November 8, 2023

Framing Challenges and Opportunities for Canada

The Expert Panel on Regulating Gene-Edited Organisms for Pest Control

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Advances in gene editing tools and technologies have made the process of changing an organism’s genome more efficient, opening up a range of potential applications. One such application is in pest control. By editing genomes of organisms, and introducing them to wild populations, it’s now possible to control insect-borne disease and invasive species, or reverse insecticide resistance in pests. But the full implications of using these methods remains uncertain.

In Canada, pest control products are regulated under the Pest Control Products Act and requirements for approval are well established. However, the potential to use gene-edited organisms (e.g., mosquito vectors, agricultural pests) in pest control applications present unique scientific, ethical, and regulatory challenges and considerations.

A comprehensive understanding of current and future applications, and the novel risks associated with these technologies for pest control, could provide insights about their safety and potential benefits, and help to inform the development of relevant policy and regulation. Framing Challenges and Opportunities for Canada provides an overview of the potential uses of genetic pest-control technologies, and articulates how their attendant risks might inform their responsible development, deployment, and oversight.

The Sponsor:

Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency

The Question:

What are the scientific, bioethical, and regulatory challenges regarding the use of gene-edited organisms and technologies (e.g., CRISPR/Cas9) for pest control?

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Gene-editing technologies introduce novel ways to alter the genomes of pest organisms, which could potentially mitigate the impacts of pests in public health, conservation, and agricultural contexts. The use of these tools, however, is accompanied by uncertainties about possible impacts on species and ecosystems, along with broader socioeconomic and cultural risks. Although these technologies are the subject of considerable investigation in controlled testing environments, decision-makers will be tasked with addressing multiple unknowns concerning the efficacy of these tools, their safety, and their appropriateness before implementation can occur in pest-control settings. To do so, Canada will need to leverage expertise in research and development, and in society more broadly. Current regulatory frameworks and their risk assessment processes will require adaptations to meet the scientific and social challenges posed by gene-editing tools. Canada will also need to determine how its regulatory approach will align with international jurisdictions.

Report findings

  • The science underpinning gene editing is rapidly evolving and contributes to an increasing variety of prospective mechanisms of action in genetic pest control, across numerous species.
  • Climate change is inextricable from the context of pests due to its potential impacts on ecosystems and pest biology, leading to a complex interplay among key pests, their control, and climate change in Canada.
  • Canada is not currently undertaking intensive research and development activity in gene-edited organisms for pest control, despite having research capacity in related fields. Better alignment among Canada’s main public research funders is needed to develop the necessary personnel, and channel the correct expertise, toward responsible technology development.
  • The risk assessment process is central to decision-making in pest control, but its legitimacy hinges on a body of evidence that does not currently exist for genetic pest-control programs. Adaptive risk assessment is a necessary tool to account for the evolving body of evidence related to genetic pest control, and can be used to obtain valuable stakeholder and Rights-holder input for risk identification and prioritization.
  • Conducting public engagement is a core component of pest management activities, especially with regard to impacted communities and at-risk ecosystems. Increased participation from publics can align with ethical practices and bolster a program’s effectiveness.
  • Canada’s current regulatory framework for pest control uses a case-by-case approach; the diversity of potential gene-edited organisms could test the limits of this framework’s versatility.
  • The regulatory lifecycle presents several opportunities for relationship-building and consultation. Meaningful engagement will be important for governing genetic pest control, in order to manage risks and promote trust.

Expert Panel

The Expert Panel on Regulating Gene-Edited Organisms for Pest Control