Government of Canada's guidance on plant-breeding innovation is good news for farmers

Shannon Sereda, Director, Government Relations, Policy and Markets | Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions

In early May 2023, the agricultural industry in Canada welcomed further guidance provided by the Government of Canada that confirms that gene-edited crops will be regulated the same as conventionally-bred crops. This marks a critical milestone in the lengthy advocacy efforts of agriculture and agri-food organizations and Canadian farmers, and a big step forward for plant breeding innovation and competitiveness in Canada.

The publication of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) guidelines on May 3, 2023, related to the environmental safety of plants developed using gene-editing breeding technologies and confirm the scientific- opinion that gene-editing technologies do not present any unique or specifically identifiable environment or human-health safety concerns as compared to other [conventional] technologies for plant development.

This compliments the earlier publication of Health Canada’s guidance for Novel Food Regulations focused on plant breeding innovation that was released in May of 2022, which provide a definition of “novel food”. After an extensive scientific review, Health Canada was of the scientific-opinion that the gene-editing method of breeding did not create a ‘novel’ product and thus does not present a food safety risk and therefore excludes products of gene-editing, like conventional bred products, from a pre-market assessment.

Removing the criteria for a pre-market assessment on genome-edited seed varieties will expedite the use of this innovative tool for plant breeders. This means that farmers will have quicker access to new and improved crop varieties. Plant breeding innovations, like gene editing, have the potential to deliver healthier food, more resilient and productive crops, and plant varieties that require fewer inputs to grow.

The update guidance from both the CFIA and Health Canada is in line with the scientific consensus of other governments and scientific bodies around the world. Canadian farmers will be on competitive footing with their international counterparts in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many other countries who have completed their guidance updates and are benefiting from increases in investment and innovation in plant breeding as a result.

Farmers around the world have been urging their governments to remove regulatory barriers to advance plant breeding solutions and sustainably meet ever-growing food production challenges. To this end over thirty farmer organizations across five continents have come together to create the Global Farmer Statement on plant breeding innovation.

The statement emphasizes the urgency to enact policies that allow for breeding methods, like genome editing, in order to improve crops faster and more efficiently than before — allowing farmers to also achieve shared sustainability goals. The Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions endorsed the statement independently and through our national associations.

Along with the new guidelines comes a new transparency initiative for farmers to know if their seed is gene-editing, allowing for continued market choice and transparency. CropLife Canada and Seeds Canada have come together to develop best management practices for launching products of plant breeding innovation in Canada: including steps that seed developers can take to ensure pre-launch transparency before initiating seed sales.

This long-awaited guidance from Health Canada and the CFIA is very encouraging for farmers as it bolsters competitiveness and sustainable growth while also sending positive signals to the research and innovation community. One final step will be the publication of CFIA’s guidelines related to feed, the release of which is expected in the near future.