The Canadian seed sector is celebrating May 3 as an historic day for Canadian agriculture, after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued its updated guidance concerning the use of new breeding techniques like gene editing.
According to the updated guidance, announced by Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, new plant varieties and products developed through gene editing won’t face additional regulatory hurdles so long as they don’t contain foreign DNA and don’t express a commercially viable herbicide tolerance trait.
It’s what the seed industry has waited for the past several years as seed developers are eager to utilize gene editing to develop new varieties of crops.
“Any time governments make science-based and evidence-based policy decisions, that supports Canada’s innovation strategy. If we’re not supporting innovation based on the science, then we’re setting ourselves up to fail. What this announcement says is that all of these new technologies are just simply an advancement of existing mutagenic technologies,” said Stuart Smyth, agri-food innovation expert at the University of Saskatchewan.
“What the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has said is these breeding technologies contribute further contribute to making safe food products for all Canadians, and that’s a huge leap forward.”
Ian Affleck, vice-president of plant biotechnology for CropLife Canada, is pleased to see government continue to use its predictable, science-based approach to plant breeding innovation oversight, which he says is very positive.
The regulatory system developed in Canada in the early 1990s to regulate genetically modified (GM) products regulates plants with novel traits (PNTs), comparing them to conventional varieties. PNT varieties are approved if a risk assessment concludes the risk of the PNT variety is substantially equivalent to conventional crop varieties. Regulatory approval decisions are based on the final product, not the process used to create the product.
With its May 3 announcement, CFIA has made clear that plant varieties created through gene editing will not be considered PNTs so long as they contain no foreign DNA and express a commercially viable herbicide tolerant trait.
“This is equally beneficial for conventional breeding as it is for gene editing, as we know that even people involved in conventional breeding have been uncertain as to how the PMT rule can apply,” Affleck adds. “This helps really clarify and streamline things. It’s really, really beneficial for plant breeding in general.”
The confirmation was part of a larger announcement regarding the Seeds Canada Canadian Variety Transparency Database, which will provide transparency around individual seed varieties and clearly identify seed varieties created using gene editing. This will help the organic industry to maintain the integrity of organic certifications, which allow the use of conventional seed but not gene edited seed.
Lauren Comin, Seeds Canada regulatory affairs manager, has played a big role in developing the database, and says the May 3 announcement will be a boon to both the seed industry and organic sector.
“We put in a lot of work and a lot of hours into working with the organic industry to satisfy everyone involved that we’ve done our due diligence and we’re doing everything we can to ensure transparency,” she said.
The Road Ahead
According to Smyth, the May 3 announcement is an excellent opportunity for the organic industry to revisit how it thinks about gene edited plant varieties.
In the hours after the May 3 announcement clarifying the government position on gene editing, the Organic Trade Association of Canada issued a statement saying it is disappointed with the government’s stance, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect the organic sector.
“This is a great chance for the organic industry to be part of an innovative sector and to really demonstrate to consumers that organic products do align with consumer sustainability concerns. This is a chance for them to revisit previous mistaken policy choices,” Smyth says.
Affleck notes Croplife Canada will be part of a new Government-Industry Steering Committee on Plant Breeding Innovations Transparency to facilitate ongoing discussions as gene-edited products are introduced into the marketplace.
“At the end of the day, whether you’re in the organic or conventional sphere, you’re a customer of the seed sector. The seed sector needs to address its customers’ needs if it wants to retain those customers, so we feel very committed to that steering committee and look forward to those conversations to make sure that our transparency mechanisms are strong,” he said.
Comin notes organic farmers and the organic industry will have a wealth of information at their disposal to govern their decisions as to what varieties to plant, and the Seeds Canada database will simply add to that.
“Organic growers are not restricted to choosing their varieties based solely on our database. If have a relationship with their certified seed dealer they’ll be able to have that conversation of what is appropriate for organic production. Or maybe they’ll have a specific production contract, which will say that they need to use a certain variety,” she adds.
“Our database is certainly there to be used; it’s publicly accessible, and will be maintained, but in reality, it will not be the only tool organic farmers are going to be using to make their decisions.”
In making the announcement, Bibeau said the steering committee will be a valuable resource to allow the regulatory system to adapt as it needs to.
“I think the best way to make good decisions is to consult widely and to have all the representatives of the industry and its different sectors around the table,” she told Germination.
“It was very valuable to us to bring the seed industry and the organic sector together to find a path forward. They have both agreed to keep this conversation going and be part of this steering committee as we move forward. I will be looking at their recommendations on an ongoing basis as new products come into the market that use this new technology. We will adapt if there is need to adapt,” Bibeau added.