Gene editing crucial step toward global food security
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The environmental approval of gene editing by Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal minister of agriculture and agri-food, went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media last week. It’s understandable considering the plethora of news that captured the public’s attention, from the ongoing issue of Chinese interference to King Charles’ coronation.
Gene editing may not be the most captivating subject to engage consumers, but its significance for global food security cannot be overstated. Fortunately, Ottawa is getting it right.
Last week, Bibeau made an important announcement regarding the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s implementation of Part 5 of the Seed Regulations. This aligns with Health Canada’s decision less than a year ago that classified gene editing as “non-novel” while subjecting it to appropriate regulations. This is a crucial leap forward for global food security. The next and final step involves consulting and assessing the gene editing of plants intended for livestock feed. Legalizing gene editing in Canada could be granted as early as this fall.
In simple terms, gene editing in food refers to the use of techniques such as CRISPR to modify the DNA of plants, animals or micro-organisms used in food production. Unlike GMOs, which involve inserting genetic material from different species into an organism’s genome, gene editing allows scientists to make specific changes to an organism’s genome, potentially enhancing its nutritional value, disease resistance or other desirable traits. It holds the potential to create crops that are more resilient to pests, diseases and environmental stresses, while also improving their flavour, appearance and shelf life.
Gene editing will undoubtedly aid agriculture in tackling climate change and adapting to ever-changing growing conditions. It will also streamline the research and development process, potentially saving millions in research costs, and making scientific advancements more adaptable to our evolving environmental and ecological landscape. Increasing yields can reduce the risk of severe price fluctuations, benefiting both ends of the food continuum, including consumers at the grocery store.
However, it is crucial to prioritize clear labelling. Consumers should have the right to know what they are consuming and understand the technologies that impact farmers’ crops worldwide, including in Canada. Canada’s global leadership in genetic engineering should be celebrated, even if it remains largely unknown to the average consumer. Demystifying the virtues of genetic engineering for consumers is critical to equipping agriculture and farmers to face climate change more effectively. It also has the potential to make certain food categories more affordable, such as non-gluten wheat, benefiting individuals with allergies or specific intolerances.
Groups opposed to gene editing, like CBAN and Vigilance OGM, have consistently misled the public through fearmongering, falsely claiming that gene editing lacks oversight. They have once again criticized the government’s decision, accusing it of promoting unnatural agriculture. However, nothing could be further from the truth. These groups often exploit the public’s limited understanding of the technology.
To be clear, Ottawa has declared its commitment to establishing monitoring and oversight measures, to guarantee the precision and dependability of the publicly accessible database, based on the recommendations of a government-appointed steering committee. These strict guidelines will hold the industry accountable and ensure transparency.
While science has thus far indicated minimal risks associated with gene editing for humans and the environment, the debate surrounding its safety and ethical implications in food continues. Given the variation in regulatory frameworks across countries, this discussion must persist. Science is not absolute, so monitoring longitudinal risks will be critical. Anti-genetic engineering groups have the right to express concerns, but they should refrain from exaggeration, as they have done in recent decades, bordering on the ridiculous.
But for now, we can safely say Ottawa and 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.
» Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.