Canadian gene editing rule deserves farmer support

While it might be arriving at seeding time, it might also be worth having some say. Canada’s proposed rules for gene-edited crops are up for discussion for the next month or so and, so far, things are looking good for a science-based outcome, one that is compatible with other major exporters including the United States.

The government is asking for interested parties to put in their two cents. For farmers, these regulations are worth a lot more than that.

Gene editing, until recently, in Canada looked as though it might be headed for a more European Union-like regulatory trajectory. That would have included treating crops developed with gene editing technologies, such as CRISPr-Cas9, the same as genetically modified crops.

In Canada, when genes that are not part of a plant being bred are placed inside its genetic structure and stabilized for reproduction, the outcome is considered transgenic and novel and subject to regulators’ analysis that proves them to be safe for release. It’s an extensive and expensive process.

That new organism should also have considerable utility on its side because it will need a strong market over a considerable time period to recoup those proving-up costs. For a crop to be that attractive, the benefits have to be considerable, especially for one aimed at the limited market of the Prairies and Great Plains.

For that reason genetic modification is a less appealing route for developers supplying this region’s farmers with new crop choices.

Non-novel crops are those well-known to society and regulators, without traits that are brand new or genes from other organisms. Gene editing allows researchers and plant breeders to work solely within the natural breeding boundaries of a plant, albeit in a much more rapid and highly targeted way than traditional breeding. It is faster and more controlled than using genetic-marker selection techniques combined with lab-induced mutagenesis, which still require extensive breeder selections.

Breeders’ abilities to limit some of the undesirable traits developed with traditional breeding are somewhat limited. For crops developed with gene editing, off-target results to an otherwise successful line have a good chance of being bred out with traditional selection and back-crosses.

Health Canada’s proposed new regulatory framework for gene-edited crops wasn’t entirely expected to move in a fully science-based direction even last summer. Last month’s announcement that it was proposing handling it as traditional breeding tool that avoided falling prey to the genetic modification vortex of clouded public perception and anti-science opinion modification came as relief to farmers and the people who supply them.

A regulatory environment that views gene editing as just another plant breeding tool will provide farmers, funders and breeders a path for development in which they can be confident over the longer-term. This might also end speculation that crop breeding can’t be done profitably in this country.

Groups that claim to have knowledge of the natural environment, an understanding that appears to have little to do with scientific knowledge mixed with a shred of red-barn syndrome economics and a pinch of other-worldly beliefs, will hopefully be stuck protesting plant breeding technology at the existing genetic modification level of regulation.

Producers have an opportunity to help keep their government on a regulatory path that serves their interests. They can be assured that the proposed regulations won’t be universally popular. Consultations close May 24. To participate visit bit.ly/CDNplantrules.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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