Despite it being 30 years since Canada last set regulations governing plant breeding, its recognition of the subsequent advances via genetically modified organisms and gene editing, such as CRISPR Cas9, RNAi and epigenetics, prompted Health Canada to revise its guidelines for the safety assessment of novel foods earlier this year.

The objective of the reforms was to stay with the product-based assessment and not process-based, as has been the situation here in Europe.

Putting the focus on the product is seen as the best way to foster the development of new varieties and hybrids. These technologies are seen as important for the further development of small-grained crops such as oats, barley, peas, chickpeas and lentils, as well as fruits and vegetables, and not just crops such as soya bean and maize.

The updated legislation is said to provide both the flexibility and scope to enable the technologies we have today and the inevitable advances that may still be unknown to the scientific community currently.

Novel is redefined

Perhaps the biggest change is that many of the changes brought about by editing crops will not be viewed as novel and so will not be subject to regulatory approval. This is also the case in other countries, but controls will still exist for the development of traits that are not considered to be novel.

This legislative change is expected to encourage the use of gene editing techniques to manipulate traits that are frequently targeted in conventional breeding programmes.

These would address our standard requirements for disease resistance, drought or water resistance, increased yield, etc. These traits have been the target of plant breeding efforts for years, so would not be seen as novel or require supervision.

Industry players in Canada are generally pleased that they now have clear, science-based rules that support nutritional, environmental and production enhancements to grains, pulses and oilseeds.

The change means that new varieties can be produced for farmers regardless of the techniques used to produce them and without unnecessary regulatory burden.

A potential quantum leap

The potential for variety development from CRISPR and other genetic technologies is generally described as a quantum leap for the production of varieties that are needed to deliver the myriad of modern day requirements.

For many years now, plant breeders have concentrated on delivering traits that were important for processors as well as growers and this adds to the challenge of finding a commercial combination of these broader range of traits.

Genetic engineering, gene editing and gene manipulation.

Gene editing is unquestionably a major advance in combining these requirements in new varieties. After all, there is nothing added or nothing taken away.

The process merely activates the genetic capability that exists naturally in plants. It mirrors what can be done through traditional plant breeding and in nature, but in a more efficient way.

The new controls open the door for small genetics-based companies to generate breakthroughs for plant breeders to potentially help produce more advanced varieties in much less time.

Edited does not equal ‘novel’

For Canada, the changes in the legislation mean that many edited products will not be considered to be novel, so will not be subject to additional regulatory approval. This will encourage innovation and faster progress for growers, processors and consumers.

Ironically, these tools can help add new life to older varieties that have been outclassed, as these may carry traits that are now seen to be hugely beneficial.

It is not impossible that the continued use of this technology commercially may even increase the genetic diversity of commercial varieties globally.

In an era where regions such as Europe want to produce more of their own protein, this technology may help to bring far more benefits to the supply chain and its sustainability.