Canadians unclear on definition of “GMOs”, but want mandatory GMO labeling anyway

Canadians unclear on definition of “GMOs”, but want mandatory GMO labeling anyway
  • Canadian knowledge of GMOs is spotty
  • Eight-in-ten would label at least some GMOs
  • Do Canadians think GMOs are safe?
  • Affordability trumps all other concerns when grocery shopping

August 9, 2017 – Is it safe to eat genetically modified foods? Fewer than two-in-five Canadians say yes, according to a new public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute.

Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes clear that most Canadians lack an understanding of what, exactly, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are or how they are produced.

Asked to rate their personal knowledge of GMOs, most Canadians (60%) say they “know a little bit about them,” a self-assessment borne out in their responses to knowledge-testing questions on the topic.

Despite this, the vast majority of Canadians (83%) say at least some GMOs should be subject to mandatory labeling in grocery stores, though the consensus is somewhat less clear on which types of GMOs ought to be subject to the rules.

Key Findings:

  • Four-in-ten Canadians (39%) say it’s ‘generally safe’ to eat genetically modified foods. Another three-in-ten (28%) say it is generally unsafe, while the rest (33%) are unsure


  • More than eight-in-ten (83%) say at least one type of GMOs should be subject to mandatory labeling, but responses vary depending on the type of genetic modification in question


  • As a shopping consideration, GMOs are relatively low on the consumer radar. Fewer than one-in-five (19%) place “free of GMOs” among the three most important things they look for when food shopping


Canadian knowledge of GMOs is spotty

A genetically modified food, according to Health Canada, “is one derived from an organism that has had some of its heritable traits changed.”

Last year, the agency issued its first approval of a genetically modified food animal – a salmon that grows twice as fast as a typical farmed Atlantic salmon because of genes from other fish species that have been added to its genome.

The AquAdvantage salmon, as it has been branded, is an example of a process called “recombinant DNA” – essentially taking the gene for a desired trait from one species and introducing it into another.

This is undoubtedly what many people think of when they think of the term “Genetically Modified Organism,” but in fact it is just one of three processes through which GMOs are derived, according to Health Canada’s definition. The other two are:

  • Traditional techniques of crossbreeding (selectively breeding members of the same species with each other in order to emphasize a desired trait)
  • Mutagenesis (using chemicals or radiation to alter an organism’s DNA so that it develops a desired trait)

To test Canadians’ understanding of GMOs, the Angus Reid Institute provided only a basic definition, then asked respondents to identify which of the three techniques qualify as genetic modifications – meaning that plants and animals produced through them would be considered GMOs (see questionnaire for greater detail).

Fewer than half correctly chose crossbreeding (40%) or mutagenesis (46%), while a majority (62%) were able to successfully identify recombinant DNA as a GMO-producing process.

This finding echoes Canadian perceptions of their personal understanding of GMOs. Asked to self-assess their level of knowledge about GMOs in food, most Canadians (60%) say they “know a little bit about them.” One-in-six (16%) say they are “very familiar with GMOs,” while the rest (24%) have – at most – only heard the term:

Even those who profess to be “very familiar” display a lack of knowledge of the Health Canada definition of GMOs. While eight-in-ten members of this group (80%) correctly identify recombinant DNA as a technique that results in GMOs, they’re no more likely than those who say they know only “a little” to peg mutagenesis and crossbreeding as GMO-producing processes, as seen in the following graph:

All of this echoes a recent report commissioned by Health Canada that concluded that Canadians’ views of GMOs were “not that well formed,” and shaped in part by “confusion, misinformation, and generally low awareness/understanding.” The CBC summarized the findings under the headline “Canadians anxious but ill-informed about genetically engineered food.”

Eight-in-ten would label at least some GMOs

Having learned that all three techniques produce GMOs, respondents were then asked which types of GMOs they believe should be subject to mandatory labeling. Roughly one-in-six Canadians (17%) say “none of them.” The rest (83%) choose at least one of the three.

Fewer than two-in-five (38%) would require traditionally crossbred crops and animals to be labeled as GMOs, while significantly larger totals – approaching two-in-three in each case – would require labeling for foods derived from mutagenesis and recombinant DNA techniques:

The desire for mandatory labeling of each type of GMOs is fairly consistent across demographic groups, with only slight variation across regions, genders, and age groups (see comprehensive tables for greater detail).

Most notably, nearly half of Quebecers (49%) say cross-bred plants and animals should be labeled – more than say this in any other province. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Saskatchewan residents are the group most likely to choose the “none of these” option, as seen in the graph that follows.

Canadians’ desire for GMO labeling appears to cut across party lines. More than eight-in-ten who voted for each of the three major parties in 2015 name at least one type of GMOs they would require to be labeled as such (81% of past Conservative Party voters say this, as do 83% of past New Democrats and 86% of past Liberals)

So far, the federal government has not taken up legislation making such a requirement, though private members’ bills – most recently bill C-291 – have sought to address the issue over the years and been defeated. Any successful effort to introduce mandatory labeling in Canada would follow on the heels of similar legislation passed in the United States last year.

Do Canadians think GMOs are safe?

Canadians’ less-than-complete knowledge of GMOs shapes views on the safety of genetically modified foods. Fully one-in-three Canadians (33%) say they are “not sure” if it is safe to eat GM foods, while the rest lean toward the notion that such foods are “generally safe” (39% say this, compared to 28% who say they are “generally unsafe”).

Among those who say they are “very familiar with GMOs,” uncertainty drops, but division remains. A small majority of this group (55%) says GM foods are safe, while more than one-third (36%) say they are generally unsafe.

Regionally, Quebec residents are more likely to say GM foods are unsafe to eat (38%) than to say they are safe (26%), a view that correlates with the province’s previously mentioned higher support for mandatory labeling. All other regions are more likely to say such foods are safe than to say they’re unsafe, including majorities in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Atlantic Canadians, meanwhile, are far and away the most uncertain. Nearly half (48%) of Atlantic residents say they are “not sure”:

There are also significant differences on this question across gender and age groups. Women are considerably more likely than men to say they are “not sure” if GM foods are safe, as are respondents ages 55 and older. Almost half of all men (49%), meanwhile, say such foods are safe to eat, and they’re joined in this opinion by 43 per cent of those ages 18 – 34.

When these two variables are combined, a full majority of young men (53%) say GMOs are safe, while women of their generation skew toward the belief that GMOs are unsafe, and are considerably more likely to say they don’t know. Similar response patterns are seen across all age groups:

Affordability is the dominant concern when grocery shopping

Although most Canadians would like to see mandatory labeling of at least some types of GMOs and tend to express some skepticism about the safety of such products, these concerns are generally not at the top of their minds when they go to the grocery store.

Asked to name the three most important considerations they have when food shopping, almost three-quarters of Canadians (72%) choose affordability. No other factor is mentioned by more than 40 per cent of respondents, and GMOs are named by fewer than one-in-five (19%), lagging well behind concerns such as flavour, nutrition, and brand recognition, but ahead of the desire for organic or low-fat products:

Even among GMO skeptics – those who say genetically modified foods are generally unsafe to eat – affordability is a much greater concern than anything else on the list (63% choose it). As might be expected, GMOs rank much higher as a consideration for this group, as seen in the graph that follows:

The focus on affordability is perhaps reflective of the nationwide concern about rising food prices documented in an Angus Reid Institute poll last year. In that poll, 57 per cent of Canadians said affording to feed their households had become more difficult in the preceding 12 months, and many reported changing their shopping habits in order to cope with costly grocery bills.

Asked a slightly different question aimed at removing affordability and aesthetic considerations from the equation, Canadians express a higher degree of concern about GMOs, but they still don’t top the list.

Some three-in-ten Canadians (30%) say GMOs are one of the things they are most concerned about in their food, a total that puts GMO-worries below qualms about hormones and antibiotics, pesticides, and overly processed foods, as seen in the graph that follows.

That said, GMO concerns do register much more with Canadians than fears about preservatives and artificial colours and flavours:

The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.


For detailed results by age, gender, region, education, and other demographics, click here.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey


Ian Holliday, Research Associate: 604.442.3312

Dave Korzinski, Research Associate: 250.899.0821

Image Credit – Aqua Bounty Technologies