Gene Editing: The Next Step in Plant Breeding

Health Canada approval opens ‘tremendous possibilities.’

By Colleen Halpenny

Higher yields, improved taste, disease resistance, and adaptable growing conditions have been achieved through a variety of techniques, ranging from conventional breeding to modern molecular tools such as GMO and gene editing.

In the spring of 2021, Health Canada sought input on the current state of plant breeding, and the potential impacts of gene editing techniques. In May of 2022, approval was granted for gene editing in Canada, with additional clarification and transparency guidelines being updated throughout the year.

We spoke with industry experts and producers to understand what this new path will mean to Canadian growers.

Improving crops faster

Dr. Peter Phillips, distinguished professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan, says that gene editing is “a tool that offers a lot of promise, if it works in all the produce categories it’s being researched in. It should speed up the development of new crops, which is something producers ultimately want.”

seedling growing in petri dish
    sinitar - Adobe Stock photo

Phillips explains that the traditional breeding cycle for a new cultivar starts by asking the growers what they need. Development can take seven to 10 years, and by the time it finally comes to the market, “growers are usually in need of something different.” Through gene editing, this cycle could be cut in half to allow for increased sustainability, diversification, and an improved economic investment.

“Gene editing is the most exciting policy that has been published, but the importance lies in the context of how Canada oversees plant breeding at large.”

Ian Affleck, vice president of plant biotechnology with CropLife Canada, concurs.

“Breeding research being conducted, even in conventional breeding, was impacted by the previous vagueness of regulations. This clarification improved the ability of gene editing and conventional breeding to catch up to competitors in different areas around the world.”

Affleck notes that gene-edited crops won’t change how production happens on-farm, but rather would lead to a scenario such as “you may not need a fungicide, or to kill potatoes as often. These tools should improve your management, and could potentially lead to fewer interventions during the crop cycle.”

Michelle Wall, Seeds and Traits regulatory lead with Syngenta Canada, is eager for the opportunities to bring this technology into play.

“Without having to submit for novel trait status, the timeline of getting new technology just sped up.

farming holding open crop
    Developing new varieties with genetic engineering gets the benefits to the field faster. -sima - Adobe Stock photo

“Removing the need to breed through multiple generations of plants in some of the conventional settings, and using science to fine-tune those desirable traits for growers, we’re going to see new varieties come to market in much better times,” she says.

Expanding the markets

Given the high investment cost for GMO crops, the focal point of research has been commodities which trade on a large global scale. CropLife Canada notes that the current timeline for a new variety averages over a decade and $150 million dollars. Gene editing will change this.

Affleck explains: “Because of the lower cost of development, those crops which didn’t benefit from GMO focus are going to have the ability to see big impacts. Breeders won’t need large financial payback from a market in order to cover the cost of breeding.

“Barley, oats, peas, chickpeas, and the vegetable sector, to name a few, are crops that come to mind as brimming with great potential.

“Again, this is fine-tuning what breeding practices are already aiming for. So imagine if we can get 10 per cent more insect resistance instead of two per cent; it’s not as headline-grabbing for the average consumer, but it’s so impactful for the day-to-day for farmers in a wider scope.”

Todd Tonn, certified seed grower and owner of Tonn Seeds in Plumas, Man., knows producers are still looking for the perfect package.

“Gene editing is a great tool, and I hope it can deliver on those problems like lodging and clubroot resistance we’ve been battling for decades with no real progress,” says Tonn.

“Opening up the market and the research to new ideas, and bringing those varieties to the field faster – it’s such a wonderful opportunity for producers and growers.”

Wall agrees that growers with smaller market shares could finally see the progress that previously has been lacking from an investment standpoint.

“This brings value to all producers who want to participate with the technology. But for those smaller crops, the opportunity is drastic.

“Compared to the traditional GMO space, the reduced cost and time to market for a gene-edited variety is going to allow producers to invest and innovate where previously they may not have been able to, due to lack of capacity, time, or funding,” says Wall.

Phillips says that while there is still much discussion, international markets seem to have reached a comfort level with corn, soybeans, canola, and other large-scale crops being GMO, but that gene editing could still be used.

“But I really see a focus for gene editing into crops like mushrooms, non-browning apples, and high-fibre wheat. These have been identified as big consumer demands, and the technology will follow the value-chain signals.”

Education is critical

“The breeding space is long and arduous, but Canada relies on public breeders for our crops,” says Phillips. “Right now, public breeders are hesitant with the technology and pushing it out into the commercial space.

“The real question is, can we take the technology into a position where it becomes generally accepted for new product development, and consumers have shifted the perspective from how the trait was created and instead look at what value it adds to their lives.”

Phillips and colleagues are concerned with barriers beyond the technology being developed, asking if regulators will allow the products to get to market, and whether the public will accept them.

Affleck agrees that ensuring an end use must come prior to development.

“If you can’t sell it, you can’t grow it. Breeders and companies will always work with marketing boards to ensure the value chain has a place for the crop. Making buyers aware and driving home the ‘why’ of these new practices increases the value chain engagement prior to the product being available at the stores,” he says.

Reflecting on the launch of GMO crops to the marketplace, Affleck says that the agriculture sector as a whole admits it was not done well, and that is the key reason behind almost 20 years of public discourse.

“What happened previously was that the breeding companies were focused on solving the problems farmers were encountering. The focus was on the science and the regulations. They talked with growers, and forgot about the consumers. But it’s not the grocery store’s responsibility to educate. So, in terms of gene editing entering the breeding world, we need to be proactive on our discussions,” says Affleck.

Wall agrees that the agriculture sector is responsible for discussing what gene editing offers, not only locally, but globally. “Educating yourself, to then be able to break the science down to consumers.

“Science is complicated, and scientists can complicate it further. We need to work together to make information palatable, easy to digest, and rememberable. At its most basic this is conventional plant breeding, done faster. It’s breeding that could potentially even occur naturally. So we need to find the value, and help them understand the why,” she says.

Tonn knows that breeding has occurred naturally and in conventional settings for centuries. He concedes that new technology can be overwhelming, but he believes that making consumers aware of advancements is worth the time and effort.

“If some of these traits which are brought forward are health-focused – not solely about yield or tolerance – consumers are going to find the value quickly. If it could help with cholesterol or diabetes, anyone who can utilize them will be jumping for joy,” he says.

Nature Nurtured, launched in partnership with various boards and organizations across Canada such as the Canadian Seed Growers Association, Canadian Grains Council, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Corteva, Bayer, and Syngenta, has set out to do just that.

Affleck says the group was launched two years ago, “as a public engagement campaign to help with learning about new biotech products before they came to the market.

“The idea is that across the website and socials we are sharing, through fun and playful ways, the traditionally boring side of the science. Bringing together consumer, environmental, farmer, and economic research that has been done on plant breeding into an engaging snapshot of information.”

For Phillips, the future appears more data driven, and he believes consumers will have a higher influence on what farmers are doing.

“Purchasing decisions are signalling to researchers and producers that if you do X, we will pay more for it. And that subsequently drives where researchers and producers will put their focus. In order to have harmony between the two, there needs to be understanding of where each is coming from,” he says.

Since the Health Canada publication of approval to the guidelines, Wall notes the positivity in the sector, and is optimistic for the future.

“This is a great step for Health Canada in this space, as a leader, and forward thinking for Canadian regulatory bodies as they evolve. This goes beyond what the technology can deliver to Canadian agriculture, but what a great impact our breeders can have in a global space towards improved sustainability.” BF

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