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Opinion: Plant-breeding innovations fuel future

This new technology can help solve some of the biggest challenges of tomorrow

Scientists around the world have demonstrated the use of gene editing tools is as safe as any of the methods that have been used for thousands of years.

Just as we’ve seen the importance of science and innovation in combating the current public health challenge, they stand to play an equally important role in helping agriculture tackle the challenges it faces ahead.

New pests and major weather events are increasing, making the job of producing food for a growing population even more challenging. Farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature but scientific innovation like gene editing technology can give them tools to grow crops in increasingly challenging conditions.

Gene editing allows scientists to make specific changes to the genetic code of an organism to enhance desirable qualities and remove undesirable ones. It holds potential in many areas of our lives including health care, energy, industrial materials, and agriculture. Gene editing in plants is a modern form of plant breeding, which has delivered incredible benefits to farmers over the decades in terms of varieties with improved yields, insect and disease resistance, and herbicide tolerance to name just a few.

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – better known as CRISPR – is currently the most talked-about tool for gene editing. It allows plant breeders to develop new and improved crops much more quickly than before. This is essential given that farmers need to rapidly adapt to the changes brought on by climate change in addition to constantly evolving consumer preferences.

Higher-yielding wheat crops, disease-resistant bananas, tomatoes growing more fruit per plant — around the world, gene editing is already being used to improve agricultural production and sustainability. Creating plants that are more disease resistant, produce high yields on less land using less resources, or plants that grow in harsher climate conditions — gene editing is helping solve the problems of today and tomorrow.

This proven innovation has been around for over a decade now and subject to extensive research. Scientists around the world have demonstrated the use of gene editing tools is as safe as any of the methods that have been used for thousands of years in conventional plant breeding. Health Canada recently stated, “Through a review of the current scientific knowledge regarding the use of gene editing technologies to develop new plant varieties, Health Canada concludes that the use of gene editing technologies does not present any unique safety concerns compared to other methods of plant breeding.”

The federal government has identified the Canadian agriculture industry as having great potential to be a driver of economic growth for the nation. In fact, Canada’s Economic Strategy Table on Agri-Food set a target for the sector of growing exports to $85 billion by 2025. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic growth, investment, and job creation is needed for Canada, and the world to recover. An efficient regulatory framework that promotes innovation and levels the playing field with other countries, while continuing to protect health and safety, can help Canada reach its targets and develop a more efficient agricultural system.

The plant science industry is committed to stewardship, including transparency and information sharing with the public. We support giving Canadians access to the information they want about new products on the market, including gene-edited crops, and will work closely with regulators to ensure this information is available.

Gene editing is an exciting, proven, and safe method used in plant breeding that has great potential to support Canadian agriculture. To learn more about the benefits and safety of gene editing visit “Nature Nurtured,” an initiative supported by a broad group of organizations in the agricultural sector to increase awareness and understanding of gene editing in plants.

Pierre Petelle is president and CEO of CropLife Canada.

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