Canada's competitiveness at issue with just-launched plant technology consultation

Health Canada has opened consultations on how Canada regulates plants with novel traits, including those produced through gene editing technology, such as CRISPR-Cas9.

The 60-day consultation kicked off March 25th, and grain industry leaders are pushing for all those in the value chain to weigh in on the importance of the modernization of the regulations.

Pierre Petelle, CEO of CropLife Canada, and Tyler Bjornson, executive vice president of Canada Grains Council, explain that this consultation is all about what Canada’s approach to plant breeding will look like going forward.

“In a nutshell, it’s about the government’s regulatory system for gene edited products,” says Bjornson. “That really has the potential to bring a lot of benefit to Canadian farmers and the Canadian industry.”

Compared to other countries, Canada has typically been at the forefront of the regulatory process for technologies, but Petelle says we’ve recently fallen behind major competitors, including the U.S., major parts of South America, and even parts of Asia.

“This isn’t about Canada forging to the front of the pack, it’s about us keeping up, so we really need these changes to happen, and we need farmers and agriculture to be paying attention and to make their voice heard,” says Petelle.

As on other matters for agriculture and food, there are louder voices out there that will have their say on these consultations, that don’t necessarily understand food production and processing, Petelle says.

The big multi-national players are interested in this issue, yes, but it’s also the small, independent breeders that are looking to see these technologies approved, because of cost and speed, says Petelle.

Coordinated regulations would also mean breeders who develop products in the U.S. will face hurdles when they start commercialization and want to bring their product to Canada.

Market access and acceptance of technology like CRISPR is on everybody’s mind — the U.S., South American, and Australian regulators have all given clear messaging that these types of gene editing are acceptable. Plant breeding includes more than just gene editing, including more conventional approaches; but of course consumers aren’t as concerned with them.

Listen to the full conversation (story continues below):

Of course, there’s a section of society that is sceptical of gene editing, and sometimes no matter how much explanation is provided, it still isn’t accepted. That’s where Bjornson foresees some pushback.

What comes out of the consultation at the end of the day will depend on “grassroots initiative to get farmers and individuals involved in the sector” to speak up, says Petelle.

A letter-writing campaign has been launched (you can find more information here) in order to give farmers and those involved in agriculture an easy outlet to express their concern.

The consultation period ends May 24, 2021.

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