Health Canada declares gene editing safe

To develop the new guidelines, Health Canada experts reviewed the science around gene-edited crops and concluded that the technology is safe for human consumption and the environment. | Getty Images

The ruling is expected to give Canadian producers access 
to the same types of plant breeding available in other countries

Canadian farmers may soon be growing gene-edited crops.

That’s because Health Canada has declared that gene-editing technology is safe.

Last week, Health Canada proposed new rules to oversee plant breeding innovation, including gene editing.

Within the proposed guidelines, released March 25, federal scientists say that gene editing is just as safe as conventional plant breeding.

“Through a review of the current scientific knowledge regarding the use of gene editing technologies… Health Canada concludes that the use of gene editing technologies does not present any unique safety concerns compared to other methods of plant breeding.”

That statement is positive news for plant breeders, crop science companies and Canadian farmers, says Erin Gowriluk, Grain Growers of Canada executive director.

It puts Canadian growers on a level playing field with producers in other grain-exporting nations, like Australia, Argentina and the United States. Those nations have already ruled that gene-editing will be treated the same as conventional plant breeding.

“We want to ensure that Canadian farmers have access to the same technologies as their counterparts do in other jurisdictions,” Gowriluk said.

Genome editing, or 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.

Gene editing is often described as adding, removing, or altering genetic sequences at precise locations in the genetic code.

It’s different from transgenic plant technology, where DNA from another species (like a bacteria) is inserted to achieve a desired trait.

Supporters of gene-edited crops, including many plant breeders, believe it could revolutionize crop development. It will allow scientists to precisely change a plant’s DNA to achieved desired traits, such as improved disease resistance or healthier grains.

As an example, a Minnesota firm has used gene editing to design a soybean that produces high-oleic oil. The company produced four million bushels of the crop in the U.S. last year.

Critics of gene editing, including the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, say the technology is imprecise and can have unexpected consequences.

Health Canada, in its proposed guidelines, said conventional plant breeding also produces “off target” changes in DNA, so it’s not unique to gene editing.

“Genetic variations that occur because of conventional breeding practices… can also introduce unintended characteristics,” Health Canada said. “Should off-target edits be present in a gene-edited plant, plant developers are able to remove them in most crops using breeding and selection, and/or backcrossing.”

Health Canada’s proposed decision provides more certainty for plant breeders and crop science companies, said Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada.

CropLife and other groups have warned that major crop innovation could move outside of Canada because of outdated plant-breeding regulations.

As an example, Cibus, a California company, has used gene editing to design a canola that’s resistant to sclerotinia, a major disease for Canadian growers.

Now that Health Canada has announced its decision, it’s hoped that companies will invest in research and development in Canada.

“That’s the hope,” Gowriluk said. “It ensures they don’t overlook the Canadian market… when you think about where you want to bring some of these new tools and technologies.”

Health Canada’s public consultation on plant breeding rules began March 25 and concludes May 24. Grain Growers of Canada is asking farmers to get involved and share their thoughts on gene-edited crops.

“Submit a letter,” Gowriluk said. “(Write) specifically about what it means to you, as a farmer.”

For more information, click here.

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