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After years of farmers being on the offensive on the gene editing issue, there is finally some positive news for our industry.

Following lengthy public consultations and data review, Health Canada concluded crops developed through gene editing are safe and, in most cases, will not require a pre-market safety assessment.

Gene editing is a technology where scientists alter specific genes in a plant to achieve desired traits. Experts believe it has the potential to reshape plant science, enabling a more rapid development of crop varieties.

With the elimination of the pre-market assessment requirement, crop science companies will no longer be required to conduct costly and time consuming trials to prove a crop is safe for humans and the environment. This update clarifies the guidance for public and private sector researchers working to bring nutritional, environmental and production enhancements to grains and oilseeds with the latest plant breeding techniques.

Plant breeding techniques have been advancing around the world. This announcement relieves a major hurdle for Canadian plant breeders and has the potential to benefit the entire value chain, including consumers. These changes make the possibility of dramatic improvements in small- and large-acre crops very real. The potential is limitless, whether it’s realized in productivity improvements, pest management or weather resistance.

These changes will go a long way to incentivize and grow Canadian-based research. Plant breeders have been hesitant to work on products that might provide nutritional, environmental or production benefits due to the lack of clarity in regulations, cost and time-consuming regulatory requirements. Health Canada’s new guidance provides plant breeders with increased transparency. They now know which innovations will trigger these regulatory processes and have confidence their work will make it to farmers’ fields.

Health Canada’s guidelines include a mechanism for all gene-edited varieties to ensure the grain sector continues to provide commercial transparency. These changes align Canada with many of our trading partners who also uphold a science- and risk-based approach to plant breeding regulations.

Over the last year, Grain Growers of Canada (GGC) has focused its advocacy work on levelling the playing field for Canadian farmers as they operate in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Our trading partners are our biggest competition, so what happens in Canada relative to other jurisdictions impacts the competitiveness of Canadian farmers.

Many multinational companies that offer products and services in Canada must choose where they make their investments. There is a direct connection between transparent and predictable regulations and success in the international market. We see this in countries such as Australia and the United States. When regulations do not offer clear pathways, companies quickly seek opportunities elsewhere.

Given the corporate sector’s preference for regulatory clarity, these new guidelines will encourage companies to establish locations in Canada and increase our profile and viability on the international stage.

Our work on this file is not done yet. While Health Canada has provided guidance, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) continues to undertake a similar consultation process. We expect the CFIA will come to the same conclusion as Health Canada and will continue to urge the Agency to quickly provide guidance and ensure researchers and breeders can use gene editing technology as soon as possible.

It’s simple; the sooner we innovate, the sooner we strengthen our industry. These regulatory clarifications will have real, tangible effects that will be felt on Canadian family farms and reflected in all aspects of the value chain.  

Erin K. Gowriluk is the executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada.


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