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The Hill Times, Opinion by Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, September 11, 2023.

The emergence of new genetic engineering techniques for food and farming renewed the deregulation ambitions of the biotechnology industry. The federal government has responded quickly with a hands-off approach. However, the use of new genomic technologies in our food system, such as gene editing, demands strong regulatory oversight.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency both recently updated their guidance on regulating genetically engineered foods and seeds. These updates are significant policy decisions about the future of genetic engineering and consumer choice that will change how many Canadians view the food system and federal regulation, and may impact food and environmental safety.

The regulatory guidance results in corporate self-regulation of most future genetically engineered foods and seeds (genetically modified organisms or GMOs). Health Canada has described this conclusion as mistaken, but this is precisely the outcome, and it is both dangerous and anti-democratic. More than 100 environmental, farmer, and social justice organizations jointly wrote to the ministers of health and agriculture to demand that all genetically engineered foods and seeds be subject to government safety assessments and mandatory reporting to government.

Rather than strengthen oversight and ensure transparency, the government is deferring to industry and unseen industry-generated science. Faced with the advent of the new genetic engineering techniques of gene editing, government departments have chosen to further narrow regulatory triggers in order to exempt many gene-edited products from pre-market regulation. The sound option is to expand the triggers to capture all new products of genetic engineering.

The updated regulatory guidance could have ensured that all GMOs, including those produced with gene editing, are assessed for safety. At the very least, “novelty” could have been defined such that departments secured the option to review them. Establishing this regulatory authority would have allowed the government flexibility into the future, to regulate as the technology changes and the science evolves. Instead, the guidance confirms the ability of many (or most) new GMOs to make it to market without any government oversight or public knowledge. This includes products of future, as yet undeveloped, genomic technologies. There is no government tracking of “non-novel” GMOs, and no ability to reliably track them.

Until now, all of the GMOs we eat have been reviewed for safety by government regulators but this is about to change. Now, how should we refer to “non-novel” GMOs that do not trigger the pre-market regulations? Is it accurate to refer to these GMOs as “unapproved” or “unregulated” GMOs?

Like all foods that we eat, there are regulations that will still govern GMOs generally. For example, companies are required to report any food safety issues that may arise. However, unless a non-novel GMO is linked to an observable or reported problem once on the market, it may never be seen by any department or made known to the public.

Health Canada has disputed our description of its approach as corporate self-regulation because the guidance defines five categories of product characteristics that would trigger regulation. Critically, however, Health Canada will not be assessing whether products meet any of these categories. That determination is left to product developers and Health Canada will be dependent on them to adequately investigate these questions and to truthfully report any negative results.

Pre-market government assessments of gene edited products will be rare. Most safety assessments will be conducted by product developers without independent government review. There will be no government access to these private safety assessments and there may be no relevant published science. How is this not corporate self-regulation?

There is no mandatory labelling of GM foods in Canada and the updated guidance does not establish mandatory reporting of non-novel “unregulated” GMOs. Canadians may soon be eating some unknown GMOs that regulators have not assessed for safety. The federal government has concluded that this does not matter. We think it does. A majority of Canadians, according to public opinion polling, agree with us.

Creating a supportive environment for innovation does not require the surrender of government authority. This approach shows either a lack of imagination and foresight, or a lack of commitment to safety and transparency.

Lucy Sharratt is Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), a network of 15 organizations including farmer associations, environmental and social justice organizations, and regional coalitions of grassroots groups. CBAN is a project of the MakeWay Charitable Society.