At the Non-GMO Project, we get a lot of questions about canola. People are confused when they see it listed on the ingredient panel of a Non-GMO Project Verified product. "Isn't all canola genetically modified?" they write. "How can there be canola in a Verified product?"
There is such a thing as non-GMO canola.
Non-GMO canola is grown in isolated parts of the U.S. and Canada to avoid contamination by GMO canola (we'll explore that more below). In the grocery store, looking for the Butterfly is the best way to find it.
Where does canola come from, and where does it get its "modified" reputation?
Canola comes from the rapeseed plant. It's in the same crop family as cabbage, brussel sprouts and turnips. Rapeseed has been a traditional part of Asian cuisines for over 4,000 years. Canada started producing rapeseed during the Second World War when it was needed to make engine lubricant.
Canadian-grown rapeseed oil was helpful in industrial applications, but it had two drawbacks that kept it out of the human food supply. Rapeseed contains erucic acid, which has been connected to heart problems, and glucosinolate, which gives it a bitter or pungent taste. Back in the 1970s, researchers at the University of Manitoba set out to solve these issues through traditional crossbreeding methods. They bred successive generations of rapeseed plants, always selecting the offspring with less erucic acid and glucosinolate. In 1974, the first rapeseed variety low in both those troublesome compounds was registered and in 1978, it was dubbed canola — "can" for Canadian and "ola" for oil.
Canola was developed a full 20 years before the first GMO entered the food supply. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, different canola varieties were created using traditional crossbreeding — and without using biotechnology. (Remember: GMOs are made through biotechnology. No biotechnology, no GMOs!)
GMO contamination in Canada … and beyond
Canada is the birthplace and largest producer of canola, where the crop occupies roughly ten times the acreage as in the U.S. In 1995, genetically modified canola engineered to be tolerant of the herbicide glyphosate was introduced to the Canadian market.
Herbicide-tolerant crops generally appeal to farmers because they can spray weed killer directly onto their fields without harming their cash crop. Incidentally, herbicide-tolerant GMOs are made by the same agrichemical companies that produce the accompanying weed killers. It's a profitable business model that drastically increases the amount of chemicals sprayed on farmland, leading to the rise of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”
Farmers quickly adopted GMO canola, but the crop proved hard to contain. Canola seeds are tiny — about 1 mm wide — and pollen can travel long distances on the wind. The plant readily self-seeds, generating volunteer or feral plants. This combination of factors was a perfect storm for the virtually uncontrolled spread of GMO canola. According to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, contamination was pervasive within seven years of GMO canola's introduction. Seed growers could no longer guarantee their canola seed as non-GMO and organic grain farmers on the Prairies abandoned canola altogether. Today, Canadian farmers grow non-GMO canola in geographically isolated areas to prevent contamination.
Preserving the non-GMO seed supply is crucial to protecting the future of our food supply, including organic production and international trade. GMO contamination can financially devastate small farmers, and genetically modified organisms' long-term consequences are unknown.
Modified and unlabeled
In the U.S., it’s essential to know that the Bioengineered Food labeling law likely won't lead to labels on products made with GMO canola. That's because the BE labeling law only requires labels on products that contain detectable modified DNA. Canola oil is a highly refined product — there isn't enough intact DNA for the modification to be detectable. So, under the BE labeling law, a bottle of canola oil could be sourced entirely from GMO crops and still not be labeled as a GMO! If you prefer non-GMO canola oil, looking for the Butterfly is your best bet. The Non-GMO Project Standard requires a bottle of Verified canola oil to be traced back in the supply chain to ensure it was sourced from non-GMO crops.
Today, the vast majority of the canola grown in North America is genetically modified — but "most" is not the same as "all." An estimated 5% of U.S.-grown canola and 3% of the Canadian crop are non-GMO. We must preserve non-GMO canola and support farmers who grow it — that's where you come in as a shopper and eater and where the Non-GMO Project comes in as a certifier.
Let food producers know that non-GMO choices are important to you by choosing Non-GMO Project Verified products! And rest assured, the Butterfly label is the best way to avoid GMOs — even when it comes to canola.