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Grain Farmers of Ontario board chair Brendan Byrne says seed technology has helped improve yields.supplied

It took over two million years for Earth’s population to reach one billion, but only 200 years for the figure to top seven billion. By the end of 2020, it stood at almost 7.8 billion and continues to climb.

Sustainably feeding such enormous numbers of people has become one of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century. Countries everywhere strive for food security by seeking the best possible methods of production to ensure not only quantity but also quality from their farmers, all while protecting the environment and helping to combat climate change.

With a history of globally recognized and respected agricultural innovation, Canada can play a leading role in meeting the world’s food needs, says Pierre Petelle, president and CEO of CropLife Canada, whose members include companies that develop new crop protection tools and seed innovations.

One of the tools that can contribute is gene editing, the same technology that is being used to help cure or prevent disease in humans. It is being applied to agriculture to help plants resist disease, adapt to flooding or drought, and improve the quality and quantity of the food supply.

Mr. Petelle says that while gene-edited crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are both important advancements in plant breeding, they are different. GMOs often include DNA from another organism, whereas gene editing allows scientists to work within a plant’s own genetic code.

“Through gene editing, scientists can make precise, targeted changes to plants’ specific DNA sequence that mirror what could occur either in nature or through traditional plant breeding, but in a more efficient way,” he says.

Mr. Petelle points out that CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), one of the tools used in gene editing, holds such potential that the scientists who discovered it – Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany, and Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California in Berkeley – were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

“This technology allows researchers to make edits to specific pieces of DNA to add, remove or enhance a desired characteristic in the plant,” explains Mr. Petelle. “The cell’s genetic structure then repairs itself automatically using its natural healing process, resulting in the desired characteristic.”

Gene editing will allow the development of seeds that are best suited to changing growing conditions being brought about by climate change and help meet the growing global demand for food.

CropLife Canada’s role is to advocate for a regulatory environment that both protects human and environmental safety and encourages innovation and competitiveness.

“For Canada to achieve the Council on Economic Growth and the Agri-Food Economic Strategy Table’s ambitious target of $85-billion in agri-food exports and $140-billion in domestic production by 2025, we must ensure that Canada has enabling regulatory frameworks that create a world-leading climate for innovation and competitiveness,” says Mr. Petelle.

“We advocate for science-based regulations – both federally and provincially – that allow farmers access to the latest tools they need to safely and sustainably grow our food and compete on a global stage,” adds Mr. Petelle.

Brendan Byrne, chair of the board of directors of the Grain Farmers of Ontario – the province’s largest commodity organization, representing Ontario’s 28,000 barley, corn, oat, soybean and wheat farmers – says seed innovation helps keep Canadian farmers competitive.

“Seed technology has helped improve yields, which is incredibly important as farmers deal with variable markets for their crops,” he says. “If farmers in other countries have access to seed that will improve yield or fight disease, we need to ensure regulations are not standing in the way of Canadian farmers accessing those innovations.”

Gene-edited seeds can support sustainability and productivity by helping farmers plan for specific growing conditions such as soil type, changing weather patterns and water availability. They can also allow farmers to moderate their chemical use, which benefits the environment and reduces operating costs, adds Mr. Byrne.

However, farmers are concerned that Canada’s regulatory system has not kept pace with science and innovation.

“Canada is missing out on the environmental, health and economic benefits of seed innovation because of a regulatory system that is discouraging innovation and investment in this technology,” says Mr. Byrne. “Agriculture is asking for a clear, predictable regulatory program that is aligned with like-minded countries across the globe, and a more predictable regulatory model.”

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