What Parents Need to Know About Pesticides and GMOs For Kids

What Parents Need to Know About Pesticides and GMOs For Kids

Confused about buying your family organic foods vs. non-organic foods, or concerned about pesticides and GMOs when it comes to your kids? You’re not alone, AND you’re in the right place. As a dietitian mom I’ve sifted through the science to bring you everything you need to know about this topic. Read on!  

This blog post was written in partnership with CropLife Canada. All opinions, as always, are my own. 

When you hear the terms “GMO” or “pesticide” what emotions come up for you? If you have feelings of concern or anxiety, you are not alone. You might also be wondering about organic foods versus non-organic foods for kids… which should you buy?? As a pediatric dietitian and mom of 3, I get it. Heck, it confuses me sometimes too! But this probably stems from misinformation out there, or a lack of understanding (or just being overwhelmed by conflicting information on the web and social media!). 

In this blog I have pulled together all of the facts that you need to make informed and confident decisions about how to feed your kids when it comes to GMO foods, pesticides and choosing organic or non-organic options. Read on! 

Unrecognizable father with a toddler boy cooking. A man with his son making vegetable salad. Top view.

First of all, what are GMO foods? 

The World Health Organization categorizes GMOs as plants or animals that have had their genetic material (DNA) altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. It’s high-level science here! So why the heck are researchers modifying food? Some good reasons: to make them more tolerant to different types of weather; to increase crop yield to feed more people, and to make them more resistant to insects and pests, thus reducing the need for some pesticides.

Here’s something you may not know… Genetically modified (GM) crops have actually been grown in Canada for close to 30 years now! The main GM crops grown are canola, corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. GM non-browning apples and potatoes have also been approved for growth and sale in Canada. Currently, the majority of GM crops (e.g. soybeans and corn) are used for livestock feed, or for processing (e.g. canola oil or sugar).

But, how do we know that GMO foods are safe for kids?

Some people are anti-GMO, right? How come?? The first GMO crop came to market in 1994, so some people have concerns that it’s a relatively new science. They may worry that there aren’t long-term studies to prove their safety, so it’s tough to know whether GMOs will affect human health. What we do know is that, to date, the USDA and Health Canada have deemed GMOs to be safe. Researchers and experts have reviewed over two decades of data since GMOs were first introduced, coming to the conclusion that GMOs have not caused or contributed to a single illness or death and pose no risk to our health. Some people don’t feel this is enough, so they choose non-GMO products only. And when it comes down to it, it truly is a personal choice.  

It’s important to know that Health Canada has very stringent food safety regulations in place for all GM foods before and after they are in the grocery store ready for you to purchase for your family.  AND it can take over 10 years of research and testing for a new GMO to be approved by Heath Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency too. Many resources, time, and scientific scrutiny is poured into the development of safe, nutritious and sustainable GM crops. And even though GMOs in particular have only been around for 30 years, plant breeding has been around for thousands of years to help farmers grow better, more resilient crops. Gene modification is only just ONE of type of plant breeding. And let’s be real… we’re also in the age of social media and information overload, so this likely contributes to the hype and anxiety around GMOs. 

Do GMO foods cause cancer, autism or other illnesses in children? 

You may have read about or heard rumors that GMO foods can cause cancer, autism, and allergies among other illnesses. Eek – these things are scary! Myths like these circulating around social media can definitely provoke worry and anxiety, especially from concerned parents. And food companies certainly capitalize on this fear by going to great lengths to promote their “non-GMO” foods, when many of these foods don’t contain foods or plants that would be genetically modified in the first place! You can rest assured knowing that various independent scientists and organizations from around the world have affirmed the health and safety of GMO foods. 

Although the majority of whole vegetables and fruits that you’ll find in the produce section were developed through traditional plant breeding it’s good to know that genetically modified produce is just as safe as traditional produce, and provides the same (or sometimes improved) essential nutrition to you and your family.  

Is organic produce better for my kids? 

So, how do you know if you’re buying GMO products? Actually, GMO foods do not need to be legally labeled as they are deemed just as safe as conventional foods. BUT organic products in Canada do NOT use genetically modified organisms. So, if you prefer to buy the non-GMO corn at the grocery store, you can simply buy organic corn! Both organic and conventional produce is safe and nourishing for your family. The good news is that there is no right or wrong choice here!  

How do GMOs contribute to environmental sustainability, and why does this matter for our kids? 

As I dive deeper into learning about innovative crop science, I am amazed about all of the impactful ways this technology supports sustainable agriculture. Who knew that genetically modified crops have been specifically designed to help famers grow more food using less land area? Preserving land, water, and resources is very important for the next generation (and those after).  We all know that the world’s population is growing at a rapid pace, which is why it is so awesome to know that GM crops are helping to conserve resources now, with the goal to feed our future world (which also means our kids!). Anything that contributes to environmental sustainability also paints a brighter future for our kiddos.  

GM crops have cut down greenhouse gas emissions by a HUGE amount, every year, over the past 20+ years. They contribute to healthier soil for planting, require less water for more crop yields, and also reduce the need for farmers to enter their fields with machinery during the growing season.  Less exhaust means cleaner air and less driving means less soil compaction. 

Non-GMO labels on food products do not make them “healthier” or “safer” than products without this label

Research shows that people will often will pay a premium price for non-GMO labeled foods, likely driven by the fear that conventional or GMO food is somehow tainted. As a parent, I can relate to this feeling of guilt and uncertainty. For this reason, non-GMO food labels are often used as marketing tool so that they can be sold at higher cost, for no real benefit to the consumer. In fact, sometimes these labels are placed on foods where the GMO counterpart doesn’t exist! For example, in the US you can find non-GMO labeled tomatoes, when there aren’t even any GMO tomatoes available on the shelves for purchase!  

As we have learned, the scientific consensus on GMO foods is that they are just as nutritious and safe as non-GMO foods. While there is nothing wrong with making the decision to purchase non-GMO labelled foods for your family, it may be helpful to know that you are paying a premium for that product label.  

What about pesticides? What are they, and are the safe for kids?

Pesticides are chemicals used to reduce damage to plants from weeds, rodents, and insects. Pesticides can either be synthetic (derived from lab-developed chemicals) or natural (derived from sources found in nature). Conventional farmers can choose to use either, while certified organic farmers can only use natural pesticides. Wait, what? Yup, organic farming still uses pesticides! Organic farmers still need to ward off insects, weeds, and rodents, right? 

The best-ever-gold-star pesticide would destroy pests without harming humans, other plants, animals, or the environment. The good news is, Health Canada evaluates the health and environmental risks of proposed organic and synthetic pesticides before they can be registered. And scientists are always working on improving pesticides to make sure they’re safe for people and the planet when applied correctly. 

Happy female farmer holding a wood box containing fresh vegetables

The word “pesticide” strikes fear in people because it’s synonymous with “toxin” or “poison.” Of course, pesticides can be toxic when consumed at ultra-high doses (just like any substance), but the USDA, Health Canada, and the US Environmental Protection Agency say you should not be concerned about the low doses potentially found on food. 

Government agencies establish thresholds levels for pesticide residues that are permitted on food and these levels are often 100 times or more below levels that would have any impact on human health. The government tests for pesticide levels in foods to ensure that the amount of pesticide residue, if there is any, is tiny. So, pesticide levels are very, very, very, very low. 

Of course, not everyone believes in those government agencies, and skeptics say that governments may not be testing the right things to truly predict the potential dangers from long-term, low-level exposure from a mix of many pesticides. That’s why the choice to eat conventionally grown or organic foods is totally up to you. There’s no perfect answer to suit everyone.

All growers use pesticides on their food crops, including organic growers!

First of all, what is the difference between organic and conventionally grown food? You can read this blog post if you would like to learn more about whether or not to buy organic for your family.   

As mentioned above, BOTH organic and conventional farmers need to use pesticides to protect their crops from pests, grow them at the highest yield possible and at the highest quality for us – the consumers. While there is nothing wrong in buying organic food for your family (you do you!!), just try not to base the decision on the notion that organic means “pesticide-free” or that they are more nutritious. 

Health Canada’s pesticide regulatory system is one of the best, and most rigorous in the world.  If you are buying produce in Canada, you can rest easy knowing that any pesticide residue found on produce won’t pose a risk to your health, your child’s health. In fact, over 88 percent of all fresh foods in Canada contain no detectable pesticide residue, and 99.9 percent test below Health Canada’s acceptable limits! That’s good news! 

So, what about the dirty dozen and clean fifteen fruits and vegetable list? Read the Dirty Dozen’s Dirty Secrets to uncover what this list is actually telling us.  

Happy farmer is standing in his growing soybean field.

The bottom line: Serving fruits and veggies to your kids – organic or not – is what’s important 

We all know that eating enough fruits and vegetables is so important for the healthy growth and development of our children, as well as ourselves! Whole foods rich in vitamins, minerals, essential fats, protein and fibre are key building blocks for a healthy body and mind.  

Unfortunately, the accessibility of fresh produce and whole plant foods like nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils is a real issue in many Canadian households. Like mentioned above, non-GMO and organic food is sold at a premium. Outside social pressures to buy these foods in order to provide safe, healthy food for your family can make grocery shopping even more daunting. What a shame it is that this could cause many families to decide to buy less produce altogether, robbing their household of valuable nutrition! Spreading evidence-based knowledge on how our food is grown, why science is needed in food production, and what is available to us on the shelves, is absolutely a passion of mine.  My hope is that the above information will arm you with the knowledge you need to feed your kids in the way that fits best for your family’s health and wellness journey!

References:

  1. https://croplife.ca/facts-figures/gmos-in-canada/
  2. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/genetically-modified-foods-other-novel-foods/scientific-opinion-regulation-gene-edited-plant-products-within-context-division-28-food-drug-regulations.html#a9
  3. https://croplife.ca/field-notes-gmo-foods/
  4. https://gmoanswers.com/gmo-myths-vs-facts
  5. https://gmoanswers.com/environmental-benefits-gmos
  6. https://gmoanswers.com/truth-behind-gmo-labeling
  7. https://croplife.ca/protecting-people-planet/pesticide-regulations/