The global population is on track to reach 9 billion people by 2050. At the same time, climate change and a growing middle class are forcing the worlds’ farmers to grow more food on limited arable land. Biotechnology already plays a key role in modern agriculture. As our increased understanding of the technology allows us to boost food production and develop a limitless range of functional and value-added applications – and the tools become cheaper and more accessible – ag biotech will become increasingly important in tackling food security and malnutrition.
Yet 20 years after they were first commercialized, genetically modified (GM) foods remain a contentious issue in the global food system. The discord sown by the lack of a conciliatory approach is alienating a significant segment of the population and threatens to limit farmers’ access to safe technologies that can improve their incomes, provide sustainable solutions to environmental challenges, and help feed the world. In Canada, our approach to GM foods is centred on a regulatory system that focuses on strict, science-based safety criteria and leaves commercialization decisions to private industry. While this approach upholds health and safety and fosters an innovation-friendly business climate, we are faced with the absence of any clear system to address the range of socioeconomic impacts GM foods invariably have on stakeholders throughout the value chain. Fearmongering and baseless claims over the dangers of GMOs aside, growers, handlers, processors, retailers, and consumers all have legitimate concerns over the place of biotechnology in our food system, and our continued failure to address these issues has negative repercussions for both users and non-users of ag biotech. Calls for the government to intervene and “manage” these issues by moving away from a purely science-based approach and incorporating market-based considerations into the regulatory system invoke a whole range of policy challenges and will not provide a solution. If we are to develop a holistic and inclusive approach to biotechnology for the 21st century, all affected parties need to be a part of the conversation.
Canada is uniquely positioned to take the lead in this regard and set an example for the world –our vibrant biotech and organic sectors have been able to grow in tandem with each other, industry and grassroots organizations are collaborating to respond to evolving consumer demands, we have a robust science policy community, and Canadian citizens are eager to engage with their food system. We invite you to join us for this discussion that will bring together collaborative and forward-thinking experts to explore what roles government, industry, academia, and civil society groups can play in effectively managing the use of biotechnology to answer some of the major global challenges of our time.
- Greater collaboration needed between industry, government and consumers
- Review viable options for public information, including labelling
- Make the risk assessment process more transparent
- Reduce regulatory scrutiny for low-risk varieties
- Ensure regulators have the necessary skills to evaluate the safety of new GM products
- Ensure separation in CFIA’s dual mandate of protecting health and safety and promoting industry
Panel: Addressing Concerns Over GMOs - Striking the Right Balance
Organized by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC)
CSPC 2015: November 26, 2015
Moderator: Sylvain Charlebois, College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph; Panelists: Andrew Goldstein, Director General of Policy, Planning, and Integration, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada; Muffy Koch, Biotech Regulatory Affairs Manager, Simplot Plant Sciences; Elizabeth Nielsen, Board of the Consumers Council of Canada and the Consumer Policy Committee of ISO; Mike Peterson, Global Traits Lead, Forage Genetics International; Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
The policy issue:
Genetically modified (GM) foods are playing a growing role globally in tackling food security and undernutrition. Yet they remain a contentious issue some 20 years after they were first commercialized. Canada’s approach to GM foods centres on a regulatory system that focuses on strict, science-based safety criteria, without addressing a range of socioeconomic impacts.
“Canada exports a tremendous amount of our agricultural production, so we rely on scientific- and rules-based trade. If we move away from scientific regulatory approvals, that will undermine our ability to advocate for science-based rules around the world, and this can lead to market access issues for our own products,” said Goldstein.
Panelists agreed the issue is complex, with public education being one of the biggest challenges. "I don’t think anyone from governments to industry has done as good a job as they should in transparency and explaining things," added Goldstein.
Sharrat explained that consumer resistance to GM foods is made worse by a lack of labelling and traceability. The Consumers Council of Canada has found that Canadians are concerned about the food they eat and want to know what’s in it and where and how it’s produced. The Council has called on the agri-food industry to respond with better, more complete and more accurate product information.
"The Canadian government does not actually track where genetically modified crops are grown, and there's no listing or tracking of what traits are on the market," said Sharrat.
The uncertainty around public acceptance puts a strain on the predictability of the process, from GMO development to market. "Corporations developing GMOs have as much to lose by not addressing the perceived risks raised by consumers," said Nielsen.
Koch, who has spent 20 years studying consumer acceptance in developing countries, says misinformation is to blame. "I feel very strongly that if consumers are given good information they will be able to make informed decisions," said Koch. "Choice is critical for consumers.”
The solution, panelists agreed, rests on a more holistic and inclusive approach to biotechnology that includes collaboration between industry, government and consumers.
As the pace of technology increases, Goldstein said "it will be a challenge for regulators to keep up with the level of new products coming forward, and a challenge for industry in how you sell into this environment." He added that regulators will need the skills to evaluate the safety of these new products.
Concern was also expressed that the CFIA may face pressure when assessing GM foods. Although the agency is impartial and regulates products based on strict, science-based criteria, some of its operations are overseen by the Minister of Agriculture, who is also responsible for the well-being of the sector. "The auditor general a couple of years ago pointed out that this is an obvious conflict of interest which places the health and safety and the environment at risk," said Neilsen.
"Innovation is really one of the foundations of our policy directions," said Goldstein. "The innovation is critical first and foremost for the profitability and economic sustainability of the sector, but it can also help the sector adapt to an evolving range of opportunities and challenges."
Goldstein noted that the regulatory process managed by Health Canada and CFIA offers "a framework and system that provides predictability to facilitate innovation in the sector while ensuring safety”.
Canada’s approach differs from the U.S. where regulators look at deregulating traits, said Peterson. "The Canadian regulatory system has a much better design to handle some of those newer types of technologies because they evaluate plant novel traits whereas the U.S. looks at the pest potential of a new trait."
Goldstein agreed, saying "the novelty-trigger creates a more flexible system for Canada, while still looking at safety."
Canada’s flexibility in addressing a wider range of products is useful as it ensures new biotechnologies are covered under the umbrella of the regulations, said Koch. However, she pointed out that Canadian regulators are more stringent, which can burden business and innovation if "every single clonal variety we transform we have to put through a full regulatory system, even if that transformation is identical in each variety."
If regulators see an identical transformation in five varieties, then Koch suggests they only look at regulating new risks in later varieties.
One course of action, said Neilsen, is to require mandatory labeling and provide transparency around the assessment process. “Many states in the U.S. have legislation pending for mandatory labeling. And in Europe, of course, it’s being done on a regular basis now, not only for consumers to make an informed choice, but also for traceability of the product.”
When developing a new product, Koch added it should to beneficial, desirable, affordable and appropriate for the market, so working with customers is important. For example, in response to consumer concerns over black spot bruising in potatoes, Simplot Plant Sciences, which has operations in Canada and around the world, developed a new potato variety called “Innate”. It eliminates the unsightly spots and reduces the levels of a potentially harmful chemical called acrylamide.
Goldstein said these innovations have expanded the benefits of GMOs from industry to consumers. “When GMOs were first introduced, the benefits were for the industry. Now we see new products being developed, such as the non-browning potato and non-browning apple, where there is an actual benefit to the consumer.”
While genetically engineered crops are a growing industry in Canada, Goldstein said organic agriculture is also on the rise. “From AAFC’s perspective, that’s a good thing. We are there to support industry. If they choose to go the organic route, that’s great and if they choose to use biotechnology, that’s also great.”
GMO Inquiry 2015, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network; http://gmoinquiry.ca/