Because of regulatory differences, a new herbicide tolerant canola will be available in the United States years before Canadian farmers will have access.
This puts Canadian canola farmers at a competitive disadvantage and highlights the need for better international co-ordination on the regulation of plants that are changed through biotechnology.
The case of the new canola, a sulfonylurea tolerant canola created through a directed mutagenesis process developed by California-based Cibus Global, is a specific issue, but it raises wider implications.
Cibus’s new technology is but the tip of the iceberg. Rapid advancements in genetic science are providing plant breeders with new tools to understand how plants work and how to manipulate them.
That is a good thing as the world’s growing population looks to agriculture to produce an increasing amount of food, fibre and fuel even while challenged by climate change.
However, as with the implementation of most new technology, it is wise for governments to keep an eye on new developments to control the risks of something going wrong.
Most developed countries with advanced plant breeding industries have regulatory systems developed with guidance from international standards.
However, that does not mean they are all the same because public opinion and politics also have a strong bearing on policy development.
These differences have led to major trade issues with costly implications for companies and farmers caught up in the disputes.
The case with the Cibus canola shows that even neighbours such as Canada and the U.S. regulate plant biotechnology differently.
The U.S. singles out genetically modified plants for special assessment but does not consider mutagenesis to be genetic modification. Under this definition, Cibus’s canola is non-GM and not subject to special assessment.
Canada adopted a wider view of plant biotechnology regulation: the plants with novel traits (PNT) system.
Its focus is on the product rather than on the process used to develop that product. The assessment could be applied to any breeding process, including conventional breeding, genetic modification or mutagenesis.
Special scrutiny is applied if breeding alters a plant in a way that gives it a trait that is both new to the Canadian environment and has the potential to affect the use and safety of the plant with respect to the environment and human health.
The PNT system has logic. There is a large and convincing body of evidence to show that new breeding techniques do not present different or greater safety concerns than plants developed by traditional plant breeding.
However, even as the PNT system was being developed, some Canadian breeders argued that its “one size fits all” nature would impose costly regulation on some breeding in Canada that would not be imposed in other countries, creating an innovation barrier.
As new biotechnology tools such as RNA interference become common, they will likely illuminate more situations where different regulatory environments create an unequal playing field for plant breeders.
Governments need to assess their regulations to ensure they keep up with scientific advancements in a way that still protect people and the environment but do not needlessly limit innovation or impede competition.
International regulatory consensus may be impossible, but like-minded countries such as Canada and the U.S. should strive for complementary systems.