Rules on gene engineering threaten crop advancements

Regulations on gene editing vary widely by country.  |  Getty Images

While plant breeders around the world embrace new gene-editing techniques to improve crops, response from regulatory agencies in different nations range from quick acceptance to near-bans.

“Argentina, since 2015, took proactive steps and is the first country to pass regulations on NBT (new breeding techniques) covering the subcategory of genome editing,” said Rim Lassoued with the Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.

Lassoued was one of several presenters at a genome-editing update session at the annual Canola Industry Meeting and Canola Innovation Day in early December, presented by Ag-West Bio in Saskatoon. The event drew about 280 delegates.

Using several surveys, Lassoued and her colleagues presented a list of plant breeding techniques and asked respondents to rank them in order of importance to agriculture.

“Most experts agreed that genome editing will be the leading technique for the future of ag,” she said, with CRISPR coming to the top of the list.

First, the new techniques will need to navigate a complex web of regulations governing genetically engineered crops that vary widely among countries.

In the United States, the approach is to avoid creating new barriers to innovations from new techniques such as gene editing as well as streamlining those already in existence, said Neil Hoffman from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Hoffman said crops created through genetic engineering come under the U.S. Plant Protection Act, which stipulates that if a plant pest or noxious weed is involved, it must be regulated.

This makes for some inconsistent outcomes.

For example, genetic engineering often uses the soil bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens to move useful genes into crops, since this is what it already does in nature. Unfortunately, the genes it moves in its natural form are the ones it uses to cause plant disease such as crown gall. This makes Agrobacterium a plant pest, which triggers the USDA regulations, even though the bacteria are simply being used as a tool.

“It’s not very much science-based. We were aware of that, and we hope to change,” Hoffman said.

One example he gave was if a developer made improvements to an existing GM crop, the existing traits would not have to be re-evaluated; only the new additions.

In Canada, GM crops, including those created with new techniques such as CRISPR, are governed through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Regulations apply to the product, not the process used to make it.

“For Canada… the relative novelty of the trait is the question and it is considered on a case-by-case basis,” Lassoued said.

In Europe, regulation of CRISPR and other NBTs seem to have fallen to the thrall of “activist bullying,” said Simon Barber. Regulations on GM crops in the European Union are so restrictive that they amount to a de-facto ban.

Barber has worked in regulatory agencies in Canada and abroad, in industry, government and international agencies over more than 25 years. He said European authorities were urged to look at whether crops created through NBTs fell under their GM regulations; it was judged that that yes, they did.

“So, they’re not going to move forward, are they?” he said.

“Just recently, 117 research facilities in Europe made noises to the new parliament and commission saying, ‘look, you’ve got to change this. We’re not going to have any plant science at all in Europe if you don’t do something about this.’”

Lest Canadians feel smug, Barber said there is “regulatory creep” here that is not supported by science and stifling innovation in this country. Biotechnology in general and genetic modification in particular have delivered immense benefits to producers and the public at large. For example, the vast majority of canola varieties grown on the Prairies are GM hybrids.

“Do they understand what you’ve been doing for 50 years in terms of canola and benefits to Canadian society? Do they understand how mismanagement of the regulations is stopping further advancement?”

Barber implored everyone in the industry, from researchers to breeders to producers, to “get out of their boxes” and speak up directly to government policy makers.

“Find people in the Canadian government who can go forward with an approach that shows everybody the benefits to our country,” he said. “Get them to do something so you can continue to do good things.”

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