In May, Marie-Claude Bibeau, the minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), announced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) revised seed guidelines which will now include a mix of gene-edited seeds.
This means gene-edited seeds and gene modified plants will no longer need to undergo an independent safety assessment as they are seen as safe. These manufactured seeds are altered to make them pesticide-resistant amongst other modifications, which the government views as an enhancement to sustainable food production in Canada.
“Through the … CFIA’s updated guidance for Part V of the Seeds Regulation, seed developers will be able to confidently invest in new products while maintaining the high standard of safety that Canadian is known for domestically and internationally,” reads a statement from the Government of Canada.
With this announcement, the Government of Canada has also created an industry-managed database called the Seeds Canada Canadian Variety Transparency Database, which will be overseen by a committee to protect organic farmers and monitor which seeds are and are not considered organic.
This decision directly impacts organic farmers in Canada like Patrick Harrison, who owns Historic Collishaw Farm, a blueberry farm in Surrey.
The announcement poses a risk for organic farmers in Canada as labelling seeds will no longer be required and they must ensure their produce does not come from genetically modified organisms (GMO). Organic farmers say this database is not enough to protect their crops from gene-edited seeds.
Although Harrison is not a vegetable grower, he is still concerned about the changes to the guidelines around gene-edited seeds.
Harrison is worried about cross-contamination. If farmers nearby use gene-edited innovations, pollen and seeds can easily escape onto organic farmer’s fields and affect their crop.
“My concern as a blueberry grower is that bees pollinate everything. I am sure I am getting non-organic pollen from my neighbours. So, if they are using gene-edited [seeds], I want to know about it,” Harrison says.
“For people with vegetable crops, it is even more of a critical situation because they are doing annual seeding. By relaxing these rules, I have no idea how [the government] will track it,” he says.
The decision creates added stress for farmers as they not only have to focus on their crop, but other growers’ fields around them.
“Things will blow in and there is the possibility of getting invasive weeds that you cannot control,” he says.
Harrison wishes the Government of Canada had consulted the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) before relaxing the guidelines and had asked for organic farmer’s input in this decision.
AAFC sees these guidelines as a step in the right direction for the agriculture sector in Canada.
“Gene editing can benefit growers and farmers in a number of ways. Gene editing can allow plant breeders to identify, target and incorporate useful traits into existing crops more efficiently than conventional plant breeding,” wrote Samantha Seary, the spokesperson for AAFC, in an email statement to The Runner.
Additionally, gene-edited seeds will be able to adapt to climate change more easily than non-gene edited products.
Seary also wrote plants will be resistant to drought, extreme temperatures, or certain insects while maintaining crops and other characteristics.
“Gene editing will have a positive impact on the agriculture sector and will help meet the need for new technologies and innovative food production solutions to feed a growing global population, meet sustainability objectives, and help the agriculture sector adapt to challenges such as climate change,” she wrote.
Seary also wrote these crops could be helping with tackling climate change by reducing the need for fertilizer and irrigation, “lessening the overall environmental impact of crop product and reducing costs to farmers and consumers.”
Kent Mullinix is the director of sustainable agriculture and food security at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and does not support the decision to include gene-edited seeds in Canada’s food system.
“[Gene-editing] is a direct assault to organic, ecologically-focused food producers,” Mullinix says.
“This policy is a slap in the face to ecologically sound agriculture and sustainable food systems that are about community development and economic vitality as opposed to corporate development and the global industrial food system.”
Mullinix says there should be more research and testing done around gene-modified plants since it is a new innovation and people don’t know what the short and long-term implications may be.
“This gene-editing would not occur [naturally] in nature, so we are going to create genomes that would not likely occur in nature and set them free to proliferate,” Mullinix says.
KPU Farms will not be using gene-edited seeds or updating their farming techniques with these guidelines anytime soon.
“We only teach organic, deeply sustainable farming food production. It is a reflection and commitment to advancing the proper kind of agriculture” he says.
Mullinix does not see gene-edited seeds as a solution to combat the climate crisis.
“I understand the inclination to deal with climate change through these kinds of technologies, but my sense is that it is not going to [help]. What we need to do is advance ecologically based farming systems, start mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture, and get global warming under control,” Mullinix says.
“To argue that this is going to help do that is disingenuous in my mind. It is all about big money, big industry trends, and the global industrial food system. That is exactly the opposite direction we need to be going.”
He also says that nearly a sixth of the world’s population is food insecure, including close to 10 per cent of Canadians, and that robust, regional food systems would likely have a better chance of helping.
Cindy Pearson is the manager of the Plant Biosafety Office for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and regulates what is being released into Canadian environments.
Pearson decides which produce will be monitored and assessed before Canadians have access to it.
“The CFIA did a comprehensive review of the literature on gene-editing to confirm that there is no new specific risk with this technique,” Pearson says.
“If there is a potential [for a plant] to impact the environment, we would do an assessment. If the outcome of an assessment is that there is no potential for it to impact the environment, [it goes ahead].”
A gene-edited plant will be assessed the same way a natural plant would.
“It is the characteristics of the plant that will determine if a pre-market assessment is required, regardless of the technology used to develop that plant,” Seary wrote.
An example of a plant that would not meet the safety requirements, would be herbicide tolerant plants and would always require an assessment by the CFIA.
“A herbicide tolerant plant is when a plant breeder has bred a new characteristic where the plant has a new type of tolerance to herbicides. So other plants of that species would not [have the same tolerance], so it would not be appropriate to spray those plants with that herbicide in the field,” Pearson says.
In 2015, it was determined that 65 cases of plants with herbicide resistance were identified in Canada. It is not clear whether gene-edited seeds will become herbicide tolerant plants due to their resistance and adaptive nature to the environment.
However, these updated guidelines still cause issues around the relaxed labelling requirements. Since farmers are not forced to label whether their products are gene-edited or organic, Canadians will not know what ingredients are in the food they eat.
“The Government of Canada supports a voluntary approach to declaring the method of production, provided the claim is truthful and not misleading,” Seary wrote.
“CFIA expects that plant breeders will fully participate in available mechanisms that support transparency and can help assure farmers, consumers and trading partners that products meet their specific needs,” she wrote.
This transparency will only make it more difficult for organic farmers to have control over the organic sector.
“Organic certifications are the foundation of global organic trade. The Canadian organic sector is a $9.35 billion industry that is globally recognized,” reads a statement from Organic BC’s website.
In 2018, there was an incident where GMO wheat was discovered on a farm in Alberta. The farm was forced to shut down for a month and a half, and wheat exports were halted to Japan and North Korea.
“This highlights the risk not only to organics, but to all forms of agriculture in Canada should there be no mandatory transparency of new genetically engineered products moving forward,” Organic BC’s statement reads.
Mullinix says these updated guidelines could greatly affect the organic industry for years to come.
“The fact that it is going to be unlabelled is an indication that the government and industries know that people do not want this. People will make choices and they do not want food made out of genetically altered plants,” he says.
“The burden [is put] on others who pay the price for this industrial model.”
For more information on gene-edited seeds, visit http://bit.ly/3P0ECKT.