Canada is deciding how to regulate gene-edited plants, and is largely proposing not to.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for regulating genetically modified plants for environmental safety under the Seeds Act Regulations — Part V. These regulations define what is considered a “plant with novel traits” (PNTs) and how they are regulated.
The CFIA is proposing a new interpretation that would exempt many gene-edited plants right away, and more in the future.
The proposed regulatory guidance turns its back on science, allows biotech companies to determine safety, and leaves farmers, future regulators and the public in the dark.
Currently, all GM plants are regulated as PNTs and must be approved by the CFIA for release into the environment.
However, the CFIA now proposes to exempt most new GM plants created by gene editing. If this new interpretation goes ahead, companies would be able sell most gene-edited seed without providing data to the CFIA or even notifying the regulator, the public, or farmers that the seed is gene edited.
This means that plant developers will decide for themselves whether their product meets the criteria for regulation. These criteria would exempt gene-edited plants if they do not contain foreign DNA and as long as the company does not expect the plants to have a negative impact on the environment.
If the CFIA has already approved a trait, even if it is in another crop kind, the gene-edited version will be exempt from regulation.
Every new trait the CFIA approves will open the door to more exemptions, shrinking its regulatory oversight over time.
Gene editing can change the function of a plant’s DNA by silencing or forcing the expression of specific genes, removing genes, or changing the location of genes within the genome or adding new genetic sequences at specific locations.
Exempting gene-edited plants on the grounds they do not contain foreign DNA falsely equates absence of foreign DNA with absence of risk.
As well, by progressively deregulating GM products, the CFIA would have less and less access to data, making it impossible to scientifically examine impacts in the future.
Like GM canola, corn and soybeans today, gene-edited plants will be covered by patents. A tiny number of global corporations own the foundational gene-editing patents. Corteva (formerly Dow/Dupont/Pioneer) holds exclusive rights for CRISPR/Cas applications in major crops, and uses its “patent pool” to control other companies’ and researchers’ access to the technology.
Many crops would likely be gene-edited in the future under this proposal, and thus patented. Farmers who grow patented gene-edited varieties will not be allowed to use farm-saved seed, and would have to buy seed every year and pay royalties.
The National Farmers Union’s long-standing policy states “all Canadians — farmers and non-farmers alike — must engage in an informed debate on the genetic modification of food.… After that debate, citizens — not the corporations that promote these products — must decide whether to accept or reject GM food.”
Neither the CFIA’s nor Health Canada’s consultation provide for meaningful public discussion of this powerful way to change plant genetics.
In the interim, the NFU calls for full and transparent government regulation of all GM plants, including those created by gene editing.
The CFIA has invited the public to provide input through an online questionnaire with space for open-ended comments or by sending comments to the Plant Biosafety Office.
The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network has produced a guide to the CFIA questionnaire to assist members of the public to provide meaningful input. The deadline for the CFIA consultation is Sept. 16.
Cathy Holtslander is the National Farmers Union’s director of research and policy.