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Published in The Hill Times, September 12, 2022

The Minister of Health recently allowed Health Canada to give up its role as independent regulator when it comes to the safety of many future genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) foods, and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is contemplating a similar set of proposals on seeds from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

This is a profound shift away from independent science and transparency to corporate self-regulation, and it will limit future regulation and policy options on genetic engineering.

As it stands, the health minister’s decision means that Canadians could soon be eating some unreported, unknown genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that have not been assessed for safety by Health Canada’s regulators. The decision will have wide-reaching impacts across our food system, and begins a cascade of changes that now include forthcoming proposals from Health Canada to amend the regulations themselves.

Biotechnology companies have long lobbied for less regulation, and now they have an open door to the Canadian market for some genetically engineered foods produced with new gene editing techniques. If a new food comes from a plant that was genetically engineered without incorporating DNA from other species (it has no foreign DNA), then the product developer alone can determine if that food is safe.

The presence of foreign DNA is one of five categories of novel characteristics that Health Canada asks product developers to assess. The problem is that Health Canada will no longer verify that developers have, in fact, assessed these safety questions, or check how well they have examined them. Health Canada won’t review these gene-edited foods for safety because they will not fit the definition of a “novel food.”

Instead of ensuring government oversight, the federal government has handed responsibility for determining the safety of some products over to the companies that develop them, without any government oversight. Critically, by exempting them from the Novel Foods Regulations, Health Canada has surrendered its authority over these new GM products. The government won’t have the ability to ask companies for their safety data, or for any other information about these foods.

This means that companies can put these gene-edited foods on the market without even notifying the government that they exist. The federal government will lose the ability to track GM foods and seeds, if it wanted to. It will leave Canadians dependent on product developers for information about the role and prevalence of GM in our food system.

Yet, Canadians do not want to give up public oversight of GM food safety. In fact, expressions of concern to the federal government were brought by more than 100 groups of environmentalists, health advocates, farmers, and small businesses. Further, the regulatory exemptions are opposed by Canadians by a margin of nearly 2 to 1 (46% to 24%), according to opinion research conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights.

Critically, this important change was made via updates to the regulatory guidance on novel foods. Health Canada took full advantage of the flexibility and power it has in making changes to this technical document. However, now Health Canada also says that it will propose changes to the regulations, to “reflect the interpretation reflected in the guidance.” This is shocking management of the regulatory change process and of stakeholders who commented in 2021 public consultations. Soon, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food could allow similar corporate self-regulation for gene-edited seeds, via regulatory guidance.

If gene editing is the future of genetic engineering, and the future of our food system as promised, then Canadians and our government will be entirely dependent on voluntary corporate information about this new reality, even as we grow and eat gene-edited foods.

This is unacceptable. It is incumbent upon the ministers to end these moves to corporate self-regulation.

Lucy Sharratt is Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) that brings together 15 groups to research, monitor and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN members include farmer associations, environmental and social justice organizations, and regional coalitions of grassroots groups, and is a project of MakeWay’s shared platform. www.cban.ca/NoExemptions