Canada moves forward on giving gene-editing the conventional plant breeding stamp of approval

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The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau today announced how Canada will handle crop cultivars that contain gene-editing as part of the breeding process.

Bibeau says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has officially published updated guidance for  Part V(5) of the Seed Regulations to make it clear which plants — whether developed via conventional breeding or through new plant breeding innovation methods — require assessment from the CFIA before being released into the environment.

Last May, Health Canada released guidelines regarding the approval of plants with non-novel traits, prompting the organic sector to ask for more clarification on how gene-edited varieties would be kept separate from genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

The announcement means that varieties or cultivars developed with gene-editing will not be considered a GMO under Canadian rules, so long as the resulting plant does not possess new traits and have the potential to negatively impact the environment. So long as resulting plants do not contain DNA from another species, CFIA does not require additional assessment.

Bibeau says that gene-editing ushers in a new era for plant breeding techniques, replicating conventional methods more quickly, adding that the scientific consensus is that gene-edited crops are as safe for humans, animals, and the environment as those created through conventional breeding

Read the full CFIA explanation here

Plant breeding including gene-edited technology will help in the fight against food insecurity world-wide, through increased drought resistance and reduced use of fertilizer and pesticides, the minister noted.

“The CFIA’s updated guidance helps Canada stay competitive on the global stage,” says Krista Thomas, vice president of Seed Innovation for the Canada Grains Council. “Many of our trading partners have already adopted similar science-based policies, and farmers outside of Canada have been growing gene edited crops since 2015. When we let the science be the core of regulatory decision making, we know that the end result can be trusted and is safe.”

A key focus of the announcement was on increased transparency for the seed development industry, and Bibeau also announced the planned launch of a database, the Canadian Variety Transparency Database, where every crop variety or cultivar will be listed, including what type of breeding method was used in its creation.

Seeds Canada is being tasked with administering the database, with the requirement that it be accessible, easy-to-use and up-to-date. A steering committee, Government-Industry Steering Committee on Plant Breeding Innovations Transparency, made up of government and industry, including representation from the organic sector, will direct decisions for the database and offer oversight and surveillance to ensure integrity and transparency.

“We support CFIA’s new guidance that provides a robust science-based approach to Canada’s domestic regulatory framework,” says Jim Everson, president and CEO of the Canola Council of Canada. “This will encourage new and additional research and development investment in Canada, while at the same time upholding safety and aligning with many of our trading partners in the approach to plant breeding regulation.”

** This story has been updated with guidance from the CFIA **

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