Canada continues to play a lead role in pushing for an international policy to deal with low levels of unapproved material found in bulk grain and oilseed shipments.
Stephen Yarrow, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada, said Canada and other countries are making progress toward establishing widely recognized low level presence (LLP) thresholds.
Canada is part of an international effort known as the Global LLP Initiative.
The initiative is considering a proposal that suggests two different threshold levels for foreign materials — one for trace amounts of biotech or genetically modified events developed through recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology and another for GM products that are broadly commercialized but not yet approved in the importing country.
“I think the conversation is progressing quite well,” said Yarrow during an international conference on food security in Saskatoon June 15.
The establishment of a global LLP policy would set acceptable tolerance levels for minute traces of unapproved or unwanted materials found in bulk grain or oilseed shipments.
Supporters say thresholds are needed to minimize trade disruptions and ensure that unintentional commingling does not pose an unreasonably large business risk to exporters, grain handlers and farmers.
In a presentation to delegates in Saskatoon, Yarrow said foreign governments have been asked to consider a draft that includes these key factors:
- A .2 percent threshold for trace amounts of rDNA-derived GMOs resulting from discontinued events, isolated foreign materials or dust. The threshold would redefine the concept of zero tolerance by allowing bulk grain exporters some wiggle room in shipments that have minute traces of unapproved material.
- A higher threshold for the presence of broadly commercialized rDNA crops that are grown in some countries but not yet approved in others.
Yarrow said industry stakeholders would like to see the higher threshold set at five percent.
Comparable tolerance ranges are used elsewhere in the agriculture sector and have served the industry well, he added.
“Governments are asking, why five percent? Why not two or three or one?” he said.
“We are going to contribute to that conversation by providing some background information and by suggesting that the five percent threshold is a reasonable level and that it is not that abnormal at all.”
Yarrow said the lack of an internationally recognized LLP policy poses a huge business risk to Canadian agribusinesses and exporters.
In some cases, trace amounts of dust in a bulk shipment containing hundreds of tonnes of grain can lead to rejected shipments and even cause export bans to some countries. In Canada, bulk grain handling companies are particularly vulnerable.
“It’s a very high risk,” Yarrow said.
“With the ever increasing sophistication of detection techniques, plus the politics around the world where there are bans on some GMOs … shipments of Canadian grain are very vulnerable.”
Yarrow was one of four panelists who discussed the benefits and challenges of regulating new technologies during the Emerging Technologies for Global Food Security Conference June 14-16 in Saskatoon. The conference was hosted by the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) based at the University of Saskatchewan.
In addition to industry concerns about LLPs, the panelists also spoke about asynchronous approvals, where GM crops are approved in some countries but not in others, and emerging new technologies that may face additional regulatory scrutiny in countries around the world.
Yarrow said the fact the world has still not arrived at a cohesive policy on GM products derived from rDNA technology illustrates the challenges that are likely to emerge as new biotechnology platforms evolve.
The first products developed using rDNA technology were commercialized in the mid-1990s, roughly 20 years ago.
“That’s almost ancient technology when you think about the advancements of new breeding technologies like CRISPr (gene editing),” Yarrow said.
Yarrow applauded Canada’s approach to approving products of biotechnology but said there is some uncertainty about how federal regulators will deal with new products coming through the pipeline.
Phil Macdonald, a regulatory expert with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said Canada will continue to base its regulatory decisions on key factors, including environmental safety and trade.
Macdonald acknowledged the need for better communications between government regulators and biotech developers, but he emphasized the CFIA’s mandate to proceed cautiously, considering public and private sector interests.
“Obviously, we can always improve and we can change things to streamline our regulatory system,” Macdonald said.
“We’re aware of the fact that we don’t want to be a barrier to any innovation, we want to enable innovation.”