OTTAWA — A national biodiversity group says Canada needs to keep genetically engineered animals out of the wild, after the federal government recently rejected several attempts to strengthen its existing laws.
Canada hasn't had any accidents with the technology, but Nature Canada senior adviser Mark Butler said we need to prevent wild animals from being exposed to engineered cousins that could breed with them, prey on them or compete with them for food.
"Now is the time to act," he said.
The federal government is in the midst of updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act for the first time in 22 years. The act, usually known as CEPA, governs the management of toxic chemicals and new genetically modified or engineered organisms.
An update that was introduced in legislation last year is almost entirely focused on toxic chemicals. The Senate tried to change the bill to include mandatory public consultations on genetically modified organisms, and ensure the risk to wild animals is considered in all assessments.
The government removed almost all the Senate's amendments in February.
This week, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault could decide whether to approve an application for a genetically modified fruit fly. The EntoEngine, a creation of the Edmonton firm Future Fields, is a fruit fly designed to be a natural bioreactor and to grow cell proteins that can be used to make vaccines, medicines or lab-grown meat products.
Nature Canada has asked the government to pause that process — and all similar reviews — until the consultation process is improved.
Future Fields submitted the application in November. The public consultation lasted 30 days, ending Jan. 28, and included 17 submissions. A decision is due March 17, though Guilbeault could delay it up to four months.
Jalene Anderson-Baron, co-founder of Future Fields, said in a written statement in response to questions from The Canadian Press that the process balances the need to identify potential risks against the need to allow new innovations.
"We believe biotechnology has the potential for immense positive benefit on people and the planet, and new innovations in synthetic biology will be a key tool in our fight against climate change," she said.
"With that being said, we fully support the rigorous assessment of new organisms by Health Canada and Environment Canada to ensure the safety of Canadians and the natural environment."
Butler, however, said public consultation for the EntoEngine was based on two paragraphs of information that includes a claim the product "poses no known risks to either humans or animals" with no scientific evidence to back that up.
It's up to the public to produce evidence there is a risk, without any access to the company's data, within 30 days.
The consultation is also entirely voluntary.
"Imagine if there was a highway or pipeline proposal and there was two paragraphs for an environment assessment, and it's entirely voluntary, and up to the proponent," said Butler.
Butler said Brazil has already seen the risks posed by genetic modification. Last year, it became the first country to discover genetically modified fish breeding in the wild.
Trademarked GloFish, the creatures are zebrafish endowed with genes from fluorescent jellyfish to make them glow in the dark. They were initially thought to be infertile, until GloFish were found multiplying rapidly in Brazil's Atlantic Forest creeks, where they have no natural predators.
Canada has authorized 17 versions of GloFish using a relatively new, voluntary public consultation process.
The risk to wild species here is low, because the fish's tropical nature isn't a good fit with Canadian winters, but Butler said Brazil's issue should be a wake-up call.
"Genetic engineering is a big, complicated topic," he said. "We're not trying to shut it down. We're trying to get ahead of this technology and put some regulations and safeguards in place to protect nature, because nature is on the ropes and doesn't need a new a new risk or threat."
The voluntary review process used for the EntoEngine and GloFish began in 2018, a year after the House environment committee made 87 recommendations to update CEPA.
None of the recommendations dealing with genetic engineering were included in the government's update legislation.
In a written statement, Guilbeault's office said it plans to address the concerns at a later date. It launched a new round of consultations on the issue in the fall, which will inform any future amendments to the act.
NDP environment critic Laurel Collins said that is "really disappointing."
"We have very little faith in the government's comments that we'll be able to do a second round of CEPA amendments, given that it's been 22 years since the last one," she said.
In its submission to the Senate in June, the Assembly of First Nations said the assessment process for genetically modified animals is "deeply flawed."
It said there is no requirement for First Nations to be notified about a potential new organism, or to be involved in the assessment. The AFN said when Canada approved the genetically modified AquaAdvantage salmon in 2018, "the decision was made based on narrow considerations without consultation with First Nations."
In December, the Atlantic Salmon Federation told the environment committee the review process was "neither accessible nor transparent."
The consultation lasted 29 days and was launched with little notice. The federation said the decision ignored any risks posed to wild salmon if the modified salmon escaped or were accidentally released.
So far the company has been diligent to contain the fish, but the federation warned, "we are only a small error away from potentially dire situation for wild Atlantic Salmon."
That particular salmon will not be bred in Canada any longer. The company behind it said last month it was switching its production facility in Prince Edward Island over to make non-GMO salmon eggs, which are in higher demand.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2023.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press