Canadians don’t know much, or think much, about gene-edited crops.
But when asked about the technology, one phrase pops up: genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Last summer, CropLife Canada hired a polling firm to gauge public knowledge and perceptions about gene-edited crops.
One of the questions was: what words do you associate with gene-edited crops?
About 40 percent of Canadians said GMOs.
“That was the top connected term. When you asked Canadians about gene editing, GMOs… was the top linkage,” said Erin O’Hara, vice-president of communications with CropLife Canada.
The connection to GMOs is a problem, for a couple of reasons.
For one, public polling consistently shows that 35 to 40 percent of Canadians believe that GM foods are unsafe to eat — despite scientific evidence showing otherwise.
In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the U.S. published a report on genetically modified crops. A panel of 20 scientists found “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops.”
Reason No. 2, a gene-edited crop is different from a GMO.
A GM crop is often achieved with transgenic technology, where genes from a different organism (maybe a bacteria) are inserted into a crop to achieve a desired trait, like herbicide tolerance.
Gene editing is changing the genetic code of a plant with technology like CRISPR-Cas9 — a tool used to cut sections of DNA. Scientists from California and France won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR.
The changes to a gene-edited crop are comparable to the changes from conventional plant breeding, except it’s more precise and faster.
To correct misperceptions about gene-edited crops and provide information about their benefits, CropLife Canada, along with the Canadian Seed Trade Association and the Canada Grains Council, have launched a new website: https://naturenurtured.ca/.
The website provides facts on gene-edited crops and the crop innovations happening because of gene editing. Like the development of high fibre wheat and soybeans with healthier oil.
Why create a gene editing website?
Data from the CropLife survey shows that 61 percent of Canadians are unfamiliar with gene-edited crops. As well, a large percentage of people don’t have an opinion about the technology.
After people were given a definition of gene editing, changes occurred:
• 32 percent strongly supported or somewhat supported the technology
• 25 percent strongly opposed or somewhat opposed the technology
• The remainder (43 percent) weren’t sure or didn’t have a definite position
“For us, (that) highlights a (large) group that is open to hearing more and learning more,” O’Hara said from her home in Ottawa. “This isn’t top of mind for Canadians, yet. We’ve got an opportunity as an industry to help shape the story and tell a story that resonates with consumers.”
Public acceptance of gene-edited crops could be crucial, over the next decade, as more plant breeders are beginning to use the technology. That could lead to new varieties of gene-edited corn, soybeans or canola, with improved disease resistance, healthier oils and more nutritious crops.
But if the public associates gene editing with GMOs, market acceptance is less likely.
“We want to make the distinction: these are two different technologies,” O’Hara said, explaining one of the website’s goals. “But not at the cost of disparaging GMOs. Both technologies have important value.”
The naturenutured.ca website comes at a time when Health Canada is reviewing its policy on plant-breeding techniques. The department is expected to release its position on gene editing and modern plant-breeding methods this winter.
CropLife hopes that Canada will follow the example of the United States. The U.S. has decided that gene-edited crops will be treated similarly to conventional plant breeding and will largely be exempt from regulation.