Some opponents of modern agriculture say that biotech crops, often referred to as GMOs, have not lived up to expectations. For those of us in agriculture we know that over the last two decades biotech crops have delivered significant benefits to Canadian farmers and farmers around the world. They have, among other benefits, helped farmers adopt improved weed and insect control systems, which have in turn helped make agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

But has this technology fully lived up to its potential? A global study from the European Commission in 2008 based on the research pipeline at that time predicted that 91 new traits would be commercialized by 2015. The reality is that in 2014 only 16 new traits – 20% of that forecast – had made it to market.

A deeper look into why this is shows that the already imposing regulatory requirements and registration timelines, and costs around the world, have increased by 50 per cent over the last decade. While technology developers are becoming more efficient, the result is simply more products being held up in the regulatory bottleneck – or organizations opting not to innovate in this space at all due to the regulatory uncertainty.

And just as innovation in plant biotechnology seems to be facing increasingly challenging regulatory hurdles, the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, commissioned by the federal government to develop key policy recommendations that would drive economic growth, is suggesting that the agriculture and agri-food sector holds incredible potential to drive economic growth in Canada. However, it’s clear from the council’s report that Canada will only realize its potential in this space if innovation is allowed to flourish. When it comes to plant biotechnology, history has shown us that we can and need to do better.

The increased cost and time associated with bringing a new product to market has largely narrowed innovation players to a small number of private sector organizations. Improving the regulatory environment could open up the door to innovation for a larger number of small private and public sector organizations.

The challenges we face globally in terms of a growing population, changing climatic conditions and shifting consumer preferences demand continued innovation in agriculture by organizations of all sizes in both the public and private sectors. If Canada is going to play an increasingly major role in feeding the world through 2050 and beyond, we will need to do a better job of getting new crops into the hands of farmers.

Canada has one of the most respected regulatory frameworks around the world when it comes to products of plant biotechnology. It has served Canadian farmers and consumers well but after more than two decades it is time for even the Canadian system to modernize.

Canada has the opportunity to establish a significantly more predictable, timely and efficient regulatory systems for products of plant biotechnology that could be a model for the rest of the world. In an era of globalization, it is critically important that regulators around the world improve cooperation around the regulation of biotech crops to enable and enhance innovation.

Over the past 20 years biotech crops have delivered some significant benefits through improved environmental sustainability (including reduced greenhouse gas emissions and reduced soil loss), lower food costs, greater choice for consumers, and greater economic activity – and that’s with only a fraction of the crops in the pipeline making it to market. Imagine the benefits we could see over the next decade if we unleash the potential of this sector through improved regulatory processes? Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sector could indeed become the global leader that the Advisory Council on Economic Growth predicted it could.

 

Pierre Petelle, president and CEO, CropLife Canada