Gene editing approval crucial step to global food security

Helping secure food supply

The environmental approval of gene editing by Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media last week.

It’s understandable considering the plethora of news that captured the public’s attention, from the ongoing issue of Chinese interference to King Charles’ coronation.

Gene editing may not be the most captivating subject to engage consumers, but its significance for global food security cannot be overstated. Fortunately, Ottawa is getting it right.

Last week, Bibeau made an important announcement regarding the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s implementation of Part 5 of the Seed Regulations. This aligns with Health Canada’s decision less than a year ago that classified gene editing as “non-novel” while subjecting it to appropriate regulations. This is a crucial leap forward for global food security.

The next and final step involves consulting and assessing the gene editing of plants intended for livestock feed. Legalizing gene editing in Canada could be granted as early as this fall.

In simple terms, gene editing in food refers to the use of techniques such as CRISPR to modify the DNA of plants, animals, or microorganisms used in food production. Unlike GMOs, which involve inserting genetic material from different species into an organism’s genome, gene editing allows scientists to make specific changes to an organism’s genome, potentially enhancing its nutritional value, disease resistance, or other desirable traits. It holds the potential to create crops that are more resilient to pests, diseases, and environmental stresses, while also improving their flavour, appearance, and shelf life.

Gene editing will undoubtedly aid agriculture in tackling climate change and adapting to ever-changing growing conditions. It will also streamline the research and development process, potentially saving millions in research costs, and making scientific advancements more adaptable to our evolving environmental and ecological landscape. Increasing yields can reduce the risk of severe price fluctuations, benefiting both ends of the food continuum, including consumers at the grocery store.

However, it is crucial to prioritize clear labelling. Consumers should have the right to know what they are consuming and understand the technologies that impact farmers’ crops worldwide, including in Canada. Canada’s global leadership in genetic engineering should be celebrated, even if it remains largely unknown to the average consumer. Demystifying the virtues of genetic engineering for consumers is critical to equipping agriculture and farmers to face climate change more effectively. It also has the potential to make certain food categories more affordable, such as non-gluten wheat, benefiting individuals with allergies or specific intolerances.

Groups opposed to gene editing have consistently misled the public through fearmongering, falsely claiming that gene editing lacks oversight. They have once again criticized the government’s decision, accusing it of promoting unnatural agriculture. However, nothing could be further from the truth. These groups often exploit the public’s limited understanding of the technology.

To be clear, Ottawa has declared its commitment to establishing monitoring and oversight measures, to guarantee the precision and dependability of the publicly accessible database, based on the recommendations of a government-appointed steering committee. These strict guidelines will hold the industry accountable and ensure transparency.

While science has thus far indicated minimal risks associated with gene editing for humans and the environment, the debate surrounding its safety and ethical implications in food continues. Given the variation in regulatory frameworks across countries, this discussion must persist. Science is not absolute, so monitoring longitudinal risks will be critical. Anti-genetic engineering groups have the right to express concerns, but they should refrain from exaggeration, as they have done in recent decades, bordering on the ridiculous.

But for now, we can safely say Ottawa and Minister Bibeau did the right thing and deserve all the credit. Even if most may not fully appreciate technological advancements in agri-food, consumers should be thankful for them.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Remote workers, be careful what you wish for

Downside of remote work

The pandemic forced the world to learn how to work together in isolation.

As we emerge from the fog of viral war, many employees are left with memories of laptops on laps, sleeping in, sporadic work schedules and zero commutes. Indeed, the quality of life for many employees during the pandemic grew to an all-time high.

It’s not surprising that many employees would like to continue to work remotely.

The pendulum, however, continues to swing and remote workers based in B.C. should be very careful about what they wish for. Remote work eliminates the local economy. Companies that successfully embrace remote workforces are already realizing that they can employ workers in foreign countries at discounted rates.

Employers also have gained access to employees working in diverse time zones, enabling their workday productivity to grow from local hours to around-the-clock.

Lower competitive wages and triple the available work hours is a compelling incentive for B.C. companies to diversify their remote workforce across time zones and economies.

The fact is, the only borders remaining in our global economy are language borders.

One has to wonder why a B.C.-based company would continue to employ local remote workers at premium local rates. Over the long term, they won’t.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, for local remote workers. Many have started to realize that they can apply for remote work in countries, like the U.S., with higher comparative salaries coupled with currency premiums. The time zones are similar and when one adds the currency exchange on top of U.S. pay rates, local remote workers can earn a premium above local employers.

Living in Vancouver, while working for a techno-giant in Silicon Valley, would be a dream gig for any local professional. In the future, the challenge is that those roles can also be filled by Second and Third World workers in their local economies. Why hire a British Columbian remote worker when an Indian professional with a legitimate MBA is available to work through the local night at 50 per cent of the cost?

The next 10 years will see the pendulum continue to swing, and if capitalism remains true to form, the wage disparity between remote workers around the world will flatten.

First World remote workers will choose to accept lower pay in return for the luxury of working from home and remote workers from less advanced economies will see pay raises supporting newfound economic growth in their local markets. Globalization will lift millions of people’s quality of life while at the same time pressure our local remote workers in B.C. to find new ways to create value from the comfort of their homes.

Don’t think for a second that this is only a remote possibility.

Neil Belenkie is the CEO of Ascent Drywall and Coatings, a serial entrepreneur, and former mayor of Belcarra.

This column first appeared in Business In Vancouver.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Poll finds dissatisfaction with local action on homelessness in B.C.

Dealing with homelessness

It is safe to say that British Columbians remain dissatisfied with the way in which elected officials – including B.C.'s new premier and new municipal councils – have managed the issue of homelessness.

Just over one in five residents of the province (21 per cent) believe the federal government has done a “very good” or “good” job coming up with solutions to deal with homelessness.

This is up one point since August 2022, when Research Co. and Glacier Media last examined this issue.

The stagnant rating for Ottawa is terrible news for the governing Liberal Party, which pledged to reduce “chronic homelessness” by 50 per cent by 2028. In November, Auditor General Karen Hogan pointed out that the federal government does not know if its initiatives are working. Most British Columbians appear to share Hogan’s point of view.

The rating is only marginally better for the B.C. provincial government (28 per cent, up one point) and municipal governments (27 per cent, down two points). In Metro Vancouver, where mayors in the two most populous municipalities are in the first year of their tenures, 58 per cent of residents rate the efforts to deal with homelessness as “bad” or “very bad.”

When British Columbians rate the problem locally, the numbers are not particularly dramatic. About one in four (24 per cent, down three points) think homelessness is a major problem in their neighbourhood and 40 per cent (down two points) believe it has increased over the past three years.

The numbers on these two questions are stable when residents assess their municipality. More than half (52 per cent, unchanged) think homelessness is a significant issue and 64 per cent (up one point) say it is getting worse. Views are more fatalistic on a provincewide basis, with 80 per cent of respondents (up one point) saying that homelessness has increased across B.C.; 78 per cent (up five points) consider it a major problem.

One aspect where the perceptions of British Columbians seem to be hardening is the perceived causes of homelessness. More than three in five of the province’s residents (63 per cent, up three points) believe addiction and mental health issues are to blame “a great deal” for the current state of affairs – by far the highest number among five different issues tested.

Fewer than half of British Columbians (47 per cent, down six points) think a lack of affordable housing is to blame “a great deal.” The proportions are lower for poverty and inequality (34 per cent, down seven points), the personal actions and decisions of individuals (31 per cent, up one point) and a bad economy and unemployment (19 per cent, down five points).

The province remains split on whether this is a challenge that can be successfully tackled. For 50 per cent of British Columbians, homelessness can be eradicated with the proper policies and funding. For 48 per cent, it will always be a problem.

There may be a divide on the future, but not on some possible solutions to alleviate the crisis. More than four in five British Columbians (82 per cent, up two points) agree with increasing temporary housing options for people experiencing homelessness, and more than three in four (77 per cent, down one point) would offer incentives to developers if they focus on building affordable housing units.

Most British Columbians also favour two other policies: Devoting tax money to build units to house homeless residents (67 per cent, unchanged) and changing zoning laws to allow property owners to build more units on standard lots (62 per cent, up two points).

Some of the political players have changed, but the dissatisfaction of British Columbians on how homelessness is being handled remains. The survey confirms that most of the province’s residents continue to regard housing policies as their preferred way to mitigate the crisis. It is up to elected officials, whose favourability on this issue is painfully low, to take action.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from April 23-25, among 800 adults in B.C. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

This article first appeared in Business In Vancouver.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Canadians deserve more affordable, better-tasting gluten free products

Better gluten-free options

Most Canadians don’t know that May is Celiac Awareness Month. Almost 400,000 Canadians have been clinically diagnosed with celiac disease.

That’s about the size of a city like London, Ontario. For those with celiac disease, eating gluten-free food is far from a lifestyle choice. They must eat gluten-free food, full stop. Cross-contaminated food is also off-limits, which is why Health Canada has made it mandatory to label products that contain gluten.

This represents a huge win for those Canadians affected. Anything containing gluten, which contains wheat, rye, or barley, is labelled. But gluten-free products are incredibly expensive.

The cost of gluten-free food products remains a significant challenge for individuals with celiac disease and gluten-intolerant consumers. In fact, research suggests that gluten-free products can be up to 150 to 500 per cent more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. For example, gluten-free bread is 240 per cent more expensive, according to Celiac Canada, and gluten-free pasta is 160 per cent more expensive.

This difference in price can result in a significant financial burden for an individual. The extra cost of choosing gluten-free compared to regular foods can easily exceed $1,000 per year. This can be challenging for those with limited financial resources, especially with already higher food prices these days.

A recent survey from Celiac Canada suggests that some people with celiac disease had to begin accessing food banks after their diagnosis due to the cost of gluten-free food. In fact, many had to go to a food bank at least once a month. For someone with the disease, not having access to affordable gluten-free products is like not having access to affordable medicine they need to survive.

In the same survey, a significant proportion of respondents expressed that the cost of gluten-free food has increased compared to that of pre-pandemic levels, leading to financial challenges for many. This underscores the significant burden that the cost of gluten-free food places on individuals and families living with celiac disease in Canada.

It is also important to note that celiac disease is highly underdiagnosed. In fact, up to 85 per cent of individuals with celiac disease are estimated to remain undiagnosed. This is a disturbing trend, given the potential long-term health consequences of untreated celiac disease, which can include poor absorption of nutrients, osteoporosis, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Having celiac disease can be costly in more ways than one.

Some groups are advocating for the “grocery rebate” to be enhanced for people with the disease. At first glance, it seems like a measure that could help. But it may not be an ideal solution to subsidize those who need to buy these products. Such an approach could potentially make these products even more expensive.

Instead, giving incentives to companies to focus on gluten-free products would increase competition and put pressure on companies to reduce their prices. That’s exactly what’s happening with the plant-based section at the grocery store, for both dairy and meat alternatives. More options and supply will eventually bring prices down.

The taste of some of these products also leaves a lot to be desired. Some improvements have been noticeable in recent years, but it is still a work in progress. We have seen some improvement over the last decade, but more needs to be done.

Economically, however, it’s hard to get food companies excited about a limited market of about 400,000 people. More awareness of the disease is critical in order to decrease the number of undiagnosed sufferers.

In recent years, we have seen some celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian and Jessica Alba claiming that they are either allergic or intolerant to gluten. Many of these stars have made gluten-free products a part of a new lifestyle. Some celebrities have the disease, but most don’t.

If more celebrities speak out, it can create more awareness of the need for gluten-free products, as long as we can clearly distinguish between a dietary choice and having the actual disease. Recognizing both markets can only build a better case for food companies to consider the gluten-free market.

More affordable, better-tasting non-gluten products are what many Canadians deserve. While some need these products, others just want them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Recognizing needs and wants can certainly lead to more food innovation.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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