Canada should consider adjusting biotech regs

Canada’s approach to regulating biotechnology — evaluating novel traits for plants — strikes the right balance between scientific evaluation and public concern.

However, there is now an opportunity to provide precision in the process, given how other countries are approaching gene editing.

CropLife Canada — whose membership includes a compendium of plant science companies such as Bayer, Cargill, BASF and Syngenta — is looking for direction from the Canadian government on the issue, given the stance that other countries are taking.

Traditionally, new traits have been developed through methods such as mutagenesis, which uses chemicals or ionizing radiation, or more recently through genetic modification, which introduces DNA from other species.

Gene editing, which has gained traction quickly since it was introduced in 2012, has been described as a search-and replace-technique through which scientists can alter the genetic sequence of a plant to develop a trait with precision.

It is still an evolving science, but plants possessing new traits developed with this method are expected to be widely available within the next few years.

Japan (which strictly regulates genetically modified foods), the United States, Australia, Argentina and Chile are among the countries that have said they will not place extra restrictions on new traits stemming from gene editing. China, which also regulates GMOs, has not commented on the issue.

The European Union’s hands have been tied by its highest court, which issued a decision last year that places gene editing in the same category as genetically modified crops, which are highly regulated.

Some major companies have largely abandoned plant breeding in Europe as a result, and strong pushback is developing in the EU on the issue.

The process followed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency doesn’t look at how a trait is created, but rather whether it is new and what outcomes it may have once it’s released into the environment. (Among issues considered are the potential for the plant to become invasive, whether the gene can flow to wild relatives, and potential impacts on non-target species and biodiversity.)

At issue in Canada at the moment is the definition of a novel trait. Some say it isn’t entirely clear, and the process for evaluating it is too long, which may repress research.

The CFIA bases its assessment of a novel trait on whether it is new to Canadian populations of the plant species and whether it has the potential to have an effect on the environment.

Once novelty is established, it goes through a process that includes two environmental assessments to determine how a trait is likely to behave in the broader environment.

It can take up to two years and $100 million to register a novel trait in Canada.

Meanwhile, producers in other countries that don’t regulate gene editing can have access to that biotechnology and new traits (such as disease or pesticide resistance).

To some degree, events are overtaking Canada’s process — or at least, overtaking plant breeders’ understanding of the process.

Canada doesn’t have to significantly alter its approach. In fact, other countries would do well to follow the CFIA’s lead.

However, the request for a clearer understanding of a novel trait is reasonable, and the process needs to be shortened so Canadian farmers aren’t left at a competitive disadvantage.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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