Plant technology rules need thorough review

Compared to other big crop-exporting countries, Canada has a unique way of looking at plant breeding regulations.

No matter how a plant develops a new trait, that trait must be evaluated on its relative merits and potential threats.

Whether a breeder uses gene dicing and splicing of a plant’s own genome or crosses and crosses and crosses again with or without the help of mutagenesis, it doesn’t matter. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency wants to know where they ended up regardless of the path taken.

For breeders and importers of new plant genetics, Canada has a very science-based set of rules related to regulatory control of plant genetics. Regulators ask: Has it been seen before? How will it be used? Is it safe?

The first federal directive on the subject of new trait regulation was developed in 1994 and that language was teased on an ad-hoc basis for nearly 24 years until a major overhaul in 2018.

The current process considers a plant’s potential to become a weed or to invade natural habitats, any consequences of gene flow to related species, whether it could become a pest, including potential impacts on non-target organisms and whether it might disrupt existing biodiversity.

While the Canadian system is similar to that of the United States, it is far from the same. In the U.S. part of the evaluation process was, until recently, to ask whether the plant was a genetically modified organism.

Europe has taken the position that the use of CRISPR, which re-engineers a plant’s own genetics rather than introducing genes from another source, creates a genetically modified organism. As such Europe says it should face the same scrutiny as it would have if a foreign gene had been used.

The USDA has recently decided the use of CRISPR should not be regulated as a GM event, and that the results would be treated and registered like any other traditionally bred plant.

This deregulation, along with some other modern genetic tool-use in plant breeding, has brought that country’s regulations closer to that of Canada, though differences remain. So, once again there is pressure on the Canadian government by industry to harmonize with the U.S.

Harmonization was often called for in the 1990s and early 2000s to save licensing and regulatory costs for genetics companies doing business here. And from a distance this does make some sense.

However, in that same time period Canada has managed to adopt all the modified genetics appropriate to the market and still kept the costs of development low enough to make them available and affordable for farmers.

The current American rules consider the effects of a new plant trait on the environment and, in theory, might require further evaluation should it be novel.

From a developer’s perspective, this puts the costs of evaluation on the American government for the first two of three steps to license a new variety or hybrid. If the new genetics pass muster at the initial or second stage, no final review is necessary, novel trait or not. That should lower breeding costs for industry.

But for some reason the Americans are still citing tools in their rules. By exempting the use of CRISPR tools from regulation, rather than the outcomes from their use, the U.S. might be tying their hands when new technologies come along.

It might be time to unify our regulations with the Americans. At the very least, another thorough review of novel trait regulation is needed.

The science-based approach is the correct one but as technology and tools change, regulations need to keep pace. It is necessary if we expect Canadian farmers to remain competitive, efficient and modern in an evolving global trade environment.

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

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