Policy Experts Applaud Gene Editing Decision

May 09, 2023

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.

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