Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Health Canada is ready to hand over its regulation of new genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) foods to the companies that develop them. After over twenty years assessing the safety of mainly herbicide-tolerant GM corn, canola and soy, Health Canada says it can now confidently surrender its safety checks for most of the future genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The department has decided new genetic engineering techniques called gene editing are safe enough that companies can determine the safety of most new gene-edited foods without government oversight. Foods from genetically engineered plants that have no foreign DNA in them will be exempt from regulation unless companies flag a safety problem for Health Canada to assess. In the case of these gene-edited GM foods, independent science and public oversight are seen to be unnecessary.

It’s a gamble to assume safety rather than assess it. In fact, the international scientific literature has many serious warnings that such an assumption about gene editing is incorrect. Studies are constantly discovering ways that the processes of gene editing can create genetic errors and result in unintended effects. Yet, Health Canada proposes that most of these products can skip regulation entirely, and is developing a scientific rationale to reassure Canadians that this is still a “science-based” approach to the foods we eat every day.

However, this is not just a gamble with the safety of our food supply, it’s also a gamble with the legitimacy of our regulatory agencies.

Without independent checks on confidential corporate safety data, Health Canada will be asking Canadians for blind trust in the safety of genetically engineered foods and in the corporations that produce them.

Health Canada has never done its own safety tests of genetically engineered foods. It has always relied on privately-owned corporate safety assessments, but it has reviewed this information on behalf of Canadians and has brought its own tools to the task. The corporate science behind the GMOs on the market is confidential business information. Now Canadians would have no independent eyes on the science behind these foods.

This new decision would also open our food system to a flood of unregulated genetically engineered foods that would not only be invisible to consumers, but also to government. Companies would be allowed to release these GMOs without notifying the government. The changes would result in an almost total lack of transparency – the government itself would not know which genetically engineered foods and seeds may be on the market.

Surrendering its regulatory authority over many new GMOs would leave a profound information vacuum. Health Canada’s solution is to “encourage” companies to notify the government when they’re getting ready to sell unregulated GM foods. On June 28, Health Canada wrote to the biotechnology and pesticide industry lobby group called CropLife Canada, the amalgamated seed industry association called Seeds Canada, and the Canada Grains Council, to ask these industry associations to provide a commitment that their members would participate in the proposed “Voluntary Transparency Initiative”.

Why would Health Canada take such a gamble by surrendering its role in ensuring safety and transparency?

This removal of the “regulatory burden” would support innovation, or at least one type of innovation: gene editing. One of the two main goals of Health Canada’s proposals is to “provide an efficient and predictable pathway to commercialization for new products” (the other is to provide clarity, predictability and transparency).

Health Canada held a two-month public consultation in the spring of 2021, and will soon release the results. However, Health Canada’s log of meetings shows that its “post consultation stakeholder engagement” was months of meetings with biotechnology and seed industry associations. In total, Health Canada logged 21 meetings with industry in both the pre- and post-consultation phases and three with civil society before the consultation (with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network). Industry developed the proposals with Health Canada and they are now refining these proposals together.

Health Canada launched this process to provide “clarity and predictability” to the “regulated parties.” At the moment, these regulated parties are the biggest seed and pesticide companies in the world. The vast majority of all the genetically engineered foods and seeds approved in Canada are owned by the same three companies – Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta – who together own around half of both the global seed market and pesticide market.

The bottom line is that Health Canada has spent too much time with these regulated parties, without casting eyes to the world outside the government-corporate product review transaction. Outside Health Canada, there are 105 groups who wrote to the ministers of health and agriculture in November, calling for transparency and government oversight of all genetically engineered foods and seeds.

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Lucy Sharratt

Lucy Sharratt is the Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a project of the MakeWay Charitable Society.