After months of anticipation, on May 3rd, 2023, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) publicly confirmed that plant varieties developed by advanced mutagenic gene editing technologies would be regulated as conventional plant varieties. This decision by AAFC aligns with the identical announcement by Health Canada in May 2022. This was very welcomed news to the agriculture industry in Canada, as a 2018 survey of public and private plant breeders found that 77% of them believed Canada’s regulations needed to be revised and updated based on present scientific knowledge and evidence.
The pressure was increasing on AAFC to align with Health Canada’s regulatory decision as their lack of confirmation was a barrier for Canadian farmers to keep pace with farmers in other competitive crop producing countries whose scientists have access to these technologies. Governments in Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the USA have all agreed that gene editing is conventional plant breeding and that there is no increase in the risk of the varieties being developed, therefore additional regulatory oversight is not required. The removal of these regulatory barriers will shorten the time required to develop new crop varieties, from a decade or more to as little as 3 years.
An additional benefit from the removal of these regulatory barriers is that the reduced time to develop and commercialize new crop varieties will also provide consumers with benefits. With crops able to be commercialized more rapidly, this means that yields will be higher, which economically contributes to keeping food prices, or food price increases, lower. Gene editing technologies are also capable of producing food that is more nutritious and sustainably produced, providing even further consumer benefits. Canadian consumers have expressed strong support for the application of gene editing technologies if they are able to increase sustainability factors of crop and food production.
The modern gene editing technologies that have been approved as conventional plant breeding are advancements of technologies that have been used to develop new crop varieties dating back over the past 70 years. Mutagenic technologies have been applied to the entire seed, but recent scientific advancements have refined the technology so that plant breeders are now able to target specific genes or even a single gene. Virtually all food crops that Canadians consume have been developed using mutagenic technologies, which have been safely consumed for decades. Even organic crop production uses mutagenic varieties for their process system. Oddly, the organic sector has opted to not endorse the utilization of targeted gene editing mutagenic technologies, but will rather rely on older mutagenic technologies that mutate the entire seed, rather than being targeted through controlled application at specific genes.
Canadians can be reassured that the safety of their food will not change and will most likely increase. Gene editing technologies are able to offer a wide range of benefits, such as nutritional and sustainability as identified above, but also to extend the shelf life of food products, which reduces food waste. Presently, Canadians waste about $1,500 in food annually. This has a double benefit as it reduces the amount of food that is wasted by households and also lowers the amount of money Canadians spend buying food.
Canadian plant breeders have used mutagenesis technologies for decades and have developed approval criteria that new varieties must meet to be able to be approved for commercial production. This process involves plant breeders assessing new varieties with existing varieties and if the potential risks from crop and food production aren’t different for the new variety from those of existing varieties, then the new variety is approved for commercial production by farmers and gardeners. The review process is robust and rigorous as no plant breeder wants to commercialize a new crop variety that would have a negative impact on Canadians or the environment. Canadians are very well served by the due diligence process on the approval of new crop varieties in Canada.
News is announced every week about innovative advancements in the use of gene editing technology and food production. In March, Health Canada announced that mustard greens with less of a pungent taste were conventional and required no additional risk assessment, allowing for this innovative product to be available for consumers to purchase. The science of gene editing is just beginning to bring exciting new food products to the market and with the pace of investment and research, more and more products will be available for consumers in the coming years.