Want to avoid GMOs? New rules will make it more difficult

Canadians could soon buy genetically modified foods and plants sold with minimal government oversight, recently released federal guidelines suggest.

Last month, Health Canada released orientation project, or documents that the government will use to guide its application of laws and regulations for genetically modified plants and derived food products. Under the new directive, which is now open for public consultation, only plants that show changes in five potentially harmful traits – such as toxicity or nutritional composition – will be subject to food safety assessments by Health Canada.

The rest – including some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) developed using new gene-editing technologies – will be exempt.

Gene editing (or genomic editing) refers to a suite of new techniques that can modify an organism‘s DNA at a specific place in its genome. Although foreign DNA is often used to make genetic changes, it does not remain in the final organism, as is the case with previous types of GMOs.

The technology allows scientists to add specific and desirable traits to an organism’s genome, bypassing the longer and less precise methods used in traditional breeding or earlier genetic modification techniques. It is also much faster and cheaper than previous GMO techniques and is used regularly in medicine. CRISPR is one of the best known gene editing technologies.

The proposed guidelines will make it easier for companies that develop genetically modified plants to bring them to the market. The changes will also ease the burden on agencies reviewing genetically modified plants, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), documents describing the proposal explain.

Under the proposed regulations, companies that create new plants and food products will not need to submit their products to Health Canada for a “pre-market” risk assessment if they:

  • Does not contain foreign DNA. Plants or foods created from foreign DNA but which do not contain it at their final stage will be exempt from the risk assessment process unless they meet one of the other four criteria;
  • Do not contain any new toxin or possible allergen;
  • Do not contain proteins that could mimic a known toxin or allergen;
  • Do not significantly affect the nutritional value of the plant;
  • Don’t change the way the plant is used in food.

Plants and food products that do not meet all of these criteria will be considered “new” by the government and will require assessment before being placed on the market. Those who do will be considered “not new” and will be exempt. The approach builds on current regulations, which only assess the end product for safety, not the process used to create it.

Canadians could soon buy genetically modified foods and plants sold with minimal government oversight, recently released federal guidelines suggest. #GMOs #Food

This means that plants or foods created through conventional breeding techniques and gene editing will undergo a risk assessment if they have “novel” traits. “Non-new” plants will not be. Companies that create them will, however, be encouraged to make information about their genetically modified plants available to the public on a voluntary basis on the Health Canada website.

So far, no genetically modified plants are on the market in Canada. However, in 2013, the biotech company Cibus brought to market a herbicide tolerant canola which he said was then genetically modified using a proprietary technique. At the time, its use in Canada was approved by Health Canada and the CFIA.

However, the company has since changed her melody, saying that canola was not produced using gene editing. In the company’s 2013 submission to government for the first approval of its canola, it was clear that canola was not produced using gene editing, a Health Canada official said.

Canada is unique in its narrow focus on the end product, not the process used to create it. For example, European regulators rely on the process used to create a new plant or food to trigger their risk assessment process. If gene editing has been used, it is considered a GMO and subject to strict labeling rules and requirements.

This will not be the case in Canada. Since “not novelGenetically modified plants and foods won’t go through a government “pre-market” risk assessment, they could end up on supermarket shelves without consumers – or Health Canada – knowing.

“As with any other food, Health Canada does not monitor the market penetration of (genetically modified) foods into the Canadian food supply,” the agency said in a March statement. “The CFIA (also) does not track information on the trade status of plants based on their method of development, as their impact on the environment is considered to be the same as already on the market.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada

About Alma Ackerman

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