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You may soon be eating more gene-edited food with Canada’s updated seed rules

Allison Squires grows organic grains like wheat, lentils and flax on her farm in Wood Mountain, Sask., but she says she is “supremely disappointed” in Canada’s newly clarified seed guidelines that she says puts her sector at risk.

Canada has just relaxed guidelines around gene-edited seeds, a move that the biotech industry says could lead to everything from Canada planting more drought-resistant crops to, someday, pitless cherries and sweeter broccoli.

On May 3, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) seed guidelines now allow for some modified plants.

Gene-edited seeds allowed

The updated seed rules now allow seeds created through gene-editing that are not spliced with foreign DNA or altered to make them pesticide-resistant.

Canada also announced an industry-managed database — the Seeds Canada Canadian Variety Transparency Database — to make it clear which seeds are and are not organic. While that database is voluntary, Bibeau says it will be overseen by a steering committee that includes and protects organic producers.

Organic wheat under a blue Saskatchewan sky in a field at Upland Organics.
On May 3, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced updates to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) seed guidelines that allow for modified plants. (Upland Organics)

But Squires and other organic farmers say mandatory reporting is needed to know exactly which seeds take root. And with no labelling requirements, consumers won’t know which foods use gene-edited ingredients. That, they say, could jeopardize the $9-billion organic sector, which must meet strict criteria — and ensure produce is not from genetically modified seeds — in order to use the organic label.

They’re worried about contamination which can happen when the pollen spreads or seeds escape.

Most of the soybeans and corn now grown in the U.S. sprout from seeds that were genetically modified to be pesticide resistant and there’s ongoing research about how pesticide-resistant genetically modified organisms (GMOs) led to so-called super weeds and bugs, and less biodiversity.

“If I can’t certify my farm as organic, I lose an incredible market share,” said Squires, president of the Canadian Organic Growers, and who often sells to European markets which she says demand a non-GMO guarantee.

Nobody is calling for a ban, just a way to opt out, explained Squires.

“All we’re asking for is a mandatory traceability system that provides myself and my fellow organic farmers with the assurances that we need to make sure that the seed that we’re buying is free from genetic engineering. So all we’re asking for is the choice to farm organically.”

Allison Squires on her farm in Saskatchewan where she has grain and pulse crops.
Allison Squires says it’s crucial to her organic farm certification that she can be sure her seeds are not genetically modified. (Shawn Fulton/Upland organics)

Across Canada farmers have flagged the need for seed transparency.

In June of 2022 Martin Caron, president of the Union of Agricultural Producers (UPA), said knowing which seeds are modified is “essential information if we are to continue to meet the demands of consumers who do not wish to consume these products.”

The Agriculture Minister says Canada needs to embrace new technologies that help with food production, in the face of climate change.

“The vast majority of farmers want these new technologies. When we have seeds that are more resilient to pests, it means less pesticides,” Bibeau told CBC on Tuesday.

“We have the reassurance from our scientists. And there’s global, not unanimity, but general consensus that it’s safe. The utmost priority is to make sure that we know it is safe for consumption,” Bibeau said.

“We could have reached the same result through traditional plant breeding. But now, with gene editing, we can do it very precisely and well, obviously, faster.” 

Canada has been slow to allow genetically modified seeds compared to the U.S. which is developing a new generation of gene-edited produce, ripe with promises of non-browning potatoes and soybeans with a healthier mix of fatty acids.

For some, this conjures old fears of so-called frankenfoods.

Back in the 1990s, a California company experimented with transferring animal genes into plants. An antifreeze gene from a flounder was spliced into tomato cells in a bid to make it freeze resistant. The fish-tomato flopped and never went to market, but the spectre of that tomato lives on.

A roller crimper sits in a fields in a farm in Saskatchewan.
On May 3 Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced updates to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) seed guidelines that allow for modified or gene-edited seeds and plants. (Upland Organics)

“When you are taking a gene from a foreign organism, that scares people,” says Joe Schwarcz, a professor of chemistry and director of the McGill University office for science and society.

“Any new technology has opposition, and slowly that withers away. The opposition has kind of dampened down … we’ve been eating genetic-modified foods now for 40 years and we’re still here.”

How gene editing works

Schwarcz explained that gene editing does not involve splicing any DNA from a non-related organism into fruits or vegetables. Instead, a technique known as CRISPR — a sort of pair of molecular scissors — is used to snip or tweak existing DNA sequences. It’s similar to what happens in nature, but much faster.

“The chance of something going wrong with gene editing is less than with any other genetically-modifying technique because it mostly is about inactivating a gene,” Schwarcz explained.

Biotech seed developers say this country’s new seed guidelines will spark research and development, and help Canada match pace with other countries, like Japan where consumers are now offered a gene-edited tomato with extra γ-aminobutyric acid or (GABA) purported to lower blood pressure and promote relaxation.

“It really does open up Canada,” said Tom Adams, CEO of Pairwise, whose company used CRISPR to develop a nutrient-dense leafy green.

In trials at local fairs more than 6,000 people took a stab at the gene-edited mustard greens that are now showing up on plates in Springfield, Mass., hospitals and universities, with plans to hit supermarkets soon. Canada’s updated seed guidelines mean Adams can now plan to sell or set up seed production for his product in this country.

Adams says it tastes a bit like a spinach and arugula hybrid that’s “sort of its own thing.”

No label required 

Adams plans to label his product, so it’s clear how it was created.

“We really believe in being totally transparent with consumers and with other growers,” said Adams.

A bowl of salad.
This salad is made with a leafy green created by gene-edited mustard greens, created as a kale alternative. The first product, marketed by Pairwise, is said to taste a bit like a cross between spinach and arugula. (Pairwise)

Countries like the U.S. and Brazil have been developing crops like drought-resistant soy for years, and Canada needs to “catch up,” says Stuart Smyth, professor at the University of Saskatchewan with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, the industry-funded research chair in agri-food innovation.

Smyth says food research in this country has been stunted by Canadian regulations, and gene-edited seeds that produce better yields could help ease food security and climate change issues.

He says drought-resistant soybeans could be planted by this summer in Canada.

A step backwards, warn organics advocates

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network says genetically modified crops of alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, salmon, soy, squash and sugar beets are already approved in Canada. Most have special approval because they were genetically engineered to be insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant. Most of these end up as processed food or animal feed.

Tia Loftsgard, executive director of Canada’s Organic Trade Association, says Canada’s relaxed seed guidelines is a “step backwards.”

Organic producers are demanding a mandatory registry of the seeds so they can protect against seed contamination. Organic farms must meet stringent standards to label and sell organic products to places like Europe. She says the changes will make this “trickier” and add costs, which make organics more expensive.

“We already have to make sure that we’re talking to our farmers next door. We understand, you know, if there is the potential for contamination, we have requirements for buffers to make sure that there’s not cross-pollination happening with your neighbour’s seeds,” said Loftsgard.

Less screening for gene-edited foods

Loftsgard says pesticide-resistant GMO plants will remain restricted in Canada, but gene-edited plants can skip stricter safety screenings.

“[Canada] has concluded that there is no need to do a health or safety assessment on the new forms of genetically engineered seeds because they do not feel that there is any risk,” said Loftgard, who wants longer-term studies.

“These seeds have never been introduced into nature,” she said.

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