Most people are familiar with the story The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen.
The emperor, while parading around naked, proclaims that he has had an exquisite new wardrobe made, and is showing it off to his citizens. Out of fear of retribution, the citizens agree with the beauty of the wardrobe until a young child naively points out that the emperor is indeed naked and was scammed by a couple of weavers.
I feel there are parallels with this story and our situation with the regulation of genetically modified crops. About 30 years ago, Canada and other western governments put in place regulations around the release of these crops, requiring that they undergo significant screening to show they are no risk in terms of food, feed or environmental impact.
While governments had to put in place significant resources and personnel to develop and oversee these regulations, the producers of these products, primarily private plant-breeding companies, also had to invest significant amounts of money to collect the necessary data and deal with regulators. Both governments and industry are finding it increasingly expensive as more and more products come to market.
With new tools such as gene editing, there will likely be even more work.
The considerable research that has been required to satisfy GMO regulations has never found a problem, which begs the question, why do we keep doing it? | File photo
So some people might wonder how many products of these new breeding techniques have been found wanting and were not released into the market because they were deemed a risk as either food, feed or environmental threat.
The answer is zero.
It disturbs me to see less-developed countries using valuable resources to implement western-style regulatory systems for such crops when those resources could be better used elsewhere and such technologies probably hold greater potential than in the western world.
Some people have made their careers debating from a pro- or anti-GMO point of view. Organizations have developed on both sides, again taking resources that could be better used elsewhere. In addition, we are devoting resources to develop international policies to regulate shipments for low-level presence of GMOs and for GMO labelling, even though there is no scientific basis for either.
Let’s get rid of these needless and expensive regulatory systems, deploy the wasted resources to where they can do more good, and return to where we were 30-plus years ago, when plant breeders used any process (traditional breeding, mutation, genetic engineering, gene editing) to produce new material that had value to the farmer, the processor or the consumer, and let the market place decide the true value of the products of plant breeding.
Graham Scoles is a plant sciences researcher, breeder and professor at the University of Saskatchewan and an honorary life member of the Canadian and Saskatchewan seed growers’ associations.