Canada: New laws for GMOs and gene editing

Canada’s risk assessment policy for genetically modified plants (GMOs) and food products is being amended. The regulatory supervision will continue to be applied to GMOs that contain foreign DNA. However, the new category of GMOs, the gene-edited organisms with no foreign DNA will be exempt from the safety assessment by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).  

In particular, new organisms are classified into ‘novel’ and ‘non-novel’ by Health Canada and the CFIA. When it comes to gene editing, the ‘novel’ are the organisms having traits that aren’t naturally occurring which could pose a risk. Additionally, these are the organisms that haven’t been previously authorized or that contain foreign DNA in final version of a product. By contrast, ‘non-novel’ are the organisms that proved to be safe to use in the past, contain no foreign DNA, and show no new traits.  

At the moment, all GMOs in Canada have to be assessed by Health Canada and the CFIA to determine if they are ‘novel’ or ‘non-novel’. GMOs that are found to be ‘novel’ are subject to a regulatory supervision. Nevertheless, there is a new regulatory guidance about novel foods which will allow companies to decide whether their products are considered ‘novel’, and these will be under the regulatory control of Health Canada and the CFIA. Lucy Sharratt, the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), said that “The information that we have shows that (Health Canada and the CFIA) may provide a list of gene-editing techniques that it considers to be safe. The companies will decide which of their products fit that description.” According to Sharratt this new rule will have an effect on companies in the sense that they might end up investing more in making non-novel gene-edited plants. Either way, with the new regulatory guidance the issue regarding the companies’ transparency of gene-edited seeds might arise.  

Lastly, Health Canada and the CFIA indicated that they don’t plan on tracking where gene-edited crops ended up. "As with any other food, Health Canada does not monitor the market penetration of foods in the Canadian food supply ... CFIA (also) does not track information about the commercial status of plants based on their method of development, because their impact on the environment is considered to be the same as those already on the market," Health Canada stated.