The National Farmers Union (NFU) has issued a strong criticism of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s proposals for regulating gene-edited crop varieties.
It builds on the NFU opposition to genetically-modified (GMO) crop varieties such as Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans.
Gene editing differs from GMO varieties because it does not transfer genes from one species to another, but it does alter existing genes.
As far as I'm concerned, the draconian regulation of GMOs was misguided and the NFU's statement on the gene-editing proposals compounds that error.
The regulatory hurdles imposed on GMOs helped restrict the introduction of these improved varieties to the deep-pockets companies such as Monsanto and Dow, and in combination with patents, excluded the hundreds of plant breeders at universities and government labs who did so much to improve crop genetics.
Allowing gene editing to progress with a light regulatory hand would bring these independent plant breeders back into the market.
"The CFIA is proposing a new interpretation that would exempt many gene edited crops right away,” said the National Farmers Union (NFU) statement on the issue.
“The proposed regulatory guidance turns its back on science, allows biotech companies to determine safety, and leaves farmers, future regulators and the public in the dark,” the NFU said.
That statement is just plain wrong. There is no turning a back on science Why single out biotech companies and ignore government labs and universities? And just how will the public be any more in the dark than with traditional plant breeding?
"If this new interpretation goes ahead, companies would be able sell most gene edited seed without providing any data to the CFIA or even notifying the regulator, the public, or farmers that the seed is gene edited," the NFU said.
So what's the big deal? They never have had to say that they used radiation or strong chemicals to scramble genes when they were developing new varieties, such as all of the barleys on the market in the European Union.
"These criteria would exempt gene edited plants if they do not contain foreign DNA and as long as the company does not expect the plants to have a negative impact on the environment, said the NFU.
If the CFIA has already approved a trait, even if it is in another crop kind, the gene edited version will be exempt from regulation, the NFU said.
So how does that differ from triticale?
"Every new trait the CFIA approves will open the door to more exemptions, shrinking its regulatory oversight over time."
But plant breeders have always used previous varieties in their breeding programs.
Gene-edited varieties will be eligible for patenting, the NFU said, and a small number of large companies will control patents on the gene-editing processes.
I have always opposed patents on crop varieties.
Gene editing can change the function of a plant’s DNA by silencing or forcing the expression of specific genes, removing genes, and/or changing the location of genes within the genome and/or adding new genetic sequences at specific locations.
Most gene-edited plants will be produced using an “editor” sequence comprised of “foreign DNA” (from another species) to alter the plant’s own DNA and then removing the “editor” DNA after it has changed the genome, the NFU said.
“Exempting gene-edited plants on the grounds they do not contain foreign DNA falsely equates absence of foreign DNA with absence of risk,” the statement said.
“It also denies the scientific process, which constantly creates new knowledge and understandings. By progressively deregulating genetically engineered products, the CFIA would have less and less access to data, making it impossible to scientifically examine impacts in the future.”
Instead of requiring government environmental safety assessments, the CFIA suggests plant developers could request official letters from the CFIA to confirm their product’s exemption status, and that these letters could be confidential.
Companies could use them to advance their business interests while avoiding public disclosure of both their request and the products involved.
Gene-edited plants are not accepted by all consumers, and some importers may require rigorous government approvals.
The CFIA’s proposal to exempt many gene-edited plants from regulation also means there will be no public notification requirements.
Farmers would not know whether their new seed is compatible with their intended market, risking rejection of Canadian shipments known or suspected to include gene-edited varieties, the NFU statement said.
The CFIA proposals are open to public comment.