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With gene editing, Ottawa made the right call

Ottawa is recognizing how powerful gene editing can be to help Canadian farmers address global food security challenges

The environmental approval of gene editing by Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, possibly the biggest news in agri-food last week, was largely overlooked by the mainstream media. Hard to blame them, since it was a very busy week in the news, with the ongoing issue of Chinese interference, and King Charles’ coronation. Gene editing is probably one of the most dull and unattractive subjects we can find to engage consumers, but it is of the utmost importance for global food security – and Ottawa is getting it right. 

The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, made an announcement last week regarding the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's implementation of Part 5 of the Seed Regulations. This aligns with Health Canada's decision from less than a year ago, which classified gene editing as "non-novel" and to be regulated accordingly. This is a very important and critical step forward for global food security. Now, it is on to a consultation and assessment of gene editing of plants intended for livestock feed – that’s the last step. The approval to make gene editing legal in Canada could happen as early as this fall.

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In simple terms, gene editing in food refers to the use of techniques such as CRISPR to modify the DNA of plants, animals or microorganisms used in food production. Gene editing is unlike GMOs when a foreign genetic material from a different species is inserted into an organism's genome. Gene editing allows scientists to make specific changes, tweaks if you will, to an organism's genome, in turn potentially improving its nutritional value, disease resistance, or other desirable traits. In essence, gene editing will create crops that are more resilient to pests, diseases and environmental stresses. It can also enhance their flavour, appearance or shelf life.

Gene editing will undoubtedly help agriculture deal with climate change and ever-changing growing conditions. It will also make the research and development process more efficient, perhaps saving millions in research, and will make science more adaptable to our changing environmental and ecological landscape. Increasing yields can only decrease risks of seeing severe and sudden price fluctuations, from both ends of the food continuum. This would include the prices we see at the grocery store as consumers.

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What needs to happen though, is to deliver on clearer labelling. We should all know what we are eating, and should be given the opportunity to befriend the technologies impacting farmers’ crops all over the world, including here in Canada. We should celebrate the fact that Canada is a global leader in genetic engineering, but all this work flies under the radar of the average Canadian consumer. Demystifying the virtues of genetic engineering for consumers will be key to making agriculture and farmers better prepared to face climate change. It also has the potential to make some food categories more affordable. Non-gluten wheat is certainly one example. For people with allergies or certain types of intolerance, gene editing could become a much-needed benefit over time. 

Groups against gene editing, like CBAN and Vigilance OGM, have continuously misled the public with fear-mongering, stating that no oversight will be provided for gene editing. They did it again with this latest announcement by accusing the government of being irresponsible in making agriculture unnatural. Nothing could be further from the truth. These groups often take advantage of the fact that most of us don’t fully understand the technology.

To be clear, Ottawa declared that it would establish monitoring and oversight measures to guarantee the precision and dependability of the publicly accessible database, based on the government-appointed steering committee's recommendations. The guidelines are strict and will make industry accountable and transparent.

Science is telling us thus far that the risks associated with gene editing for humans and the environment are extremely limited. Still, the debate continues about the safety and ethical implications of gene editing in food, and since regulatory frameworks vary across different countries, this discussion needs to continue. Science is not absolute, so it will be critical to monitor longitudinal risks. Anti-genetic engineering groups have the right to register concerns, but they shouldn’t overdo it as they have in recent decades, bordering on the ridiculous. 

But for now, we can safely say Ottawa and Minister Bibeau did the right thing and deserve all the credit. Even if most may not fully appreciate technological advancements in agri-food, consumers should be thankful for them.

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