Frequently Asked Questions

Simply put, plant breeding is a process used to improve the genetic potential of plants. In other words, it leads to plants with more desirable characteristics. Just about everything we eat has been improved in the past thousands of years. This has occurred either through evolution in nature or conventional plant breeding techniques.

What sets gene editing apart from other plant breeding techniques is the precision and targeted nature of the changes being made. Extensive research is conducted in advance of gene editing a plant to confirm what a gene does, and what gene{s} should be edited to get the desired result. This level of precision has only been possible in the last few decades as a result of important breakthroughs in genome sequencing.

Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like! Let’s take a recent development – a disease resistant banana – to illustrate the point. Breeders used gene editing to increase disease tolerance in the Cavendish banana. This same result could have happened by crossing commercial bananas with a wild banana variety with the sought-after disease tolerance, but it would have taken much longer and likely brought some of the unwanted traits from the wild banana as well (such as a smaller size or big seeds). To eliminate those undesirable attributes, it would take even more years of breeding. With gene editing, breeders were instead able to take what they knew about disease resistance in the wild banana and use it to make edits to the commercial variety to create a disease-resistant banana in a really precise and efficient way.

Gene editing technology is not new, and it actually evolved in nature. Scientists have adapted this natural process to use with plants, leading to the first gene editing tools for plant breeding over two decades ago. The popular clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) tool has been around for almost a decade and subject to extensive research. Many scientists around the world have demonstrated that the use of genome editing tools is as safe as the methods we have used for thousands of years in conventional breeding.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently stated in its updated guidelines that “gene editing technologies do not present any unique or specifically identifiable environmental or human health concerns relative to other techniques of plant breeding.”

Health Canada recently supported the safety of this breeding tool in their recent consultation document where they said, “Through a review of the current scientific knowledge regarding the use of gene editing technologies to develop new plant varieties, Health Canada concludes that the use of gene editing technologies does not present any unique safety concerns compared to other methods of plant breeding.”

Nope. In fact, it will do the opposite! As the environment continues to change, we need plants that are stronger in the face of climactic pressure. Gene editing can create plants that are more resilient and produce higher yields, using fewer resources, reducing the costs normally associated with crop production. This will help keep food prices affordable for Canadians and can even help make a wider variety of healthy foods more accessible around the world.

The focus of gene editing in plants is to simply facilitate traditional breeding practices to make the same changes that occur in conventional plant breeding, just more precisely and efficiently. Gene editing is a collection of tools with broad capabilities. Scientists are largely focused on using gene editing to make improvements within the plant’s own genetic code. However, gene editing could be used to transfer DNA from one species to another, in which case that product would be considered a GMO.

When a plant breeder embarks on a project to breed a better plant, no matter if they are conventionally breeding, using gene editing or any of the many other plant breeding tools, they know that it’s going to be a lot of work (often more than 10 years just for one variety!). There are many steps plant breeders take before bringing a new variety to market, no matter what form of plant breeding they use. This process ensures that any unwanted or unintended changes are identified and removed because if the new variety is not better than the one they are trying to improve on then they have not succeeded.