House of Commons Hansard #112 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was gst.

Topics

The House resumed from May 5 consideration of the motion.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Suzanne Tremblay Rimouski—Mitis, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on Motion No. 230, introduced by my colleague from Louis-Hébert.

For the benefit of those following this important debate, I will reread the motion as introduced:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should make labelling of genetically modified foods compulsory, and should carry out exhaustive studies on the long-term effects of these foods on health and the environment.

The federal government has a duty, as far as food is concerned, to inform and protect the public. The public has concerns about genetically modified organisms, which in the rest of my speech I will call GMOs, and the federal government therefore has a duty to inform and protect the public. The government cannot continue to wash its hands of what is happening, like Pontius Pilate.

It would be too easy to once again bow to the pressures and lobbies of the multinationals and not to worry about the worries, questions and concerns of a public which does not know whom to trust and is desperately calling upon its government to protect it from the feared invader.

The public is asking itself a number of questions, for instance: why are plants and foods being genetically modified? To whose advantage is it? What is in it for the consumer? What effects do GMOs have on health and on the environment? What effects will they have on agriculture, on the economy, on trade? What are the social consequences of the introduction of GMOs?

I cannot address all of these questions in the time allotted to me. Let us be clear, therefore. Right now, GMOs offer consumers no advantage. They offer only uncertainties.

Consumers are entitled to exercise an enlightened choice in purchasing their food. To be able to do so, they need proper labelling so they have access to a wide variety of products without fear that they may contain elements that might cause them concern about their health.

Eating habits have significantly changed in recent years. In addition, everyone should have the information necessary to buy their food in accordance with their culture, that is their lifestyle or eating habits: foods that are organic, fat free or not genetically modified.

A number of polls conducted since 1994 reveal between 80% and 95% of the public strongly support labelling GMOs. More recent polls in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada have revealed that people would be prepared to pay a little more for food that is not genetically modified or would prefer food slightly less beautiful or fresh, but not genetically modified.

Members of the different parties have tabled petitions in the House from all over the country calling for the labelling of GMOs. The Bloc alone has collected to date 43,000 signatures calling for a bill on the compulsory labelling of GMOs. The minister of agriculture has himself received petitions from several thousand individuals and many letters asking him to make GMO labelling mandatory.

How can the government, which is getting ready to call an election to ask voters to renew its mandate, turn such a deaf ear to these requests, which are increasingly specific, justified and numerous? How can the government continue to ignore the public and to thumb its nose at it regarding the GMO issue?

The accurate and thorough labelling of food products would allow us to identify GMOs and to withdraw them from the market, should problems occur.

From a commercial point of view, the monitoring of GMOs could allow agricultural producers to maintain access to export markets by meeting the national standards in effect in many European and Asian countries.

I want to say a word on the need for research on the long term effects of GMOs, including in the areas of health and the environment.

It is the federal government's responsibility to ensure food quality and safety. The government cannot ignore this responsibility and must, to fully assume it, conduct studies on the long term effects of GMOs on health and the environment.

So far, preliminary studies on GMOs have shown that these products have harmful effects on rats, butterflies and bacteria. Of course, these results do not allow us to conclude that GMOs necessarily pose a threat to human beings. However, these results mean that the government should go further in its research, particularly in the area of foods for human consumption.

The use of genes from various species in foods generates concerns about food allergies. There is a possibility that the resistance to antibiotics found in certain GMOs may spread to other forms of life in nature.

Genetically modified seeds can pollinate plants in neighbouring fields simply because of the wind, insects and animals.

The transmission of resistance to herbicides and insecticides could create super weeds or super insects, which would invade the fields and take the place of rare or more vulnerable species.

The presence of GMOs in an environment where neighbouring farms are operated by organic farmers could contaminate their fields and cause them to lose their certification.

Do members realize the kind of dilemma the public servant who, in the course of an evaluation, discovers that the products were contaminated by GMOs will be facing? Will he keep quiet or will he withdraw the organic farm's certification?

Obviously, with regard to GMOs, there are too many questions and not enough answers. Workers in Quebec and Canada pay enough taxes each year for the government to take their concerns seriously and to put in the required funding for research so we can learn more on the subject.

Dr. Clark said that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The scientific community is divided on the effects of the introduction of genetically modified plants into environment.

For many researchers, the scientific debate boils down to a lack of concrete evidence and sufficient data that prevents us from stating that GMOs are harmless. For others, the debate is about methodologies, scientific assertions and the objectivity of the criteria and parameters used by companies and governments to measure the impact of genetically modified plants.

All this to say that an incorrect assumption will produce a false result, and this result is being used to increase acceptance of new GMOs.

The questions are serious, but the answers are long in coming. The future of agriculture, the environment, health problems and biodiversity are the main factors that we as parliamentarians must consider as we face the intrusion of GMOs into our lives.

In conclusion, the motion before us this morning, which is in its second hour, is intended to get members thinking. It favours a preventive approach or a moratorium on GMOs, as long as procedures are not transparent and understood by the general public, and as long as labelling is not compulsory, so that consumers can make their own decisions about what they eat.

Despite all the uncertainty regarding GMOs and the absence of scientific studies with respect to their long-term effects, and despite the clear desire of the public for mandatory labelling of GMOs, the federal government is sticking to a policy of voluntary labelling, leaving the decision up to companies. The stand it is taking internationally is primarily trade-oriented, and does not take sufficient account of issues of health, agriculture and environmental protection.

The federal government should review its position or it will pay the price in the next election.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Reform

Gurmant Grewal Surrey Central, BC

Madam Speaker, I rise on behalf of the people of Surrey Central to participate in the debate on Motion No. 230. The motion calls for the compulsory labelling of genetically modified foods and for exhaustive study on the long term effect of these foods.

My constituents and I share the concerns being address in this motion. In fact, on behalf of the constituents I represent in Surrey Central, B.C., I presented a similar private member's motion on October 15, 1999. My Motion No. 204 called on the government to require foods to be labelled so that Canadians could have a choice before consuming these products.

The issue here is choice and informed choice. We want to be able to choose what we are going to eat or what we put into our bodies. People not only want to know what they have the right to know, they do not want to guess what they are eating. That is not too much to ask. Many of my constituents have contacted me to express those views.

When I was serving as the official opposition deputy health critic, I received a great deal of information concerning this matter. While on a trip to Australia I came across some newspaper articles which contained ample information. That was at a time when this parliament did not have any debate, but the rest of the world was talking about these issues. My motion was aimed at having some sort of debate in the House.

I would like to read part of a letter I received from two of my constituents, Mike Koolen and Heather Fox. They wrote:

I do not think that enough study has been done to prove that genetically engineered foods are safe for the environment or for human health. I find it appalling that our government is willing to turn its population into guinea pigs.

I have the right to choose what I will eat and I am against our government taking away my right to choose between food...

As such, I want to add my voice to that of other Canadians who are pushing for the right to choose what we eat.

These remarks are indicative of the kinds of fears that have been instilled in people's minds as a result of the technological advances in the way we grow the food we eat.

Let me for a moment look at the positive side of genetically modified foods. For years and years we have traditionally used genetic modification to improve foods, crops and animals. As an example, I think of new varieties of garden corn which have a short growing time and which can grow in a cool climate. These are early ripening varieties. As you now, Madam Speaker, strawberries grown in your part of Quebec are very susceptible to cold but genetically altered varieties have been used for a long time so that they are not susceptible to cold. They can tolerate cold.

We now have the capability at the microscopic level to manipulate the genetic tree, and we have been doing it for years and years. We have the ability of intervention at the molecular level. We are even capable of taking DNA from one species and linking it with the DNA of another species. There are some scientific concerns on this issue and some scientific debate.

Today's debate is timely and worthwhile. On the positive side, genetic engineering could give us seeds and crops that would not require pesticides or herbicides. Most people concerned about the environment would say that is positive.

I was astonished to read that about 200,000 people die just because of a deficiency in nutrients, particularly vitamin A. Science has now given us the tools to produce enough food to feed the earth's population and to make quality foods that meet the vitamin and mineral requirements.

We could also seed land that is less fertile to bear crops and be productive. Those are just some of the potential benefits but not all.

Let us look at the negative side. What do individuals see as potential hazards in this area? There are potential hazards, of course, from eating or being around such genetically modified foods but the effects on the human organism are yet unknown. We could have wild strains overwhelming some of our natural strains, having unsuspected effects on domestic plants. On this scientific debate there is some legitimate argument on both sides and we should be open to those discussions and arguments. There is much we do not know about the long term effects.

I believe that the consumer who has a concern about genetically modified foods should have that information available. I also believe that people who do not want to take genetically modified foods into the body, such as a crop, a cereal or a product, should have that choice.

Where is the problem? It is technically very difficult to label all genetically modified foods. For instance, pasta has constituents that come from various sources and a genetically modified component would be very difficult to isolate. Even in the food processing plants where juice is extracted from foods, it is very difficult to isolate some of the different loads coming from different farms. I am not saying that it could not be done but it would be very difficult.

It may be better to label food that is free of genetic modifications rather than all those that have genetically modified components in them. We want some kind of labelling so consumers have the right choice.

Rather than doing it the other way around, it could be done in an easier and more economical way so that consumers do not have to pay for the expenses and, at the same time, it serves the purpose. It is just an idea. This would give those who want to make a choice the ability to do so. Those who do not want to have the pesticides, herbicides or certain genes in their growing process could choose that strain.

The mandatory component of the motion we are considering today is something that smacks of bureaucracy and of people telling us what to do. I favour small where small will do when it comes to bureaucracy. I would much prefer a process driven by the market.

I have learned that some businesses have voluntarily started separating or labelling these products. For example, Loblaws has quietly made plans to stock its first genetically modified free products in some stores. It will have separate shelves. It will have genetically modified foods on one shelf and genetically modified free foods on another shelf. It will be similar for modern foods. Loblaws has also indicated interest by stating that its genetically modified free products and its genetically modified products would be separated.

As an individual, I would much prefer a process driven by the market. I could then choose foods that are not genetically modified. That is the process I would choose.

The issue of science is where I think we should try not to be political. It should be based on pure science, not on politics or fearmongering. Good science is science that can stand close, careful scrutiny. Therefore the principle that I would use on this issue is to make the consumer aware by giving them information based on scientific fact and letting them make the choice.

The issue of a long term study that my colleague suggested also makes eminent sense.

In conclusion I would like to say that consumers not only want to have the choice but they have the right to have the choice based on scientific evidence.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Judy Wasylycia-Leis Winnipeg North Centre, MB

Madam Speaker, first of all, I would like once again to congratulate the hon. member for Louis-Hébert for moving this motion in the House. This is a very important issue for all Canadians and I appreciate having the opportunity to discuss it again.

This motion addresses two very important aspects of the question of genetically modified foods. It calls for mandatory labelling of all food products, in part or in whole, to be labelled. That is a matter which is totally supported by members of the New Democratic caucus. We have indicated our support in this debate pursuant to this motion as well as by the introduction of our own motion within the last couple of weeks in parliament.

We do believe, as the member for the Canadian Alliance has just indicated, that this is a matter of choice. It is about giving consumers the right to make decisions about what is in the best interest of their own health and well-being. To us it is a fundamental question around which there should be no dispute.

The second part of the motion is just as important as the question of labelling, which is the investment by government into research and science to determine the long term impact of genetically modified organisms on our health, on our soil, on our environment and on our society generally. That is an area I want to focus in on this morning because it is an area where we can see the most significant neglect on the part of the federal Liberal government.

In addressing this subject, I would also like to point out that it is one thing for the Alliance to suggest that we should have labelled foods and that we should provide information on genetically modified products, but it cannot be rationalized in in an overall policy context if in fact this party does not understand the investment required in Health Canada. It cannot in the same breath suggest that Health Canada can be cut back further and that in fact, this whole move toward deregulation and offloading of responsibilities outside of the purview of the federal government can be tolerated. One cannot on the one hand speak for a proactive position on the part of government in terms of informing consumers and on the other hand not acknowledge the role of government in ensuring the safety of food in the marketplace today.

It is absolutely important for us in the House today to call upon members of the Canadian Alliance to revisit their position of supporting industry's agenda to reduce the role of government and in fact allow for products to go on the market without any guarantees of safety. That, in our view, is absolutely unacceptable, intolerable and must be addressed.

I will get back to the federal government's responsibility in terms of genetically modified foods. In the course of these debates over the last couple of months in the House, we have heard that this government has been very vigilant and has taken every step possible to ensure that any products that have been genetically modified and on the market have been tested and proven to be safe.

That is not the case. There is no basis in fact for that kind of statement. What we are dealing with yet again, when it comes to the federal government and health care, is a wonderful act of illusory politics. This is a case of absolutely creating the appearance of action when there is no evidence to support those kinds of statements.

I want to point to couple of examples to make that case. All of us will recall back in 1997 when the present health minister was appointed. His first action was to kill the drug research lab and to cause the loss forever of the only independent research body in government when it comes to drugs. The government was also on the verge of dismantling the food research lab. Except for the outcry of 200 scientists and many consumers across the country, the government would have proceeded down that path.

Many of the labs in the food research purview of government were closed. The government and the health minister promised to open some of those labs. In 1997 the health minister issued a public release saying that he would open a number of labs that had been closed which were important to the protection of Canadians when it came to the safety of the foods they eat, including a lab to study the development of methods for the detection of genetically modified organisms.

This was promised in 1997. Today it is June 2000 and no such lab has been reopened. No orders have been given by the health minister to resume this important work. Our health protection branch continues to operate on an underresourced and understaffed basis, without any significant focus to the long term impact of genetically modified foods on the health and well-being of Canadians.

I am not sure how Liberals across the way are not up in arms over this kind of development. I hope that after today they will put all the pressure they can on the health minister to live up to his commitments, because we do not have that kind of capacity in the government today.

Let me also mention to members of the House that when we have tried to get to the bottom of the statements indicating that massive research is being done and all these protections are being taken, there are no details provided and no information forthcoming to show that this is actually the case.

I resorted to an order for return to get information about what the government was doing in terms of research on genetically modified foods. As of October 19, 1999, the government has reported that there is “currently one ongoing research project on a topic related to genetically modified foods with a planned expenditure in 1999-2000 of $166,389”.

That is the sum total of the government's commitment to long term, scientific based, independent research into the whole impact of genetically modified foods. The government cannot get away with trying to tell the people of Canada that foods are safe when it has taken no steps to offer those protections.

Instead, what do we get? We get a propaganda machine that kicks into place to try to persuade Canadians that everything is safe and not to worry. We get a little coloured leaflet that goes to every door in the country at a cost of about $25 million containing a blatant, incorrect statement. I know I cannot speak any more strongly in terms of parliamentary language to indicate just how inaccurate the information is, but it makes the statement that everything on the market basically is safe. I will quote from the booklet:

Before any product derived from biotechnology can be marketed in Canada, the government of Canada requires that it undergo thorough laboratory and field testing.

That is not true. That research is not done. It has not been done and it is not being done now.

The point of the debate today is to say government has a responsibility to ensure within government that there are laboratories, scientists and independent capabilities to do ongoing, indepth research and investigation into the impacts of genetically modified products. It is a disservice to the Canadian people to pretend otherwise.

I see my time is almost up. There is so much more to say, but if there were anything that needs to be said today it is that the government is not being truthful to the people of Canada. It owes it to the people of Canada, especially in the wake of Walkerton, to do everything possible to ensure that the food we eat, the water we drink and the drugs we have to take are safe beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is not the case now and it is incumbent upon the government to take charge of the issue, to reinvest in our scientific capacity in the health protection branch and to take every step possible to ensure that all genetically modified products on the market are safe beyond a reasonable doubt. That is leadership. That is ensuring that the health and well-being of Canadians come first.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Ian Murray Lanark—Carleton, ON

Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to Motion No. 230. The motion of the hon. member for Louis-Hébert has two parts. The first would make labelling of genetically modified products compulsory. The motion also calls for the government to carry out “exhaustive studies on the long term effects of genetically modified foods”.

Let me begin by saying that the Government of Canada's commitment is always to safety first. The well-being of Canadians, animals and our environment is our highest priority. Canada has an enviable reputation around the world for the safety of its food and the rigour of its food inspection system. Canadians rightly trust the regulatory system which has been vigilant in ensuring that our high standards are maintained.

On the question of labelling of foods, our federal legislation calls for Health Canada to set the requirements for mandatory labelling. The data requirements for the safety assessments of all foods are established by Health Canada, which also conducts premarket reviews of new foods including those derived through biotechnology. Every such food goes through a stringent review process before being allowed on the market.

The role of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, is to carry out inspection and enforcement activities relative to the food safety standards set by Health Canada. The CFIA is also responsible for the environmental safety assessment of a number of agricultural products such as plants, animal feed and veterinary vaccines including those derived through biotechnology.

I remind everyone that current labelling regulations in Canada require that all food products, including those developed through biotechnology, be labelled where a potential human health or safety issue has been identified, or if foods have been changed in composition or nutrition.

Labelling decisions are made by Health Canada and are based on the results of its food safety evaluations. I am sure the hon. member would agree any authority for labelling must be based upon science.

Let me address the first part of the motion before us by reminding the House that several initiatives are now already in place to study the question of how and when to label a genetically modified food. The government believes that all food labelling must be credible, meaningful and enforceable. We are actively engaged in consulting with Canadians to score how labelling can best serve the public.

We have strongly encouraged the establishment of a Canadian standard for the labelling of foods derived through biotechnology. This standard will include provisions for definitions, labels, claims and advertising, and compliance measures.

The Canadian General Standards Board, under the sponsorship of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, is in the process of developing the standards through open and inclusive consultation. Representatives and individuals from a broad range of Canadian interests have formed a committee to work on the standard, which is expected to be complete within the next six to twelve months. My hon. colleagues should be aware that by endorsing such a thorough process to develop a labelling standard Canada is indeed a leader worldwide.

I would also like to bring to the attention of the House that the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has already begun its series of hearings on the labelling of genetically modified foods. Canada is also assuming a leadership role in the development of international standards governing how and when genetically modified foods are labelled.

Canada chairs the Codex Alimentarius committee on food labelling, otherwise known as the CCFL for good reason. At the recent Codex meeting in Ottawa, Canada was recognized for its success in chairing the CCFL working group that drafted key options and recommendations for the labelling of biotechnologically derived foods. Once again Canada has been tasked with leading the group that this year will look at which of these options can be turned into Codex guidelines and then be implemented.

It is clear that work is under way to address the information needs of Canadians on the issue of labelling. We believe that Canadians want labels that are meaningful. It is the goal of the government to ensure that information provided to Canadians enables them to make informed choices. I reiterate that the House should not support Motion No. 230 on the basis of the first part of the motion on labelling.

I will now address the second part of the hon member's motion which recommends that exhaustive studies be carried out on the long term effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment. The safety assessment of conventional products and of products derived from biotechnology are both subject to stringent health and safety requirements under Canada's food and safety system. I re-emphasize that food safety and consumer protection are priorities for the Government of Canada. We are strongly committed to the safety of Canadians, animals and our environment.

Canada has a strong reputation as a producer of foods that are consistently safe, clean and of high quality. We have built that reputation by putting very rigorous regulatory systems in place. Our approval systems are science based and transparent. The decision of the government to accept or reject a product is based on sound science and fact. Our regulators include experts in nutrition, molecular biology, chemistry, toxicology and environmental science, to name just a few.

There have been recent studies calling into question the safety of biotechnology derived products. We hear a lot of talk about junk science. Canadian regulators do not accept junk science, poor science or half science when evaluating products of biotechnology. The regulatory system assesses products on a case by case basis. The research and safety required for evaluation directly addresses the potential risks of the product to human health and the environment. If there is any question as to the safety of these products they are not approved. The government continually reviews the effectiveness of its approaches.

The Government of Canada takes pride in advocating our science based approach around the world. We rely on the need for scientific research to settle questions related to long term health, safety and environmental issues. We are committed to a regulatory system that meets the highest standards of scientific rigour. This commitment is reflected in the establishment of two important groups, an expert panel and an advisory committee.

The Royal Society of Canada has appointed an expert panel to examine future scientific developments in food biotechnology and to provide advice to the federal government accordingly. This forward thinking body will advise Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada on the science capacity that the federal government will need to maintain the safety of new foods being derived through biotechnology in the 21st century.

The Royal Society of Canada named its expert panel this past February. In examining the leading edge of this technology the panel will recommend what new research, policies and regulatory capacity will be needed to ensure the Canadian standards of safety remain as stringent for the next generation of biotechnology derived foods as they are today.

A number of challenges and opportunities are associated with biotechnology that require detailed consideration and public discussion. Food biotechnology presents Canadians with challenges but also unprecedented opportunities.

The recently formed Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee or CBAC will bring stakeholders and interested parties together to advise the government to raise public awareness and to engage Canadians in an open and transparent dialogue on biotechnology issues. Canadians want to take part in the dialogue on food biotechnology. The CBAC will actively create opportunities for Canadians to participate in its activities and discussions. This will include an interactive website for interested Canadians to review, consult and provide input into this topic among many.

The work of the expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada will contribute to a balanced and consultative process where all questions and concerns can be thoroughly considered. The government looks forward to the contributions the expert panel and CBAC will make in furthering the dialogue on biotechnology issues.

I assure the hon. member for Louis-Hébert that the government will continue to undertake the necessary steps to ensure the health of Canadians, animals and our environment. I would add that the assessment of any genetically modified plant or crop is rigorous and comprehensive. It requires significant scientific data to be provided and evaluated.

Regulation through sound science is an essential step in the continued safe production of biotechnology derived foods. The 2000 federal budget confirms this priority in Canada's regulatory system. The $90 million investment in the regulatory system for biotechnology products will help Canada, the CFIA and other regulatory departments to continue to enhance and evolve their safety first regulatory approach to keep pace with the next generation of scientific discoveries.

This increased investment illustrates the continued dedication of the Government of Canada to supporting the regulatory system for the benefit of all Canadians.

We can take great pride in the steps the government has taken. We should remember that Canada was the first country in the world to actively engage a broad range of stakeholders in this issue. These initiatives have become the model for other countries.

Just last week, on June 5, the United Kingdom announced the establishment of its Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission which will look at developments in biotechnology. This commission has a mandate that was decidedly similar to that of the CBAC.

We have initiatives under way to ensure that Canada is well positioned for the future. The Canadian public is already strongly engaged on the issue of genetically modified foods. The government is adopting a balanced and consultative approach to the labelling of these foods and we are letting Canadians know that our top priority is health, safety and the environment. We have incorporated these values into our regulatory system.

For these reasons I urge my colleagues to vote against Motion No. 230.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Bill Casey Cumberland—Colchester, NS

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to debate genetically modified foods. I was a General Motors dealer for years in the car business and every time I hear GM foods I wonder if General Motors would like it to be changed.

We are here to talk about genetically modified foods. It is a subject that makes most people nervous. It makes most consumers nervous. The people I talk to around my riding are very concerned not only about genetically modified foods, but also that we may lose our original foods. If there are enough genetically modified foods produced, then we may eventually lose the original type of food we had.

It reminds me somewhat of the debate in the Miramichi last week. There was a world conference on salmon fishing. The big problem was the possibility that the original Atlantic salmon would disappear because of the impact of aquaculturally raised salmon. If aquaculturally raised salmon mixed enough with wild Atlantic salmon, then eventually the wild Atlantic salmon would disappear. That is a comment I hear often from people in my riding. They are concerned about genetically modified foods and that this may happen with other foods.

The term “genetically modified foods” concerns consumers and farmers especially. They do not know where to turn. They do not know whether to use traditional agriculture or to branch out and take a leap forward into genetically modified foods. They are not sure which is safe for them. They are not sure which is safe for the land. They are not sure which is safe for consumers.

The whole country is looking to the government for leadership on this issue. It is an issue that must be addressed and the Department of the Health must provide the regulatory system to control this whole subject. Labelling is part of that, but it is not enough. It does not go far enough.

The government will be held accountable because the fear of the unknown is what bothers most people and most people do not have a clue what the impacts of genetically modified foods are. How would they? We do not have even a definition of genetically modified foods yet.

The onus is on the government to deal with this situation. I applaud the hon. member for bringing forth this motion requiring labelling, but it is not enough and it does not address some of the main issues. It just is not clear enough. The motion states that the government should carry out exhaustive studies on the long term effects of these foods on health and the environment. Although I applaud the move to labelling, what this bill states cannot be defined. Exhaustive studies on the long term effects cannot be defined, and it would be very difficult to do exhaustive studies on the long term effects without stopping the process now.

The fact of the matter is that genetically modified foods have helped the Canadian agricultural industry become competitive in the global economy and helped farmers to make better use of their land and provide more food for a world that needs food. However, it is absolutely mandatory that the government take every step possible to address the definition of genetically modified foods and to protect consumers.

There are many agencies that have already voluntarily agreed to supply labelling for genetically modified foods. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada held an off the record technical briefing for reporters in October and said that food companies are permitted to label genetically modified foods, but there are no plans to make it mandatory. In response to that some agricultural and retail organizations have offered to do it.

Sustainable agricultural practices are another big topic for our country right now, how we can maintain our land and ensure it is able to produce the foods we need. Some of these genetically modified foods help guarantee that our agricultural business will be sustainable. We do have some positives.

We also have new markets that we never had before. Some of our agricultural industries are able to supply products which were never available before in the world. Some of our research laboratories and companies in Canada are world leaders in this field. There are pros and cons to this whole subject, but again the onus is on the government to provide the regulatory situation to deal with this new concept to ensure that consumers have food security and that the industry is controlled.

The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and the Canadian General Standards Board have launched a project to help develop the standards for voluntary labelling. Maybe this would be the way to go, with the government as back-up. The ministers of health have announced their intention to establish an independent expert panel to examine future scientific developments in biotechnology. The first thing they have to do is define genetically modified foods. Without that definition, regulations cannot be written to control labelling or any other aspect of it.

I want to conclude by saying that it is extremely critical for our future. We may be making mistakes now that will affect us for a long time. We may be deteriorating our food base, or we may be enhancing it.

Again, it is up to the government. It has the power, it has the resources, and it has the responsibility to deal with this issue. That is where it should be. It should not be left up to a private member's bill to say that we need exhaustive, long term studies before we can do anything. The bill does not say whether we should stop the genetically modified process while we are doing the exhaustive studies or whether we should continue. It is up to the government, not a private member's bill, to deal with this very, very important issue.

We are watching this very closely. We will hold the government accountable for the process and for the ability to regulate and provide the regulations. Generally speaking, so far genetically enhanced foods have benefited the agricultural sector and biotechnology does offer an opportunity to improve our environment and improve our food quality. However, it is not appropriate for this very, very important subject to be dealt with through a private member's bill, which has no definition of even the subject of genetically modified foods or some kind of timeframe for this exhaustive study.

Again, the Progressive Conservative Party will be holding the government accountable to ensure that the regulatory process is in place and followed.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Bloc

Odina Desrochers Lotbinière, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased today to rise in this important debate on the whole issue of the labelling of genetically modified foods.

I must first of all commend my colleague from Louis-Hébert, who undertook her initiative on this issue a year ago. Today, she has already gathered throughout Quebec 60,000 signatures on the petition supporting her initiative, that is legislation requiring the government to label GMOs.

I was listening earlier to my Liberal colleague talking about transparency. I heard him talk in his speech about concepts, theories, great philosophical considerations, but he did not talk about any concrete measure to support my colleague's initiative. I was astounded when he said he had great confidence in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

My colleague approached the Commission d'accès à l'information to try to become acquainted with the process regulating the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, to learn how one determines what is a GMO and what is not.

This morning, I heard the Liberal member say that everything hangs on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. I have my opinion with regard to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, because I have been called upon a few times to participate in some missions overseas. What are they doing with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency? They are making it into a propaganda instrument, what I often call a “Canada approved” seal.

When they are overseas, government representatives are great democrats, incredibly open-minded. Back in the House, the government no longer practices democracy but information control.

If the Liberal member has a paper on the process used to determine what is a GMO and what is not, I strongly call upon him to pass it on to us and most of all to tell the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to inform us on the process, because we do not know it yet. The steps we are now taking show that there are seven or eight ministers involved in the GMO issue and nobody has been able to explain the process fir determining what is a GMO and what is not.

I can go even farther. In this government, there is a new trend. They now talk in terms of risk management, on such a serious issue as genetically modified foods. They might take a risk— that is how the Liberals think—and then they will see. That is risk management, and on an issue as important as this one. At the present time, there are a few countries which are following this risk management approach, which is a kind of compromise to avoid having to confront and settle the question of GMOs.

I insist that the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance change their minds on this. The work of my colleague, the member for Louis-Hébert, as well as that of my party, the Bloc Quebecois, aimed at tabling this legislation so that there will be mandatory labelling of GMOs is but the beginning of a process aimed at clarifying matters.

All that we are calling for at the present time is to have labelling made mandatory and to have the government invest the essential resources, both financial and research resources, into lending some credibility to Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, so that they are not put in a position of being both judge and jury.

I trust that the Liberals will understand the importance of this debate. We are already aware that there have been problems with certain crops, because Canada is lagging behind many of the other countries as far as monitoring GMOs is concerned. I have already said, and say again, as do some of the farmers in my riding, when the day comes that people have any doubt whatsoever about whether our products contain any GMOs, in this era of global trade, the shipment of wheat or any other product that has been genetically modified will not get out of the country. This will mean significant losses for the economy.

The European Union, Japan, Brazil, even the United States, have started work on mandatory labelling, on specific means to ensure identification of what is a GMO and what is not. Meanwhile, once again here in parliament, in the statements by ministers, in the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, the discussion is still around concepts and theories, and not concrete measures, things that might make both the agricultural industry and the consumer feel more secure?

Some producers have invested a great deal of money in organic farming, and, because of the government, they stand to loose a great deal of that money. We are working hard to get a certification program for organic farmers.

In view of the great risk associated with genetically modified plants, it is absolutely essential that the government take action.

I would like to say a word about the behaviour of Liberal members since the beginning of this debate, especially since we succeeded in having the Standing Committee on Agriculture hold public hearings. We realize how unaware they are of the import of this debate and all the consequences of this crucial issue.

Let me remind the House of the countries that have taken concrete steps. In April 2000, the European Union submitted regulations on which plants are genetically modified. Mexico has followed suit. As soon as 2001, Japan will implement a mandatory labelling policy. Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and even India have also taken action. These countries are now conducting tests to sort out the mandatory labelling issue.

In Canada, with the Liberal government, we are talking about concepts and theories, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency which is supposed to give us an incredible level of security in our health controls.

A moment ago, when I was listening to the remarks of my colleague opposite, I had the impression he was reading a speech that had been written from beginning to end by Health Canada. This is to say that these people are not serious and that they do not understand the scope of the GMO issue. When the economic and health consequences will be known, those who already oppose compulsory labelling will be held accountable at the next election.

The public is aware of this issue. People have been asking many questions. They want to know what is in their food. It is fundamental. Producers want to know what kind of seed they are planting. This is also fundamental.

Why does the government still refuse compulsory labelling of GMOs when Canada's main trading partners have adopted it? There will be an imbalance somewhere down the road.

But it is reducing the issue to one of risk management, of losing millions in exports, and of managing possible risks to the health and safety of producers.

I hope that in the coming days, the Liberals will discuss the matter, change their mind and rally to the position of the Bloc Quebecois, which is more realist and concrete, which provides for safety measures and, most importantly, promotes a cause that is very important for today's society.

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods
Private Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

The House resumed from May 29 consideration of the motion that Bill C-33, an act respecting the protection of wildlife species at risk in Canada, be read the second time and referred to a committee; and of the amendment.

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Noon

Liberal

Karen Kraft Sloan York North, ON

Madam Speaker, in the opening to her recent book The Nature of Economies , Jane Jacobs writes, “To be heard, a book needs a collaborator: a reader with a sufficiently open mind to take in what the book is saying and dispute or agree, but in any case think about it”. May I suggest that speeches in this place have the same requirement. They need a collaborator, they need an audience with sufficiently open minds to take in the message of the speech.

I am sad to say that oftentimes on a issue of such fundamental importance to Canadians as the environment, when those concerned with its preservation and restoration rise to speak, few are really willing to listen. Many in this place say they care and many make fine speeches themselves, but words are a poor substitute for action. All of the rhetoric in the world will not save a river, a fish, a forest, nor will it protect a child from a hazardous contaminant. Our words will not protect species at risk, only our actions can.

Any movement to restore, preserve or protect the natural environment is often faced by an onslaught of criticism from industrial interests. They are quick to say this will cost jobs. They are quick to accuse those seeking to protect the environment of being alarmists. They put forward a false dichotomy of environment versus economy.

In the case of endangered species, they cite the wicked spotted owl as the single cause of job losses and the closing of communities within the forest industry in the United States. This is not true but such mythologizing serves their needs. Such alarmism pays dividends to those who are fundamentally uninterested or even opposed to protecting the environment and to protecting species, many of which are threatened by the activities of the industries in question. What many fail to recognize is as E. O. Wilson states, “that the planet's biological wealth is the basis for our material and cultural wealth”.

A few weeks ago EcoSummit 2000 brought medical doctors, scientists, aboriginal leaders and policy experts to Ottawa to meet with parliamentarians and discuss the effects of water borne pollutants on human health. The special guest speaker at the Monday evening session was the noted American environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Professor Kennedy reminded us in a very eloquent and passionate speech that we cannot separate the environment from the economy. They are not in contradiction to each other nor are they factors to be balanced one against the other on some mythological teeter-totter of government policy making. They are entwined. To quote Professor Kennedy, “In 100% of the situations, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy”. Identical. We must always remember, environmental injury is deficit spending. It is passing the cost of our generation's prosperity and loading it onto the backs of our children.

The human animal is part of nature, yet too many see humanity as a separate entity. As a result we try to tame nature. We try to civilize and domesticate nature. We make war against nature. Yet we continue to ignore the fundamental aspect of our humanity. We are in nature and nature is in us. We cannot control nature. We are merely part of a wider natural system. Humans can only intervene in processes of nature. If we respect the rest of nature, if we learn from nature, then it is possible to conduct human activities in harmony with nature. If we show no respect and continue to act through greed, brashness or ignorance we will face dire consequences. As Jane Jacobs said:

Nothing is more unforgiving of error than nature. If we poison our own water and air with hormone-mimicking chemicals...nature's solution for maladaptation is extinction.

When we respect nature we can begin to understand the incredible services it provides. For those who must, putting a monetary value on nature's services is difficult for many reasons. What price can be assigned to the last drop of water, the last gasp of fresh air? But it is not impossible.

In his book Natural Capitalism , Paul Hawken estimates that biological services that flow directly into society from the stock of natural capital are worth at least $36 trillion U.S. annually. Yet these fundamental services are rarely understood and grossly undervalued. Why must we protect nature? We must protect nature because it enriches us. As Professor Kennedy said:

It enriches us economically, yes, it's the base of our economy, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. But it also enriches us culturally, recreationally, aesthetically, spiritually and historically. It connects us to one another; it connects us to our history and our culture. Human beings have other appetites besides money, and if we don't feed them we are not going to grow up. We are not going to become the kinds of beings that we are supposed to become. We're not going to fulfil ourselves or our destinies. When we destroy nature we diminish ourselves, and we impoverish our children.

Biological diversity is vital to the healthy operation of natural systems, the same systems that remove toxins from our water and air, that provide safe containment of our aquifers and that restore nutrients to soil. Therefore we must protect species in order to preserve biological diversity.

Which of our present species of plants will prove to contain ingredients essential to future medicines, vaccines and cures? We cannot know this, hence we must protect them for our children and our grandchildren.

The UN convention on biological diversity recognizes that biological diversity must be conserved. In order to do this, sustainable use of components of biological diversity must be ensured. To further this we must have a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

Article 8(k) of the convention on biological diversity calls on all contracting parties to develop and maintain necessary legislation and/or the regulatory provisions for the protection of threatened species and populations. Canada should be congratulated as the first industrial country to ratify the UN convention on biological diversity. As a nation we made a commitment to protect endangered species through this convention. It is now long past the time to act on this commitment.

The House now has before it Bill C-33, an act respecting the protection of wildlife species at risk in Canada. Already serious concerns about this bill have been raised not only by environmentalists and conservationists and environmental lawyers, but by scientists and industry representatives. Incredibly many concerns are shared by these various groups.

If Bill C-33 passes the second reading vote, it will then proceed to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. As part of parliamentary procedure, witnesses will be called before the committee which will hear their presentations on this bill.

We will do nothing to protect species at risk unless this bill leaves committee as a good, effective piece of legislation. The House must support legislation that is strong, fair, effective and makes biological sense. Unfortunately Bill C-33 is wanting. Legislation must also be enforceable and it must be enforced.

The environment committee of this session of parliament has a fine tradition of being open minded and thoughtful as it listens to the many expert witnesses who come before it. The environment committee has a practice of serving the interests of Canadians by taking tough stands to protect our natural heritage. I expect that the environment committee will continue to act in the public interest to protect our nation's commons and will also honour parliamentary tradition in remembering its responsibilities to parliament.

I remind members of the House, as I have many times in the past, of this place's origin. The true test of any democracy is its ability to give voice to all its members. Wealth and position cannot be the criteria for participation in a democracy. The power of democracy is in its articulation of the public interest and its action to protect the common weal. Indeed, as our colleagues from earlier times during the beginning of the evolution of parliamentary democracy represented the common person, not just the rich and not just the nobility, we too must represent all Canadians.

As we look down, we see that the floor of the House is covered in a green carpet which reminds us of democracy's humble beginnings. Ordinary people would meet on the grassy green commons of their villages to discuss and debate the concerns of the day. We can trace a connection to nature all the way back to the very birthplace of our parliamentary tradition.

What is it that our ancestors so wisely understood that we of this House in so many ways have sadly forgotten? It is that we are of nature. We have been given a public trust to protect the commons, a commons that includes those who do not vote: children, the unborn and the natural world around us. This is a duty we cannot ignore. I call on all members of the House to ensure when this bill goes before committee that it is properly amended.

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12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Clifford Lincoln Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, in 1992, Canada played a leading role in Rio, to promote the development of the Convention on Biological Diversity. As a matter of fact, Canada was the first industrialized nation to ratify this convention after the Principality of Monaco.

One of the underlying elements of the convention is precisely the enactment of legislation to protect species at risk. The convention requires that the member States pass such an act.

The Liberal government made many promises in that regard, including the one made in the red book and confirmed in the 1997 election and those made in the Speech from the Throne for 1996 and that for 1999.

I am pleased that we brought before the House Bill C-33, which we are debating today, to protect species at risk. This bill is succeeding to Bill C-65, which died on the order paper in 1997, when the election was called.

The purpose of the second reading of a bill is to try to establish the limits and the criteria that we, as members of Parliament, have set to improve the bill when it is sent to committee. I think that this bill will require some fundamental amendments.

We start with listing. Listings are made initially by a committee called COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. It has been working for something like two decades. It has identified 339 species at risk over that time. Instead of using the existing list of 339 species and incorporating it into the new act, we are going ahead as if the list does not exist. We are starting with an initial list of zero. Instead of being recognized as being the final list produced by scientists of the highest repute who have worked tirelessly over the last two decades, the list will now be subject to the discretion of cabinet. I find that terribly ironic.

Putting myself in the place of a cabinet member—and I used to belong to cabinet—I am supposed to rule on a list produced by scientists who have been studying the subject for years and who are well aware of what they speak. We are supposed to accept the discretion of cabinet ministers, most of whom are completely unfamiliar with the subject and who will have the discretion to list species at risk or decide not to, and the political considerations of course will rule. The minister of agriculture will say one thing, the industry minister will say another, the minister of natural resources and so forth and so on. The minister of the environment will have to fight for his territory to say it is worth listing a certain species.

We are not even starting with the roll of the list of the 339 species identified by COSEWIC. That is a glaring fault in the law. Without a listing there cannot be protection.

The protection of habitat and the listing are synonymous. They are twins. One cannot go without the other. If we wait for cabinet decisions, which take endless time to come forward, we will not have any listing for a long time.

Now we come to habitat. All scientists, all people in general, all Canadians realize that habitat and species go together. If we do not have habitat we will not have species. If we destroy or damage habitat, we destroy or damage species. It is very obvious. Yet in regard to habitat, which is a critical element of any law for the protection of endangered species, we have made habitat again discretionary. It will be cabinet that will decide whether habitat protection may or may not be included in the act. It is even a retreat from the previous bill, Bill C-65, which never left the discretion in the hands of cabinet. In Bill C-65 the provision was to the effect that cabinet shall list and protect habitat when there is good cause to do so. Now it may. It is another glaring omission.

In this context it is worth citing certain provincial laws. Very often we criticize the provinces for not having definite laws, but I would like to quote a few of them.

The New Brunswick Endangered Species Act of 1996 states: “No person shall wilfully or knowingly destroy, disturb or interfere with the critical habitat of a member of an endangered species”.

The P.E.I. Wildlife Conservation Act states: “No person shall destroy, disturb or interfere with, or attempt to destroy, disturb or interfere with the habitat of an endangered or threatened species”.

The Ontario Endangered Species Act states: “No person shall wilfully destroy or interfere with or attempt to destroy or interfere with the habitat of any species or flora or fauna declared in the regulations to be threatened with extinction”.

The Manitoba law states: “No person shall destroy, disturb or interfere with the habitat of an endangered or threatened species”.

Our neighbours to the south have had an endangered species law for many years, since 1973. It states: “With respect to endangered species of fish and wildlife listed pursuant to this act, it is unlawful for any person to—take such species within the United States”. It also explicitly prohibits habitat destruction in areas of federal jurisdiction.

The big difference is that in the case of all these laws that I cited, the onus of proof is clearly a very important and onerous burden on the person who destroys habitat. He or she is judged to be guilty unless he or she proves otherwise. Whereas in our new law, we would have to wait for cabinet to decide whether it may or may not protect habitat and incorporate it within the act. We fail completely compared to the laws that I have cited.

We then must view the question of federal jurisdiction and the safety net. In our own areas of jurisdiction we are again so timid as to apply discretion all over the place. There is an opinion from Justice La Forest, whose reputation and stature do not need to be underlined. He has said that Canada, the federal government, has complete jurisdiction over birds that migrate and also over cross-border species. We do not need to be timid, but even then we have applied discretion.

We have applied all kinds of discretion, so that in effect we would have to consult with everybody, consult with cabinet ministers, one to the other, and consult with the provinces before we even make a decision regarding the habitat of species that is clearly within our jurisdiction.

When I was in Quebec, I had the honour of tabling the Quebec legislation on threatened species. I know what it is all about. At the department, we had worked with one of the experts, Lionel Gaudreau, to whom I would like to pay tribute today. He had explained to me why the habitat and the list of threatened species had to be considered for automatic protection. Unfortunately, this protection has been restricted and tainted lately. I hope that the act will be maintained.

Once again, what we need here is to pass clear, convincing and, above all, decisive legislation, as the United States and some provinces did.

This is why I urge my colleagues that, once this bill is referred to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, we improve on all its major principles. Otherwise, the bill will be too weak.

It is essential that we improve the bill and strengthen it when it is referred to the committee. This is the wish that I want to express out loud to all the members in the House.

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12:25 p.m.

NDP

Nelson Riis Kamloops, BC

Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to the previous two speakers, both of whom I have the utmost respect for. I very much appreciated their comments.

My question concerns species at risk that move across international boundaries. Would the member inform the House if he is aware of sources in the United States which have indicated in a very harsh and critical way their views of this legislation in terms of not being able to protect species that move across international boundaries, either Canada and Alaska or Canada and the southern states?

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12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Clifford Lincoln Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, as the hon. member no doubt knows, not only all of the leading environmental groups in the United States, but a lot of organizations representing people at large have pointed out that Canada is lacking very badly in this regard. Cross-border species must be protected according to the convention, according to NAFTA and according to all binding agreements between our two countries. For us to do this in such a timid fashion as to leave it to discretion is unacceptable to both the United States and Mexico, both of which have very strong endangered species legislation.

We cannot consider that birds and other wildlife which cross borders from the north to the south every winter are not under federal jurisdiction. It makes no sense at all. Of course we have to protect wildlife under our jurisdiction.

Robert Kennedy Jr. pointed this out in eloquent terms to the House. It was sad to hear an American giving us a lesson in Canada. He said that our endangered species legislation is weak and must be improved, bona fide and strengthened.

I agree with the hon. member that one critical area is cross-border species.

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12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Karen Kraft Sloan York North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate the member for his very fine speech. I am sure that all of us are aware of the leadership that he shows on environmental issues and with his presence on the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development.

I want to ask for a clarification or an expansion on some of the points he has raised with regard to the involvement of the parliamentary standing committee in the process of hearing witnesses and the amendment process. A lot of us in the House hear about how impotent some backbenchers are. One of the key roles that members of the House have to play is on a parliamentary standing committee. All of the members on both sides of the House are aware that a parliamentary standing committee reports to parliament and to you, Mr. Speaker. Could the hon. member make a few comments on that?

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12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Clifford Lincoln Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, the committee is an ideal place to strengthen legislation. It is completely independent of thought, or it should. It represents all parties in the House in a far more congenial atmosphere than exists in this place, where the atmosphere is much more adversarial. Committee members have a duty to try and see the flaws of legislation. There are very few in this case. There might be five items that need to be strengthened. If we were to do this, we would do parliament, cabinet and the minister a big favour.

I hope members on all sides of the House will join together to identify the few areas, some of which I have been spoken to, that need to be strengthened. I do not think there are many of them and I think we can do it by working together in a constructive spirit of co-operation. We should rejoice that there is a law, but there are certain critical flaws. Let us get together and work within the committee to make sure the flaws disappear.