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Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs)

What are GURTs?

Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), sometimes referred to as "terminator" technologies, are experimental forms of genetic engineering technology that provide the means to either restrict the use of a plant variety, or the expression of a trait in a plant variety, by turning a genetic switch on or off.

There are currently two types of GURTs under research. The first type, known as a variety-specific or v-GURT, is designed to control plant fertility or seed development. This form of GURT could be used to prevent seeds from growing after harvest.

The second type of GURT, known as a trait-specific or t-GURT, could be used to allow plants to express a beneficial trait (e.g. drought resistance) only after specific treatment, such as the application of a special spray.  Without the treatment the trait would not be expressed. This type of GURT would not affect plant fertility or seed development.   Plants with GURT traits fall under the broader category of Plants with Novel Traits, or PNTs.

Have any plants with GURT traits been released in Canada?

It is important to note that no applications have come forward for the environmental release of plants with GURT traits in Canada. This technology is currently still at the research stage in laboratories - there have been no confined research field trials or commercial applications from developers to date in Canada.

How are Plants with Novel Traits (PNTs) evaluated in the environment?

Confined field trials (field trials which are designed to limit the impact of plants on the environment until they have been fully evaluated for release by CFIA and Health Canada evaluators) are designed to allow the developers of PNTs an opportunity to study their plants in the environment, in order to generate data about their safety.  In regulating confined field trials of any PNTs, the CFIA only allows such trials when appropriate scientific data can justify the safety of a trial to the environment, including safety to animals, plants and humans. The same approach would apply to any future requests to conduct confined field trials of plants with GURT traits.

Will plants with GURT traits be assessed for safety before their use in Canada?

As with all plants with novel traits, a new plant with GURT traits could be authorized for use in Canada only after stringent scientific assessment of its environmental, food and livestock feed safety.  For more information on the safety assessment of plants with novel traits, see the fact sheet "Regulating "Novelty" and Plants with Novel Traits".

How could GURTs potentially affect agriculture?

As with other technologies, GURTs have the potential to affect the agricultural sector in several ways.  While it is true that certain types of GURTs could affect farmers' ability to save seed for cultivation the next year, the same technologies could prevent the unwanted spread of seeds and pollen in the environment and eliminate quality loss caused by pre-harvest or in-storage germination.

Other ways to control seeds have already been widely used in agriculture. For example, in crops such as corn, a naturally occurring sterility mechanism is used to produce hybrid seed. This increases yield for producers but limits their ability to save and re-use seed. Most Canadian commercial corn is produced using hybrid seed.

What is the Government of Canada position on GURTs?

The Government of Canada recognizes that as with any new technology, GURTs raise health and safety as well as socio-economic questions. The adoption of this technology must proceed with caution, to enable the full evaluation of any risks and benefits. This approach is consistent with the way Canada considers all applications of biotechnology in the environment - a cautious and responsible case-by-case assessment of each new product. 

What is the international approach towards GURTs?

In 2000, the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recommended that "in the current absence of reliable data on genetic use restriction technologies, without which there is an inadequate basis on which to assess their potential risks, and in accordance with the precautionary approach, products incorporating such technologies should not be approved by Parties for field testing until appropriate scientific data can justify such testing, and for commercial use until appropriate, authorized and strictly controlled scientific assessments with regard to, inter alia, their ecological and socio-economic impacts and any adverse effects for biological diversity, food security and human health have been carried out in a transparent manner and the conditions for their safe and beneficial use validated."

All Parties, including Canada, reaffirmed their support of the above recommendation at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the CBD (COP-8), which took place March 20 - 31, 2006 in Curitiba, Brazil.