Health Canada has declared that gene-edited crops are safe.
On March 25, the department launched a public consultation for what it’s calling a “Proposed new guidance pieces for the Novel Foods Regulation, focused on plant breeding.”
In simpler terms, Health Canada is proposing new rules to deal with plant breeding innovation, including gene-edited crops.
To develop the new guidelines, Health Canada experts reviewed the science around gene-edited crops and concluded that the technology is safe for human consumption and the environment.
“We are pleased to see that Health Canada has come out clearly in support of the safety of plant breeding, and gene editing specifically, in this consultation document,” Pierre Petelle, president and chief executive officer of CropLife Canada, said in a news release.
Genome editing, or gene editing, is changing the genetic code of a plant with technology like CRISPR-Cas9 — a technique used to cut sections of DNA. Scientists from California and France won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR.
Supporters of gene-edited crops, including many plant breeders, believe it could revolutionize crop development. It will allow scientists to precisely change a plant’s DNA to achieved desired traits, such as improved disease resistance or healthier crops.
As an example, a Minnesota firm has used gene editing to design a soybean that produces high-oleic oil. The company produced four million bushels of the crop in the United States last year.
The Health Canada summary of the proposed changes is wordy and difficult to comprehend.
But in a letter to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a group that raises concerns about genetically engineered crops, Health Canada’s position is clear.
“In the summer of 2020, Health Canada conducted a thorough scientific literature review regarding gene-edited plants used for food,” said Karen McIntyre, director general of the food directorate in a March 17 letter.
“Current findings show that gene-edited plants are as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts. Gene editing allows for improved precision when developing new plants and is subject to the same rigorous breeding practices as conventionally bred plants.”
The federal government has been developing its position and modernizing its rules around plant breeding for years.
Other countries, including Japan and the U.S., have already ruled that gene-edited crops are safe.
In March 2018, U.S. agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue provided clarity to U.S. innovators. He said gene-edited crops will be treated similarly to conventional plant breeding and will be largely exempt from regulation.
Groups like CropLife Canada, the Grain Growers of Canada and the Canola Council of Canada have been pushing the Canadian government to adopt a similar approach. They feared that Canadian farmers and the agriculture industry would fall behind competing nations. Growers in South America, the U.S. and elsewhere would have access to new and superior crop varieties, leaving Canadian farmers in the dust.
“Canada needs to continue to be a leader in agricultural innovation, not a follower. If Canada is going to compete on the global stage and live up to its full potential then we’ll need to ensure that our farmers have access to the same kinds of crops improved through gene editing that their competitors do,” said Tyler Bjornson, executive vice-president of the Canada Grains Council.
The Grain Growers of Canada is urging farmers to participate in the Health Canada consultation on plant breeding innovation. They’re asking farmers to go to www.advancingagriculture.ca/take-action, to voice their support.
“As an industry, we know what it will take for farmers to be successful, and that clearly includes continuous adoption of new crop innovation,” said Erin Gowriluk of the Grain Growers. “Now is the time for growers and our colleagues in the agriculture industry to collectively speak up to encourage good government policy.”
The Health Canada consultation on plant breeding innovation began March 25 and concludes May 24. For more information, go www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/programs/consultation-guidance-novel-foods-regulation-plant-breeding.html.