Trade deal clears air on biotech

In the crop science industry, China has a reputation for taking a long, long time to approve new genetically modified traits for import.

In certain cases, the approvals can take three to four years, or longer.

The delays come with a cost for North American farmers, who often cannot adopt new and innovative varieties of soybeans, corn and canola until China gives a thumbs up to the technology.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, announced in late September, obviously doesn’t include China, but it could help create a future where China and other countries have consistent policies for plant biotechnology.

“The major benefit of this language in the USMCA is it sets a new standard … to prevent (trade) barriers related to plant breeding innovation,” said Brian Innes, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance.

“The USMCA is more ambitious in this area than the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) was.”

Ag biotechnology isn’t a sexy part of any trade agreement, but the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative highlighted it as an important achievement of the USMCA.

“The text covers all biotechnologies, including new technologies such as gene editing,” it said.

“The United States, Mexico and Canada have agreed to provisions to enhance information exchange and co-operation on agricultural biotechnology trade-related matters.”

The actual text includes a section on reducing disruptions to trade of products of agricultural biotechnology, including timely reviews of applications for approval.

It also mentions how to manage low level presence of biotech traits and establishes a working group for co-operation on agricultural biotechnology.

“I think the … working group, where regulatory policies and practices can be shared … provides the umbrella under which the countries can develop their frameworks,” said Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada.

The setting a “new standard” bit is particularly important because trade deals usually build upon earlier agreements.

Future agreements, perhaps China and the U.S. joining CPTPP, would likely have similar language around plant biotechnology.

Eventually, if there are enough trade deals like the USMCA, it could lead to new global rules for the import and export of biotech crops.

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