Updated seed regulations could mean more fruit varieties at the supermarket, says genetics expert
The change could address food insecurity in the future
Trevor Charles, a University of Waterloo biology professor who specializes in genetics, said there's real potential for more varieties of fruits at the supermarket after the federal government updated their regulations around seed production.
Seed developers can now use a modern breeding process — green lit by the feds last month — which could not only produce more varieties of fruits and vegetables, but create more resilient seeds to adapt to climate challenges and protect against insects or disease.
"There's less food waste because you have less crop disease but also you have less application of pesticides, so chemical pesticides and that's a real benefit for everyone," Charles told CBC News.
"So, basically, we're replacing chemistry with biology."
This new process fuses plant breeding with gene editing (making changes to existing plant genes). It's a process which is different from genetically modified organism (GMO), Charles explained, when a gene is transferred from one organism to another.
'Huge impact on food security'
There are other benefits to this too, Charles said.
"It has a huge impact on food security because in the next 50 years we're going to have to produce more food than has been produced in all of human history, just to put it in perspective," he said.
"And we're going to have to figure out how to produce more food with less fertilizer, we're going to have to reduce the impact of diseases and pathogens, reduce the impact of climate change … and drought, so these are all things that we can develop new crop varieties that do better under these different conditions and with these diseases and pests that have to be dealt with."
Crispin Colvin, the vice president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, who also owns a farm in Middlesex County, believes this new method has potential.
"It's all pretty new, so we're still learning a lot about it," Colvin said. "So right now, I would say it's good. I mean, the objective is to support food security, make sure that it's sustainable and make sure it's transparent, so everybody knows what's happening.
"And then that allows agriculture — people like myself — to make an informed decision on what I want to grow and have that knowledge that I can say, 'Yes, this is something I want to grow. This is going to be good for not just my farm and my productivity, but good for consumers.'"
Concern from the organic industry
Nicole Boudreau, a coordinator with the Organic Federation of Canada, said the industry isn't against "progress," but she is concerned that seeds that have undergone gene editing will be unidentifiable to organic producers.
"We want to protect the original, natural seeds that are in nature," Boudreau said, "because if you edit and edit, year after year, well, what is the end result?"
"And also, the other point that matters so much for the organic sector is that gene editing is prohibited by the organic standards."
The federal government will be creating a steering committee, which aims to address the traceability of edited seeds, and they have developed a database for seed developers to identify how they've edited their product, but disclosing this information isn't yet mandated.