Transgenics take time | Are regulations on genetically modified plants protective or overprotective?
Are 13 years and $150 million a reasonable amount of time and money to spend bringing a genetically modified plant trait to market?
What if the trait was something simple, like additional hairs on the stem and leaves of canola, which could significantly reduce pesticide use in Western Canada?
“It is a lot of money and a lot of time … (but) it’s a complex technology that requires a great deal of oversight,” said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
“It’s reasonable to make sure that any technology that comes to market is environmentally safe, safe to eat and also meets the needs of farmers and consumers. The regulatory system doesn’t even deal with the last two concerns.”
Franck Groeneweg, a canola grower from Edgeley, Sask., agreed the process is expensive. Still, the costs to agriculture could be immense if a shoddy GM plant trait came onto the market, he said.
“Food safety and public safety, what kind of cost do we put on it?” he said.
“It only takes one case of poor technology impacting the public…. That’s not where I’d want to skimp.”
Stephen Yarrow, CropLife Canada vice-president of plant biotechnology, said the regulatory process to commercialize crop traits is excessive.
He said anti-GM activists have scared the public into thinking the technology is risky, which has led to onerous regulations.
“We’re of the view … the regulations are over the top. The demands for more and more information continue,” he said.
“If you’re talking about transgenics … that tends to be the tension point where regulators are asking for more and more information…. In my view, they (regulators) are being unduly influenced by non-government organizations stirring up fears in consumers’ minds. Of course, the consumers demand the politicians, who in turn demand that the regulators ask more and more questions.”
Sharratt said that is nonsense.
The process to approve a GM trait hasn’t become more rigorous in Canada, she said.
“The regulatory system hasn’t changed since it was first set up. We have consistently requested more rigorous regulations and that hasn’t happened,” she said.
“There are no concrete changes that have been made to regulations (in Canada) besides one or two minor tinkerings.”
Yarrow said hairy canola would be much easier to commercialize if was a non-transgenic trait.
Yarrow said Syngenta has to comply with regulatory processes in Canada and around the globe to satisfy trade requirements.
The trials and testing that are required significantly increase the cost of commercializing a GM trait, he added.
A company must generate data showing the technology doesn’t harm the environment, conduct tests demonstrating it is safe for humans and livestock and satisfy other requirements, such as proving it isn’t an allergen.
Yarrow said non-transgenic crop traits are omitted from the regulatory system in certain countries.
“If this hairy canola was a product of traditional plant breeding, I would estimate that the costs would be considerably less,” he said.
“And in many countries it would be zero because it wouldn’t be subject to regulation.”
Instead of focusing on regulations, Sharratt said Canadian farmers and the canola industry should be asking other questions about developing plant traits.
“The question here really is, what happens when Agriculture Canada spends money developing a technology? Why is there no way to bring a public technology to market without involving large multinational companies?”