There’s a lot of excitement in agriculture about the introduction of gene-edited food products into the Canadian food system over the next few years. But there’s also a great deal of apprehension.
Gene editing is about tweaking a plant’s genome by turning off certain genetic traits. By using a technology called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), almost anyone with some molecular biology training can cut and paste certain genes of a plant without going through a cost-prohibitive process.
For example, a tomato grower can gene edit plants to get shorter stems, so the tomatoes become more clustered. Mushrooms that don’t turn brown, which in turn can extend shelf life and reduce waste, would be another example.
Some gene-edited, low-gluten and high-fibre wheat has already been developed in the United States. Gene-edited soybeans, which can be cooked at high temperatures without producing trans fats, have been planted.
Experts claim the technology could make some foods more nutritious without increasing costs, and also reduce food waste. Unlike genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which involve crossing species that would not normally cross in nature, gene editing is about fine-tuning what nature has given us. Glyphosate-tolerant canola, for example, is a GMO and was entirely created by humans. Gene editing, on the other hand, doesn’t add anything to the genome.
As it stands, public oversight for gene editing would be minimal, if at all. If the process doesn’t introduce any novel traits to the plant’s genome, Health Canada doesn’t require safety testing for new products. Certification or approvals would likely not be necessary. So monitoring and tracing gene-edited crops will be challenging.
And, as with genetically-modified content in foods, there are no plans to require mandatory labelling of gene-edited foods.
This is truly a recipe for another risk communication disaster.
Genetically-modified crops took the world by storm in the early 1990s without anyone knowing about it – other than farmers and the biotechnology industry, of course. Today, almost 90 per cent of the corn, soybeans and canola grown in Canada comes from genetically-modified seeds, and almost 80 per cent of all processed foods in any grocery store in Canada contains at least one genetically-modified ingredient.
Since GMO labelling isn’t mandatory in Canada, most consumers are unaware of their presence in food products.
Most major health authorities around the world, including Health Canada, have concluded that consuming GMO ingredients in food doesn’t pose short- or long-term health risks.
But that doesn’t matter to many consumers.
The food industry’s last venture into genetic engineering, more than 30 years ago, was a commercial success for agriculture. Global agriculture has benefited from the technology, which has made crop growing more efficient, without a doubt. But it also became a risk communication disaster over the years – consumers started to fear what was happening to their food, without knowing about genetic engineering.
“Frankenfoods” is one well-used label to describe GMOs and it reflects how misunderstood the technology is.
The biotechnology sector never bothered connecting with the public as it was promoting its new products to farmers. So it’s difficult to blame consumers for being fearful about what’s happening in farmers’ fields.
The political opposition from interest groups was fierce and those concerns made the biotechnology industry mindful of how social licensing is critical to their business.
What biotechnology companies are doing is important but it remains exceptionally misunderstood. Most Canadians know of GMOs but can’t accurately explain them.
For Canadians to befriend the science, mandatory labelling for genetically-modified and edited content would be a logical starting point.
Gene editing is a reality and it’s only a matter of time before the technology reaches grocery stores. Our food systems are evolving as we try to figure out how to feed a growing population. Gene-edited crops can help farmers produce safe and affordable food, feed, fibres and energy in the 21st century. But proponents of the technology need to make a legitimate case to consumers.
Given the GMO risk communication fiasco of the last 30 years, let’s hope we can learn from past mistakes by making sure consumers are on-board.
Regrettably, the effort to educate the public is close to nonexistent. That suggests we haven’t learned a darn thing.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.