Unlike traditional Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), “genome-edited” plants will not need Canadian government approval before being planted in our fields. However, the seed industry is committed to creating a register to identify the varieties developed using this technology.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau made the announcement Wednesday during a virtual press conference. The establishment of this database is Ottawa’s response to the outcry of organic producers, who feared for their certification.
“That’s the route we found,” Minister Bibeau said of the registry. “It’s an industry commitment, it’s not a legal obligation,” she later clarified in English.
There are no gene-edited plants grown in the Canadian agricultural system yet. This new technology makes it possible to make changes to the existing DNA sequence of plants without inserting genes from another species, as is the case with so-called traditional GMOs. It makes it possible to attenuate, accentuate or extinguish the genetic traits that are already present in the plant.
Proponents of this approach see it as a revolutionary tool that will make crops more resilient to climate change or foods more nutrient-dense.
The federal government officially released a “guidance document” on Wednesday that seeks to “interpret” Canada’s Seeds Regulations. Under these regulations, permission from the Canadian government must be obtained before releasing genetically modified seeds into the environment.
The database will be managed by Seeds Canada, the main association representing seed growers, distributors and retailers.
“The government, we are committed to monitoring this database with the complicity of a multi-sector committee,” said Minister Bibeau.
In addition to not using synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, organic farming must guarantee that it does not use GMOs to obtain certification.
“It’s all the organic certifications on the planet that have the same rule: they don’t allow gene editing, they consider gene editing equal to a GMO,” explained Christian Legault, head of regulatory watch at the Quebec organic sector.
The latter regrets that the register is not compulsory. “All we’re asking for is traceability,” he says.
The Ecological Local Agriculture Cooperative, three-quarters of whose members are certified organic, also denounced the concept of “voluntary transparency”. Its president Léon Bibeau-Mercier even called it a “kid’s patent”. “It kinda feels like it’s a way of drowning the fish,” he explained.
“Without legal obligation, we are concerned that the data in an industry-maintained registry may be incomplete or false since until proven otherwise, no binding corrective action and no independent assessment process is contemplated to ensure the integrity Datas. »
For her part, Minister Bibeau replies that she has respected her commitment. “Frankly, with another government, gene editing would have been open wide a long time ago and there would have been no protection of the organic sector. »
For Thibault Rehn, the coordinator of the pressure group Vigilance OGM, Minister Bibeau chose the industry camp.
“The federal government is delegating its responsibility for the evaluation and traceability of future GM crops to market and asking us to fully trust the industry that has pushed against mandatory transparency.”
The announcement also received positive reactions. The agricultural union of Producteurs de grains du Québec welcomed the publication of the guidelines for interpreting the regulations.
“This measure will strengthen the ability of producers to adapt to increasingly unpredictable weather conditions. Indeed, plant varieties emanating from genetic editing and being deemed safe by Health Canada, are notably designed to be more resistant to drought, extreme temperatures, diseases and pests,” said their president, Christian Overbeek, in a press release.