Health Canada plans to drop safety assessments of novel genetically modified foods

Canadians may soon be eating unregulated and undeclared genetically modified foods.

Health Canada is consulting with Canadians on proposals to exempt certain novel genetically modified foods – genetically modified organisms or GMOs – from government regulation. Amid the pandemic, the public had 60 days to comment, but time is running out on May 25.

Examining the proposed “regulatory guidelines” on genetic engineering might be complicated, but Health Canada has made it easy and sensational. Guided by the government-wide agenda of “agile regulation” and responding to industry enthusiasm for new genetic engineering techniques, Health Canada proposes to entrust certain safety assessments to developers of products such as Bayer (formerly Monsanto) and Corteva (DowDupont).

Health Canada asks Canadians if they think this approach is safe: is it “commensurate with the level of risk”?

Health Canada’s basic proposal would remove its regulatory authority from certain genetically modified foods, many of which are likely produced through genetic engineering techniques known as genome editing. Some products would come to market without any government oversight.

This is a wise solution for a biotechnology industry that wants its products to be brought to market more quickly and Health Canada’s abdication of responsibility for ensuring food safety.

Canada does not regulate genetic engineering; it regulates “novel foods” and “plants with novel traits”. So far, however, all genetically modified foods consumed in Canada have been regulated as novel. While some genome-modified foods may still fit the definition again, many would likely bypass the system.

This is because Health Canada is proposing to define foreign DNA as a regulatory trigger (a “novel trait”), which means that many genome-modified products that do not have foreign DNA would be exempt from regulation. This focus on foreign DNA is simplistic and overlooks a series of potential adverse effects that could impact food security.

Currently, genome editing in plants relies on inserted genetic material that will produce a DNA “editing” system containing targeted “gene cutters”. The inserted material is then, in most cases, lifted out of the body.

Genome editing can efficiently send gene cutters to a target location in the genome, but cutters can also cut DNA at other unintended locations, causing “off-target effects”. This is only one of the reasons why “the editor” is not precise. The process can leave genetic errors that can lead to unintended effects – and they should be researched and evaluated for safety.

Still, Health Canada suggests that if the foreign DNA has been removed, and if there are no other obvious “new” features, then the safety assessments can be left to the developers. Companies would themselves determine whether their product is “non-new” or if it needs a government safety review.

If Health Canada excludes certain products from the regulations, it would not have access to the scientific data used by companies to determine safety. Nor would it be able to force companies to disclose which unregulated GMOs are on the market.

To fill this gap, Health Canada is proposing a “voluntary transparency initiative” to “encourage” companies to voluntarily notify the government of any unregulated (non-new) genome-modified food.

Because, as Health Canada says, “there is a great interest” in “greater transparency regarding all products developed using these technologies that are present in the Canadian food supply”, the consultation asks Canadians if this voluntary system would be sufficient to inform the public. They also ask, “Can we do more?”

After 20 years of public pressure and polls showing that over 80% of the population Eighty percent of Canadians want mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, which is a bold question.

Until now, the government knew which genetically modified products are permit on the market. The government has never followed what is in fact on the market, but knew what could be for sale. This small but important information is now on the verge of disappearing.

The biotech industry is claiming genome editing as the future of food, while pushing for that future to be visible to Canadians only on its own terms.

The implications of Health Canada’s proposals are particularly profound because they are part of a multi-year overhaul of the risk assessment of GMOs in all departments.

Canadians will soon have the opportunity to comment on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s proposals for changes to the environmental risk assessment of genetically modified plants. Health Canada will then conduct consultations on the risks of eating GM animals, and the federal government has promised to review the governance of GM animals under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Together, all of these proposals can open the door to a flood of unregulated GMOs. Alternatively, these consultations could be an opportunity for the public to assert some control over how genetically modified organisms are allowed into our environment and our food system.

Health Canada’s consultation page is available here.

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network released information and analysis here.

Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

Image Credit: Mehrad Vosoughi / Unsplash

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