Competitive Ag and Science Regulations
Competitive Ag and Science Regulations

Competitive Ag and Science Regulations

Genome Editing Workshop to help maintain Canada’s regulatory efficiency

Last week, on March 7th, 2019, 50+ individuals from academia, government and industry gather in Toronto to discuss genome editing. While it was a quick day, much was discussed such as the regulations of genome editing in other countries and the state of its adoption in plant agriculture, livestock and horticulture. A rich discussion on where improvements in Canada’s regulation of genome edited crops can be improved to ensure that Canada’s agriculture sectors remain competitive ended the fruitful day.

Global stage

The key crop production countries such as Argentina, Brazil and the United States have all publicly and clearly declared their stance on genome editing. These nations have stated, that where no foreign genes or genetic materials are present in a crop variety that is set to be commercialized, a genome edited crop will not be regulated as a genetically modified organism (GMO). This means, editing within a plants own genome, will not result in GMO regulation or labelling. Such regulation will actually speed up the regulatory approval process for genome edited crop varieties in all three countries.

What is genome editing?

The genome is an organism’s entire sequence of DNA. Editting the genome refers to inserting, deleting, modifying or replacing a segment of an organism's genome. The editing of the genome is targeted and precise, compared to the former techniques used in genetic engineering and mutagenesis. The editing of a genome can be both within the organisms own genome, or can be modified through the inclusion of genomic segments from a foreign organism.

Currently, Australia is in the midst of a regulatory framework review and has publicized that some genome editing technologies would not need to be regulated as GMOs, provided no foreign genetic material is present, with other technologies being further discussed. The European Union, on the other hand, is regulating genome edited varieties as GMOs, regardless of whether foreign genes are present or not. Canada’s key production competitors have publicly stated that if no foreign genes are present, the varieties can rapidly proceed to market.

Canadian stage

Canada has had a regulatory system in place for GM crops for 25 years. These regulations have not undergone a formal review during this period. However, the Canadian government has been very active in examining regulations and looking for efficiencies, stating in the fall of 2018, that regulatory clarity is an important issue. The Canadian agriculture industry has also been active in this space, hosting roundtable discussions on how to ensure that the crop industry remains as competitive as possible. The industry has also advanced some suggestions on clarifying the novelty approach by developing options for a clear and transparent process, rational exemptions, and a tiered assessment process. There’s an advantage in Canada’s science-based regulatory system, but given the recent changes of other country’s genome editing regulation, it is imperative for continued ag. investment that Canada continues to ensure its regulatory framework remains competitive.

Livestock potentials

The use of genome editing technologies in plant agriculture is rapidly advancing, yet is in its infancy when it comes to its application within livestock. The livestock industry already has a long list of successful technologies such as using sexed semen, embryo transfer, frozen semen, in-vitro fertilization, single nucleotide polymorphism chips, genomic selection, with the recent innovative inclusion of genome editing. So far we have seen the development of hornless cattle through genome editing. The possibilities are open to all domesticated livestock, with many initiatives to reduce the spread of livestock diseases. The use of genome editing could also rapidly speed up the development of new livestock varieties, which can require 20 generations of breeding to develop through traditional breeding methods. Given that cows first reproduce at the age of 2, it can take decades to develop new traits.

Making a plant the best plant it can be

Plant breeders have been targeting benefits for consumers and producers. Consumer breeding attributes include improved flavour, quality and extended shelf life, whereas producer traits are disease resistance, abiotic stresses, lower fertilizer use and improved yield. The focus of plant breeding has been to develop the best plant one can for the current needs, whether it’s a consumer, producer, or environmental trait.

Canada does a lot of horticulture plant development, much of this is for the large international horticulture seed companies, yet there is limited breeding of new horticulture varieties for Canada. This is due to the small size of the Canadian seed market. The seed development companies within Canada’s horticulture industry are interested in using genome editing at this time. However, the current high cost of regulation to get plants with novel traits approved in Canada, this cost is beyond the budget of these small firms. The current state of plant novelty regulation is a holdup issue to Canada’s horticulture industry moving forward with innovations of genome editing. With the limited investment in horticulture development in tomatoes alone, the lack of tomato varieties suited to Canada’s climate actually costs the tomato industry $37 million per year[1]. If horticultural plant breeders could freely apply genome editing to variety development, it would be possible for Canada to have better-adapted fruit and vegetable varieties.

Moving forward

Improving the clarity of the current regulatory framework for bulk commodity crops, horticulture and livestock will be essential for Canada. Canadian farmers are incredibly resourceful and efficient, but require access to the best technology possible to be competitive. Ensuring Canada’s farmers and the agriculture industry is globally competitive, requires a review of existing regulations and efficiencies identified. This will help provide better varieties that can be produced in Canada and food prices stability.

[1] According to one of the presenters at last week’s workshop.