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Agriculture This Week: Gene-editing causes debate

There are some issues that by their nature tend to be divisive
canola crop
Consumers have concerns about the science behind new variety developments. (File Photo)

YORKTON - There are some issues that by their nature tend to be divisive.

In the world of agriculture how plant breeders go about developing the crop varieties of tomorrow is certainly one of those issues.

Traditional plant breeding techniques don’t raise much concern, or attention.

But, if plant breeders use more recent scientific developments such as gene-editing, their efforts are applauded by some, and for others the hairs on the back of their neck rise in concern.

For background, gene editing technology in agriculture is based in the traditional breeding process. Through gene editing, scientists can make precise, targeted changes to plants’ specific DNA sequence that mirror what could occur either in nature or through traditional plant breeding, but in a more efficient way,” notes

In Canada gene-editing has typically faced higher hurdles in terms of having varieties developed using the technique accepted.

But, recently Health Canada has lowered the bar, putting the technique on a more, or less even footing with older crop development techniques.

It is a decision which has taken years for Health Canada to make, so one can infer it was not a decision taken lightly, but the body has decided that crops developed through gene editing are safe and, in most cases, will not require a pre-market safety assessment.

“This will open up the very real possibility of dramatic improvements for small- and large-acre crops alike, from productivity improvements to new solutions for emerging pest pressures, to advances in food and fuel crops that will benefit the entire value chain including consumers,” said Rick White, chair of the Canada Grains Council in a recent article at

But, other organizations are sounding an alarm, in particular calling attention to the government’s decision to let companies provide their own oversight.

A release from the National Farmers Union noted that organization’s concern Health Canada will allow private companies to release many new genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) foods without any government oversight. 

This is the knife’s edge of a rather important debate. 

On one side the issues of increasing desertification, salinity, climate changes and growing population all point to an increased need for fast varietal development to meet the changing realities of crop production. Obviously gene-editing can be an important tool in that work. 

But, consumers have good reason to be at least somewhat distrustful of business, and cases of contaminated water, abandoned hazardous waste sites, and questionable safety rules in too many countries are all too real. 

It would seem at least some level of government, or third party oversight would still be worthwhile, although it would need to work with expediency too to ensure science can advance crops for our future in a timely fashion.