Question Period: Gene-Editing Technology

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Ceremonial Guard on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Hon. Marty Klyne: Senator Gold, my question is about gene‑edited seeds — an important and controversial topic in the realm of crop farming.

For those who are not familiar with the concept, gene editing refers to a set of genetic engineering techniques that can be used to add, remove or alter genetic sequences at precise locations in an organism’s genetic code. In other words, gene editing can be used to alter the DNA of seeds used in crop production.

It’s a bit different from genetically modified organisms, typically the result of adding foreign DNA into an organism’s genome.

There are benefits associated with gene editing. For example, using gene-editing tools can allow plant developers to improve the existing qualities of a seed and shorten the growth cycle of a given plant or crop.

However, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have faced questions regarding a proposal to adjust how the use of gene-edited seeds is monitored and regulated. Many farmers and other organizations in the agricultural sector are concerned that the regulations should regard forward research and, in the absence of that research, may not go far enough to protect farmers or the natural environment.

For my part, I can certainly understand apprehension about unintended consequences and risk management where forward research may be warranted.

Senator Gold, this is a very complicated issue. Can you update this chamber on the status of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s plan to monitor the use of gene-edited seeds and if changes to these regulations to enhance transparency and accountability are forthcoming?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Thank you for your question and for underlining the complexity of the issue, as you very well expressed.

The government is committed to science-based decision making and keeping food, feed and our environment in Canada safe, while at the same time supporting an innovative and sustainable agricultural sector. In that regard, all seeds, foods and feeds, whether developed using conventional methods or by technology, are regulated in Canada and must comply with all relevant standards and regulatory requirements for both safety and quality.

I’m advised that when it comes to gene editing, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, CFIA, is proposing guidance updates to help explain which plants require authorization from the CFIA before being grown or planted in Canada. I further understand that CFIA has launched consultations last fall to bring changes to the regulations relating to genetically engineered seeds.

The government is notably consulting with stakeholders to keep pace with technology to improve transparency and is carefully considering relevant scientific information about the use of gene-editing technologies in agriculture.

Colleagues, updated guidance will make regulatory decisions clearer, while allowing Canadians and the agricultural sector to benefit from the advances offered by new technology.

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