Canada is falling behind other jurisdictions in providing clarity on how it will regulate new crop varieties developed through gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, says CropLife Canada.
Japan’s consumer affairs agency recently decided it will not require special labelling for products created through the new breeding technique because it does not require the introduction of foreign DNA.
Japan joins a growing list of countries such as the United States, Australia, Argentina and Chile that do not plan to give any extra scrutiny to new traits resulting from gene editing.
At the other end of the spectrum is the European Union. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled July 25 that gene editing must be regulated the same way as genetic modification.
It is not known where China stands on the issue.
Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada, said crop developers and farmers are waiting for the Canadian government to provide guidance on how it will regulate what is rapidly becoming the backbone of plant breeding.
“There is a distinct need for that clarity in Canada right now so Canadian farmers don’t get disadvantaged,” he said.
Affleck said the government has indicated that Canada’s Plant with Novel Traits (PNT) regulations need to be renewed to encourage innovation in the sector.
“This is a priority for the government of Canada and there is currently work underway to update that regulatory program,” he said.
“We hope that additional guidance will be available from the Canadian government as soon as possible.”
Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said the existing PNT regulations should suffice because novelty is the trigger, not the process.
“If they’re going to open up PNT regulations because of gene editing there is a lot of questions that we would have about how the regulatory system could be improved,” she said.
CropLife Canada likes Canada’s approach of regulating the product rather than the process but it does add a layer of complexity to regulatory decisions.
“When you have a process-based system, it’s really black and white when you’re in and out, because you either used the process or you didn’t,” he said.
“When you have a product-based system it’s a much broader potential interpretation of when something is now new, so that can lead to confusion.”
Affleck said there appears to be a growing global consensus that gene-editing technology will not be subject to the same regulatory scrutiny as GM crops, with the notable exception of the EU.
But even within the EU there is considerable backlash to the court’s decision. Scientists from 117 research facilities sent a letter to the newly elected European Parliament urging it to update outdated GMO legislation to exclude gene-editing technology.
The EU’s outgoing council of agriculture ministers left similar instructions for the incoming Parliament.
Affleck said the anti-GM sentiment that was once prevalent in the EU is subsiding. A June 2019 Eurobarometer survey shows that 27 percent of Europeans are concerned about GM foods, down from 66 percent in 2010.
A mere four percent of those surveyed were concerned about gene-editing technology.
Sharratt said public opinion surveys are irrelevant when it comes to the Court of Justice of the European Union’s ruling.
“This is not about which technology is popular or unpopular, it’s actually about how to define genetic engineering and the European court has been very clear,” she said.
Affleck said Canada needs to revamp its PNT regulations in a hurry. He doesn’t know of any gene-edited crops on the market in Canada but a company called Calyxt Inc. has commercialized a gene-edited high oleic soybean in the U.S.
“It’s hard to start investing in a product if you’re not certain as to the regulatory outcome,” he said.
The wheat industry is particularly vocal about the issue. U.S. Wheat Associates praised Japan for its recent decision.
There are no GM wheat varieties on the market, which is making the crop less competitive against corn and soybeans, Elizabeth Westendorf, USW assistant director of policy, said in a recent article.
“We see this disadvantage in declining acres and in a slower pace of yield increases compared to soybeans, corn and other crops U.S. farmers can grow,” she said.