In the second summer of the pandemic, two government departments ran major public consultations on the future of regulating genetically engineered foods and seeds (genetically modified organisms or GMOs).
During the farming season, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) ran a consultation (May 19 – Sept 16) on removing itself from regulating many new genetically engineered seeds. The CFIA’s consultation overlapped with the end of Health Canada’s consultation (March 25 – May 24) on a similar proposal to do away with government safety assessments for many future genetically engineered foods.
The proposals are to remove government oversight from the introduction of genetically engineered foods and seeds that do not contain foreign DNA, produced through the new genetic engineering techniques called genome editing or gene editing (see “CRISPR Crunch,” Watershed Sentinel, April/May 2021). Companies would regulate their own products.
The rationale for this move away from government product safety reviews to corporate safety assessments is based on assumptions about the safety of the new genetic engineering techniques, and the ability of product developers to successfully identify and screen out any unintended consequences from the process of genome editing. These assumptions are under dispute and the techniques of genome editing themselves are still under development. The National Farmers Union (NFU) said, “Both the CFIA and Health Canada present the current discussion around regulation of genetically modified plants as a safety issue, when in reality, it is an issue of power.”
It is not yet known where the consultations will lead but the proposals were already well-defined through department meetings with industry actors, and the UK government has recently chosen a similar path to remove regulation for genome editing.
Industry expertise for corporate self-regulation
In developing their proposals, the departments showed a heavy reliance on industry expertise. Ahead of the public consultation, the CFIA and Health Canada held many meetings with industry representatives. These meetings included an “expert panel session” on October 16, 2020, “To seek expert input and perspectives on a list of scientific questions that have been identified by regulators and that are linked to the development of new regulatory guidance(…).” The meeting relied on eight panelists – two from academia, two from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and four from companies that sell genetically engineered seeds: Corteva, Bayer, Cibus and Calyxt. In fact, two of these four companies – Corteva and Bayer – together control approximately 41% of the global commercial seed market and 29% of the agrochemicals market.
“Both the CFIA and Health Canada present the current discussion around regulation of genetically modified plants as a safety issue, when in reality, it is an issue of power.”
— National Farmers Union
This session was attended by 15 Health Canada employees, 18 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada employees, and 20 from the CFIA. This is a high level of attendance to a meeting led by just a few experts, half of whom stand to profit from sales of regulated products. Of the five observers who also attended, three were from the biotechnology and pesticide industry lobby group CropLife Canada, whose members include the same four companies.
Blurring the public/private lines
The industry determination to shift from public to private regulation of seeds is illuminated by the new amalgamation of seed industry associations under the governance structure called “Seeds Canada.” In 2020, the NFU wrote to the Minister responsible for Consumer and Corporate Affairs to object to the use of “Seeds Canada” as a business name, arguing it was contrary to the Canada Business Corporations Act Regulations. Terry Boehm, former President of the NFU, said, “The name ‘Seeds Canada’ imitates the names of many government departments and agencies, such as Revenue Canada, Health Canada, Elections Canada … and contravenes the regulation by implying the new organization is sponsored or controlled by or is connected with the Government of Canada.” Seeds Canada’s voting members are companies that profit from seed sales, including Corteva and Bayer.
In their response to the proposals to remove government oversight from some GMOs, Seeds Canada told the CFIA that industry had the expertise to regulate itself: “The CFIA’s Plant Biosafety Office[’s] main safety concern is the potential capacity of a new variety to negatively impact the environment but it needs to be recognized that there are other institutions and industry-led processes or agronomic practices involved that enable environmental safety.” However, in their commentary, the NFU argued that, “Regulation is an element of our democratic governance system. Regulation puts boundaries around the activities of individuals and companies through a publicly accountable process.”
Lucy Sharratt is co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), which brings together 16 groups to research, monitor, and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN is a project on the shared platform of the MakeWay Charitable Society. www.cban.ca
Updates on this evolving issue and the consultation results are available at www.cban.ca/NoExemptions
CBAN has created a quick guide to understanding current issues around GM foods & crops in Canada: 2021 GMO Status Update: Canada (view/download PDF)