The federal government has come out in favour of gene editing.
Or, more accurately, the Government of Canada believes gene edited crops can help farmers produce “safe and affordable food, feed, fibres, and energy in the 21st century.”
The quote comes from a statement released in early November and was delivered during a World Trade Organization meeting.
Why it matters: Gene editing could be a less controversial and more efficient way of increasing crop productivity, but there are issues with approvals, especially in Europe, which could delay adoption of the technology.
The United States and 12 other nations — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Vietnam — issued a joint statement on agricultural applications of precision biotechnology.
“Agricultural innovation has played an essential role in increasing yields and productivity in support of growing, prosperous civilizations,” the opening line of the statement says.
“Innovations in precision biotechnology, such as gene editing, have brought the promise of major improvements in terms of the ease and precision of introducing desirable traits into agricultural organisms, as compared to other breeding methods.”
Gene editing, using a technique called CRISPR, has been touted for several years as the next big thing in plant science. It allows researchers to precisely delete or insert genes in a plant’s DNA.
A news release announcing a licensing agreement with a gene editing company, Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) described the technique as the “biological equivalent to the ‘search and replace’ function in computer word processors.”
“Monsanto believes gene editing technologies have the potential to improve a number of crops within our current research portfolio, which includes corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, wheat and fruits and vegetable crops,” said Camille Scott, who does scientific communications for the company.
In the WTO statement, the 13 countries urged other nations to adopt consistent and reliable rules for gene edited crops.
“Due consideration should be exercised by governments to avoid arbitrary and unjustifiable distinctions between end products (crop traits) derived from precision biotechnology and similar end products, obtained through other production methods.”
That’s a wordy way of saying: make decisions based on facts and science, not feelings.
The European Union wasn’t mentioned in the two-page statement, but it clearly was a rebuke of European policies on biotechnology.
This summer, Europe’s highest court ruled that gene edited crops should be regulated the same way as genetically modified plants.
Many academics and biotech associations condemned the court’s decision.
Most experts believe that gene editing is a precise form of mutagenesis, in which plant breeders use chemicals to create random mutations that generate new and useful plant traits.
Most regulators, such as Health Canada, treat mutagenesis as conventional plant breeding, so the regulatory and approval costs are much lower than genetically modified crops.
Biotech firms believe gene editing should be treated the same as mutagenesis, meaning it should be classified as a modern form of conventional plant breeding.
The American Seed Trade Association did mention Europe in a news release, saying the regulation of gene editing should be based on science.
“The American seed industry is founded on innovation, and plant scientists have been successfully developing and improving crop varieties for hundreds of years,” said ASTA president Andrew LaVigne.
“In light of the recent disappointing decision by the European Court of Justice, efforts such as this international statement are more important than ever in working toward the goal of global alignment on policies around agricultural innovation.”
Canada is not bound by the words in the joint statement. The federal government can take a different approach on gene editing and new plant breeding methods if it chooses.