It is one of those neat little unexpected treasures that pops up from time to time: an international statement that lays out — without the appearance of politicking — a sensible, scientific approach to an issue.
That’s what we saw earlier this month when the governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, the United States and Uruguay issued a joint position on agricultural applications of precision biotechnology, which includes gene editing.
The purpose of the communique is to promote science-based approaches that can be judged and accepted in regulatory regimes by participating countries. (The statement is non-binding.)
The joint statement only “appears” to be devoid of politicking because it puts the supporting countries squarely at odds with the European Union, which is going in the opposite direction, largely on arguments based on “what-ifs.”
There are three main approaches to regulating gene editing (CRISPR technology is a growing application): The United States treats end products like any other agricultural product; The European Union, after a court judgment earlier this year, lumps them in with genetically modified crops; and Canada uses a “novel trait” process that is roughly in the middle.
The EU court decision means traits gleaned from gene editing will go through a lengthy and expensive regulatory process that observers say will be the death knell for use of the technology in the 28-country trading zone.
To illustrate the joint statement’s sensible approach, note this declaration in the overview: “Precision biotechnology techniques, as a whole, constitute an essential tool for agricultural innovation. Their use provides farmers with access to products that increase productivity while preserving environmental sustainability.”
Gene editing that produces new traits is essentially a sped-up version of mutagenesis. The EU court ruling maintains mutagenesis is safe because it’s been around long enough to prove. The argument against gene editing looks at what might happen in the future, rather than focusing on the actual composition the plant.
A crack is already appearing in the EU. Carola Schouten, agricultural minister in the Netherlands, wants “light-form” genetic modification to be made available. Whether that will result in a new court case is unknown.
The Canadian approach focuses on outcomes. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which regulates the release of novel traits, uses a process that examines the final version of the plant rather than focusing on how it got there. The agency considers whether it has a new trait or characteristic, whether its traits or characteristics have changed and whether the plant has a new use.
In its analysis, the CFIA looks at the potential for evolution into an undesirable organism (such as a weed), whether the gene can escape into “wild relatives,” whether it can become a pest, and the possible impact on “non-target species” and biodiversity.
It’s a rational approach that has served Canada well.
The EU is now forcing nations seeking trade at a lower tariff rate to adhere to the Cartagena Protocol, which applies the precautionary principle — that is whether safety can be proven rather than actual scientific conclusions.
The G8 has a partnership with 10 African nations that use GMOs. As gene editing becomes more common, trade in some commodities may be defined by a court ruling rather than evidence, which would be ironic.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.