The Canadian government could remove safety assessments for many genetically modified seeds. Here’s why that’s bad news.

August 17, 2022

New regulatory guidance that could make GM seeds ready for market without safety assessment is raising concerns for farmers and eaters.

*Note from SeedChange: This post was originally published on August 17th, 2022, and has been updated on September 30th, 2022 to reflect the recent developments on the gene edited crops regulation case.

UPDATE: On September 19th, La Presse and Radio-Canada reported concerns from farmer and environmental groups that an official document about the regulation of gene edited crop varieties were being drafted by lobbyists for agrochemical corporations. The documents outlined how crop developers would not be required to provide information to the public about whether a crop variety was developed through the use of gene editing tools. The revelation that the document was drafted by an industry lobbyist raised questions among farmer and environmental groups about corporate control over the regulation of GMO crop variety release. In response, the federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada stated that she continues to have confidence in the leadership and staff of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

But, most importantly, the Minister promised that all GMO crops will require mandatory transparency going forward. This announcement from the Minister is an about-face from the CFIA’s original position that could ensure that the public maintains its right to know about the release of GMO crop varieties. SeedChange is optimistic that this development shows the Minister is listening to the public about concerns over transparency and corporate control in the regulation of GMO crops. If you feel compelled, we encourage you to reach out to the ministers Marie Claude Bibeau, Jean-Yves Duclos, and Steven Guilbeault to let them know your support for this decision and to amplify the call from farmers and environmentalists for transparency over the release of GMOs and the protection of regulatory institutions from corporate control.

Original post from August 17th, 2022

In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has the mandate to ensure that the seeds farmers use are safe to plant, while Health Canada has the mandate to ensure that the food they sell is safe for Canadians to consume. 

These government bodies have always played an important role in reviewing new genetically modified (GM) seeds before they can be sold to farmers by requiring independent testing, to ensure companies have minimized risks to environmental and human health. 

They’ve also required industry to identify their genetically modified seed varieties. This allows farmers to know what they are buying, and gives them the ability to avoid genetically modified seeds if they want. 

But right now, industry is lobbying to make it easier to get genetically modified seeds to market without government safety checks, and without transparency for farmers. 

In late 2021, SeedChange was one of 105 civil society groups who wrote to the Ministers of Health and Agriculture to voice opposition to the proposed changes to Health Canada’s and the CFIA’s regulatory guidance documents. 

Unfortunately, some changes have proceeded anyway – Health Canada recently announced that they would no longer assess the safety of gene edited crops for human consumption. But the CFIA has yet to release their decision on whether they will allow the proposed changes to go through. 

What is at risk if some genetically modified seeds are no longer regulated? 

At the request of industry, the Canadian federal government is considering changing the way it regulates genetically modified seeds. If approved, these changes would allow seed companies to fast-track the release of some kinds of genetically modified seeds, without submitting them to independent testing. 

The seed industry is arguing that new genetic modification techniques – called “gene editing” – are safer than earlier forms of genetic modification because they do not introduce DNA from other species. By claiming that this new technology is analogous to conventional plant breeding, they argue that there’s no longer a need for public oversight over the safety of these new genetically modified crops. 

The main motivation behind these changes is to make it easier and faster for plant developers to get their new gene-edited crop varieties to market. But is this wise? 

Even without the introduction of novel genetic material into a crop’s DNA, gene editing is still a form of genetic modification and can yield unintended consequences. 

For example, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network points to one recent study that found that a wheat variety gene-edited to enhance its resistance to mildew was unintentionally made more susceptible to other kinds of fungal diseases.  Another study found that a variety of rice that was gene-edited to increase its salinity tolerance increased the invasiveness of undesirable rice varieties – called weedy rice – if accidental cross-breeding occurred in the field.

These kinds of unintended consequences could spell disaster for a farmer’s crop.

What’s gene editing? Previous methods of genetic modification required that plant developers insert new genetic material into an organism’s DNA. New gene-editing techniques, on the other hand, work with an organism’s existing genetic material, forcing it to behave in a different way.

There are a few different techniques that can be used to make this happen. One of the more common and well-known techniques is called CRISPR/Cas9, or CRISPR for short. CRISPR involves using ‘gene-scissors’ to do a targeted cut on an organism’s DNA, creating a new genetic pattern.

An illustration of CRISPR, one of the new gene editing techniques that’s behind the seed industry’s effort to reduce regulatory oversight and transparency around genetically modified seeds.

How is genetic editing different from traditional plant breeding?

Proponents of genetically modified seeds often claim that genetic modification in a lab is no different than what farmers have always done when crossing existing crop varieties in their field to create new ones.

This claim, however, obscures two important differences: the multiple years of effort that farmers put into observing, evaluating and guiding the results of their breeding work, and the active role they play in limiting risks if any adverse effects arise. 

When farmers cross existing crop varieties in the field, they carefully observe their offspring and select the ones that best match their desired characteristics, year after year. In doing so, they cause gradual genetic change to occur in their crops until a new variety is created.

By closely monitoring the effects of this genetic change, from one generation of crops to the next, farmers effectively monitor for adverse effects and control them. If crops behave in ways that create problems, farmers will not save or share their seeds.

Companies that genetically modify crops (through gene editing or other genetic modification methods) create genetic change much faster. To get their products to market as quickly as possible, they are unlikely to test their new varieties over a long enough period, and in a wide enough variety of growing conditions, to check for unintended consequences unless they are required to do so by the government. 

If the federal government agrees to the industry’s demands to allow companies to release new gene-edited varieties without government oversight, farmers, the environment, and eaters will bear the risks inherent in releasing genetically modified crops on a large scale, without enough time and effort put into ensuring they are safe. 

A change that puts organic food – and organic farms – at risk

Industry’s demands go further than eliminating government oversight over the safety of gene edited crops. They are also lobbying to remove their obligation to disclose to farmers whether the seeds they are buying were genetically modified through gene editing, or not.

That means that farmers who want to stay away from genetically modified seeds will no longer know which seeds to trust. They would have to rely on communicating directly with seed companies to check which products have been gene-edited – and assume that the company is able to offer full transparency. 
This poses a major business risk to organic farmers in particular. Contamination of their seed stock with genetically engineered materials could lead them to lose their organic certification, and the trust of their buyers.

Gene-editing and genetically modified crops: also a threat to food sovereignty

At SeedChange, there’s another reason why we’re concerned by these potential changes.

Corporate concentration over the seed market has been rapidly accelerating since the 1990s. As of 2018, just four firms control 60% of the global seed market and 70% of the global pesticide market. 

We need to reverse this trend, not accelerate it. 

Reducing government oversight and transparency over genetically engineered seeds will only make it easier for the corporations that use that technology to capture a larger portion of the global seed market. 

This increased corporate control over seeds comes at the expense of farmers and their seeds, and of our power as eaters to choose how our food is grown. 

To protect and enhance our food sovereignty – and seed sovereignty – it is imperative that our government maintain its ability to monitor and regulate the ways in which seed corporations work to increase their market share – including by releasing an ever-growing number of patented genetically modified seeds.

It’s also imperative that our government act to support the alternatives – locally-adapted seeds that were bred, saved and sold by farmers, including organic seeds.  

There is still time to act – here’s what you can do

Help genetically-modified foods stay regulated! 

The CFIA plans to release their decision in the Fall. It’s not too late to take action. 

Our partners at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) have a customizable letter on their website to reach Marie-Claude Bibeau (Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food),  Jean-Yves Duclos (Minister of Health), and all health and agriculture critics. 

If you modify the letter, or opt instead to call or email the Minister’s offices directly, here are the three messages to convey:

  • I care about the federal government maintaining its role in enforcing mandatory testing of all genetically engineered plants, and reviewing the results.
  • I oppose the industry’s demands to reduce the regulatory oversight of genetically modified crops.
  • I expect my government to continue protecting our right to safe seeds and farmers’ right to know whether the seeds they buy are genetically engineered. 

In addition to making your voice heard, you can also support farmers around the world doing the hard work of stewarding local seed systems and growing healthy food for the planet, by donating to SeedChange.