Gene editing boosts canola oil levels in U.S.

The announcement increases worries that Canadian plant breeding will fall behind because of tougher regulations

Yield 10 Bioscience, a U.S. company, is developing new canola varieties that have higher oil content and improved yields.

That’s not massive news. Many companies are working on new and improved canola varieties. The difference is that Yield 10 is using genome editing to breed new types of canola. It’s a technology where scientists precisely delete or add genes to a plant’s DNA. It’s not transgenic because added genes normally come from the same species of plant. Gene editing of crops is unregulated in the United States, so American bioscience firms are gaining an advantage over their competitors in Canada.

Yield 10’s new trait, which increases oil content in canola, is called C3007.

“Our team successfully (produced)… genome-edited versions of C3007 in canola and now clarified their regulatory status through USDA-APHIS (U.S. Department of Agriculture), marking major milestones in our development program to produce new varieties of canola with higher oil content,” said Kristi Snell, chief science officer at Yield 10 Bioscience.

“With the deployment of the C3007 trait in canola as an oil boosting trait, we have expanded the portfolio of traits we are developing targeted towards increasing the performance of canola. We are also developing and/or testing the novel traits … (to) increase seed yield in canola.”

The company, which is based in Massachusetts and has a testing centre in Saskatoon, is also engineering several varieties of camelina. It has already received USDA non-regulatory status for two gene-edited traits that improve the oil content of camelina.

Canadian plant science companies are also using gene editing to develop new crop traits, but the path to commercialization is much simpler in the U.S.

In May, the USDA announced a final rule, modernizing its biotechnology regulations for plant breeding. One key change is that gene edited crops will not be regulated.

“Essentially what they’re saying … if you could have got there (a crop trait) with conventional breeding, you’ll receive the same level of oversight as conventional breeding,” said Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada.

“If you’re upping disease resistance in a plant from 10 percent to 40 percent using the genes that are in the plant with gene editing, you could have gotten there with conventional breeding. It just might have taken you a long, long time.”

The challenge for Canadian crop science firms is the lack of regulatory clarity on this side of the border. If a company breeds a canola with improved resistance to sclerotinia using gene editing, will it be easy or difficult to get it to market in Canada?

That’s unclear because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada follow a policy called Plants with Novel Traits (PNT).

The feds must assess the safety of any novel plant, feed or food before it can be used in Canada.

The uncertainty around which traits are “novel” and which are not means American plant science companies have a structural advantage over Canadian firms.

Some are avoiding Canadian rules by commercializing their products in the United States.

As an example, an Ontario firm used conventional breeding to create a high-oleic soybean variety, but Health Canada decided it was novel.

The company didn’t want the immense cost and hassle of getting a novel trait to market in Canada. and released the variety in the U.S., where it wasn’t subject to a pre-market assessment,

“There are other examples like that on the food side, on the feed ingredient side, where … the difficulty with getting products approved sometime in Canada, it means the U.S. is a much more attractive market for innovators,” said Chris Anderson, chief technology officer with Protein Industries Canada, which is trying to position Canada as a global source of high quality plant protein.

CropLife Canada, which represents the plant biotech sector, is urging the federal government to adopt a policy on gene edited crops that’s similar to the U.S. Until investors and plant breeders get some clarity on this issue, American companies like Yield 10 could take the lead on crop science innovation for crops grown in Canada.

“When you look at countries like Argentina, Japan, Australia and the U.S., all have made moves to clarify the regulatory approaches (on gene editing),” Affleck said.

“Canada, it’s time for us to catch up.”

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