungent). By repeatedly crossing rapeseed plants that were lower and lower in these compounds, scientists used traditional breeding methods to create canola: a rapeseed variety that is very low in erucic acid and glucosinolate. The first canola variety emerged under the name Tower canola in 1974. To be clear, Tower canola was a non-GMO crop. GMOs had not been developed yet!
What’s the difference between hybrid crops and GMOs?
Remember, most GMOs are essentially living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through biotechnology, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Those traditional crossbreeding methods are exactly how canola was made, by breeding crops over generations without the use of genetic engineering. For about 20 years, all canola was non-GMO canola.
That changed in the mid-1990s when GMOs started to emerge. Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready canola variety became the first commercially available GMO canola in 1997. Like all herbicide-tolerant GMOs, it allows farmers to spray chemical herbicides (in this case, glyphosate) directly onto the plant without harming it. Today, nearly all of the canola grown in Canada and the United States has been genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. Herbicide-resistant GMOs are made by the same chemical companies that sell these harmful chemicals. It’s no accident that just three of these chemical companies now control over 60 percent of the world’s entire seed supply.
These chemical companies still claim that herbicide-tolerant crops reduce chemical herbicide usage, but the USDA’s data shows the opposite is true. In fact, research shows a fifteen-fold increase in glyphosate use alone since the introduction of Roundup-Ready crops. Read this full study to learn more.
Herbicide-tolerant GMOs have also been connected to the rise of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” Herbicides such as Roundup kill most weeds with each spraying, but the few that survive can pass their resistance on to the next generation of pests. This is becoming a serious problem across the continent—how many herbicide-resistant weeds are there in your state or province? This has, in fact, become such a problem that some farmers are now spraying more pesticides more often, including more potent formulations like Monsanto’s Enlist Duo. This herbicide is made with dicamba and 2,4D—one of the components of Agent Orange.
Some herbicide-tolerant canola (e.g., Clearfield canola) is the product of a genetic mutation rather than genetic engineering.
Mutations are not inherently bad, they are just changes in a heritable trait. For example, blue eyes started out as a mutation. Mutations occur naturally all the time; they are the basis of natural selection. There are also actions humans can take to force mutations to occur in plants. Crop scientists can use chemicals or radiation to induce random mutations in lots of plants, then pick out the plants with the most desirable traits to keep breeding. This process (sometimes called traditional mutagenesis) does not involve either in vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, so it is not biotechnology.
However, some processes that result in mutations do involve biotechnology. Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), a type of site-directed mutagenesis or site-specific mutagenesis, is a new genetic engineering technique that uses in vitro methods to create specific mutations at specific points in a DNA sequence. The type of canola that is made with this technique is on the Non-GMO Project’s high-risk list; it is a GMO and it is not permitted in Non-GMO Project Verified products.
Canola is Everywhere in the Grocery Store
Canola is perfect for making processed oil because its seeds have upwards of 40 percent oil content. With most of its glucosinolate (which is what makes mustard and radishes taste so strong) bred out, it has a mild flavor that doesn’t overpower other ingredients. Canola oil is present in many store-bought foods. Once the oil has been extracted, the leftover parts are generally used in animal feed.
If you live in the United States, it’s important to be aware that products containing canola oil may not be labeled as GMOs under the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. This law only requires the labeling of products that contain detectable GMO DNA. Canola oil is so refined that it does not always contain enough useable DNA to test it for GMOs. The Non-GMO Project solves this problem by tracing that oil back to its source and testing the canola itself. Remember, you can’t start with a GMO and process it into something that is not the product of biotechnology.
While most canola is genetically modified now, about ten percent of the canola grown in North America is still non-GMO. Show food producers you want more non-GMO canola by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified when you shop. Collectively, we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made.
About The Author
This article was originally featured on the Living Non-GMO Blog. It was written by Non-GMO Project Communications Coordinator Alli Willis, who holds a BA from Western Washington University where she focused on technical writing and communications. Prior to joining the Non-GMO Project, Alli served as a copywriter for an SEO-focused public relations firm. Today, she develops engaging written content as part of the Non-GMO Project Communications team.