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Biotech ruling could change global farming through the 2020s

While most of us were preparing for Christmas, a game-changing pro-biotechnology ruling took place on the other side of the world that could profoundly affect agriculture everywhere through the next decade and beyond.

In mid-December, the Philippine Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry ruled that that Golden Rice, a genetically engineered, vitamin A-enabled crop (vitamin A gives it its golden colour), is “as safe as conventional rice.”

That ruling is huge. It’s being touted as a victory for science-based regulatory decision-making – an approach to which Canada has traditionally subscribed – by a country where this enhanced crop can really make a difference in people’s lives.

Here’s why. Vitamin A deficiency causes a host of debilitating and sometimes fatal conditions including blindness and death.  It’s rare in the western world, including Canada, because we generally eat a balanced diet from which we receive vitamin A.

But in countries where rice is a staple, it’s a real problem, because Vitamin A does not naturally occur in rice. The World Health Organization estimates up to a half-million vitamin A-deficient children go blind every year, and in the year that follows blindness, they die.

Golden Rice has been a focal point for pro- and anti-biotechnology groups for years. It was developed in the early 2000s by multinational plant and crop protection company Syngenta, making Golden Rice an enemy of anti-technology groups, despite its potential to help save lives. Ultimately, Syngenta gave it over to global development organizations such as the International Rice Research Institute, whose interests are not shareholder driven.

Still, Golden Rice struggled to shed the negative image of a biotech crop. It was further vilified because some of the countries where it could help the most did not have regulations in place for testing or adopting such crops. Its western world opponents positioned Golden Rice as an untested industry-driven technology being imposed on uninformed populations. They also feared its acceptance would much more broadly open the door for plant biotechnology.

Now, two decades later, regulations have been instituted in many countries that eliminate some of those arguments. The Philippines is among them. More testing will follow, and Golden Rice must still be approved for commercial propagation in the Philippines. But there was no way that would happen if it was not officially considered safe. Now, it is.

Canada took a big step in 2018 to declare Golden Rice safe – but didn’t go as far as to allow it to be sold here. Maybe someday. But that’s not why it gave its approval. Globally, Canada is considered to have a tough regulatory system. If officials here said it was safe, it could have sway with regulatory agencies in other countries. And that appears to be what’s happening.

In 2020 and beyond we’ll see the doors open further for genetically modified crops grown abroad. Some will be imported here and will need to go through our own regulatory channels.  Some already are, like papayas, which have been saved by genetic intervention from a virus that was destined to wipe them out.

We need a strong and thorough regulatory system here to monitor what’s coming in, and what’s going out. The export environment is tough enough with political trumped-up trade restrictions against our farmers’ crops and livestock. We need to be leaders in food safety at home and abroad to give Canadian producers a fair chance to compete, and to give consumers the assurance they need to feel confident in our food supply, regardless of where it’s produced.

I hope I get a chance someday to try Golden Rice. Food variety helps make life rich. And I hope we all get the opportunity to be as healthy as possible this decade, thanks to dedicated researchers, smart regulations, and good, affordable choices.

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