Madam Speaker, I am pleased to address today's motion presented by the Canadian Alliance.
This motion reads:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should cease and desist its sustained legislative and political attacks on the lives and livelihoods of rural Canadians and the communities where they live.
Instead of using the term “attacks”, I would rather talk about a “lack of policies” on the part of the Canadian government. My definition of rural areas is much different from the one being discussed today. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food will have to make up his mind and decide how to manage the agricultural sector and how to harmonize rural areas with the decisions that will be made regarding agriculture.
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is slow to release Canada's broad policy thrusts in the context of globalization. Meanwhile, the Americans are drafting their U.S. farm bill.
We also do not know what will be the place of the rural world, which is confronted daily with massive industrialization in the agricultural sector. This government likes to consult. I have been a member of parliament for almost five years now and whenever I hear the Liberal government, it talks about consulting. I just took part in one of these consultations across Canada regarding the mood of farmers. I can say that few people are pleased with the Canadian agricultural policy.
I also took part in two conferences on rural development. At the first conference, we talked about the importance for people to have access to the Internet. We talked about the Internet at a time when, in my riding and in several other ones in Canada, it is still possible to see five customers sharing the same telephone line. Just imagine: they wanted to hook them up to the Internet.
At the second conference, they talked about networking. They said “We have to talk to each other, we have to communicate”. From what I can see on the other side, they have a great deal of difficulty communicating between departments.
The federal government's famous tour, three years ago, resulted in the income support program. They used a very positive expression, namely the “Disaster Program”. This is the positive work done by the government when farmers are confronted with economic problems.
The Canadian government asked the standing committee to do another cross-Canada tour. By far the majority of agricultural stakeholders came to tell us that Canadian agriculture was in an impasse, if not a total crisis. Generations of them had devoted their lives to building a rural environment that was a pleasant place to live. Now, with agriculture becoming increasingly industrialized, the efforts they have expended are disappearing.
Everywhere in Canada, we heard one stakeholder after another speak of their concerns. This past weekend, the president of the UPA, Laurent Pellerin, used some clear language in La Terre de chez nous “Either we move ahead or we repeat history”. I will use an even more Quebecois expression, not advancing, not repeating ourselves, but “stuck like a broken record”. That means nothing is being done.
I share the concerns of the Quebec agricultural sector when the federal government, in yet another strategy document, does not directly address questions of supply and demand and collective marketing. The first step is to really determine what this government's orientation is as far as agriculture is concerned. Then we can start negotiations, so that we can find out how to manage our rural areas.
This government is trying to draft Canada-wide national standards in order to bind the entire agricultural sector with some great principles which will not meet provincial and regional aspirations. The agricultural sector throughout Canada is demanding more flexibility than that, in Quebec in particular.
There have been four rounds of consultations and two conferences on the rural problem, and there is still no sign of an agricultural policy. The Hill Times recently reported the minister of agriculture as saying that he was still prepared to consider other studies before releasing his policy.
What is the minister waiting for? While the government is consulting right and left, the Americans have almost finished drafting a national agricultural policy which will further add to market distortions. Once again, the Americans are getting ready to inject several billions of dollars in subsidies.
Again last week, members of the standing committee on agriculture put this question to four of the minister of agriculture's top officials, who are supposedly experts on strategy. They said they knew nothing about this upcoming American legislation, which will have a negative impact on all aspects of the agricultural market.
While we are getting nowhere, the Americans are drafting their next piece of legislation, the famous farm bill, which will increase financial assistance to farmers by close to $5 billion annually over six years.
Many countries are outraged at this increase, which is inconsistent with the U.S. support for the principle of reducing subsidies expressed at the last meeting of the World Trade Organization in November.
Nor does this bill have unanimous approval within the United States. Americans producing items which are not massively subsidized and those calling for a more equitable share of government support feel that this legislation is a disgraceful waste, which may well further depopulate American farm land. People are critical of the bill because they say it will make the rich richer, cause prices to drop, and eliminate even more small farmers. This looks a lot like what the Canadian government has been doing in recent years.
In Canada, the proposed U.S. legislation has caused a number of people to sit up and take note, including Saskatchewan's minister of agriculture who was critical of the farm bill for the negative impact it may have on Canadian farming. Provincial ministers are opposed to the bill. La Terre de chez nous still has much to say about it, as do the main farming associations, but the minister keeps saying that he knows nothing.
Yet this bill runs counter to the WTO rules on subsidies. It will mean that our farmers will no longer be able to compete on the market. The Americans have still not even complied with the GATT agreements, and now they are compounding this by announcing major subsidies for the near future. They are going to continue to target Quebec's agricultural policy.
Let us talk about this government's consultations. There is a more partisan group, the Liberal Party task force, set up by the Prime Minister to find out what was really happening in the world of agriculture. There are processes, parliamentary committees, and every one of us in our ridings is listening to farmers, and the Prime Minister created another committee to find out farmer's real needs. What a revelation.
This group recommended that the government invest more in agriculture to counteract the negative impact of inclement weather, the markets and income fluctuations. This sounds a lot like all of the demands that I have heard.
Again, we absolutely must settle Canada's agricultural policy first, before trying to deal with rural development, because whatever the government decides, in terms of types of agriculture it will support, will determine the future, or lack thereof, of rural areas.
I would like to broach another subject that was raised during the cross-country tour, that is labelling of GMOs. This worries people in rural areas. In the past, people pinned their hopes on organic farming. They made a great effort to get accredited. When another farmer uses genetically modified seeds or other genetically modified products, they can end up watching their crops being destroyed.
During this trip, I met an organic seed producer who told me that because of the carelessness of another farmer who had used genetically modified seeds, he lost $37,000. He lost it because there was no legislation for obligatory labelling of GMOs, whether it be seeds or products for consumption. But consumers should have a right to know what they are eating.
This, despite the fact that there have been two attempts in the House to solve this problem. The last time was in October 2001, when Bill C-287 was voted down. Yet it was a bill that was sponsored by a Liberal member. Fifteen Liberals from Quebec voted against this legislation, yet all of the consumers associations and rural populations were calling for it.
The true debate on the future of the rural sector ought to address protection of water and the environment, the emergence of agrotourism, and seeking to strike a balance among the various agricultural concerns. We know that, with the protection of farm activities and the advent of the right of production, agriculture is assuming a vital role in our rural areas. The countryside must not become exclusive to agriculture. It must also protect our irreplaceable collective heritage such as our lakes and woods. The debate that should take place on rural development must also address this aspect.
I would like to come back to the tour in order to show how I was approached about our the future of our rural areas. A number of groups and organizations came to express their grave concerns on the growth of agribusiness and all its potential consequences for the environment. Our rural areas have been totally ruined by the burgeoning giant pig operations in all provinces, Quebec in particular. Land prices, on which there is heavy speculation by those involved in vertical integration, have increased so much that in the very near future it will become more and more difficult for dairy and beef farmers to buy any land at a reasonable price, if they want to expand. Not only that, but young farmers wanting to start up an operation will face major obstacles in the increased land and production costs.
The rural communities understand all of this. In fact, in the past 10 to 15 years, agriculture has taken a turn toward agribusiness. The various levels of government have focused their assistance on that sector, abandoning the small farm operations. The famous U.S. bill is being criticized. If it gets enacted, there will no longer be any room for small operations, in Quebec or in Ontario. I have heard the positions of the associations on this. I asked them directly, “If the various levels of government continue to favour agribusiness almost exclusively, what do you see happening to our rural areas in the future?”
Their unanimous opinion is, “Our countryside as we know it will disappear. There will be nothing but giant farm operations managed by big agribusinesses, often even U.S. ones, which will replace us and do things their way”.
What many generations in Quebec, Ontario and the other provinces have built up will be lost. And this is where the focus needs to be when it comes to rural development.
The secretary of state is trying hard. He has even met with many well-intentioned stakeholders, especially in Charlottetown. However, his government is not giving him enough money to show the leadership needed to save rural areas.
Rural areas are also affected by all the efforts which have been made to implement farm tourism. Those who use our charming bike trails will quickly abandon them if they come up against the increasing affront to the nose from industrial farming operations.
A recent ad campaign by Quebec's federation of hog producers used the line “Spring is in the air”. When I was young, the air smelled good when you stepped outside. Now, if you put your nose out the door and the hog megaproducers have spread the liquid manure, the slogan “Spring is in the air” takes on quite a different meaning from the delightful one that would have occurred to me in the spring way back when.
The time has come to stop imitating the United States. I have spoken at length about the woes of the rural world. However, I have seen what is happening elsewhere. It is important for members of the House to get out and see what is being done elsewhere. It is as though we are obsessed with solely looking at what is happening in the United States.
Let me give the example of a country called Switzerland, where small producers practice farming to supply food, of course, but while protecting the environment at the same time. The environment must play a central role in the debate over rural development.
Nearly 80% of all Swiss farmers have switched to green practices, which were promoted in the early 1990s. In a referendum held in June 1996, 77% of the Swiss population supported a concept of agriculture that incorporated multiple functions to promote sustainable development. Canada is a long way from this reality.
In addition to the obligation to feed the population—close to two thirds of the food consumed in Switzerland is produced in the country—the agricultural sector has become a partner in implementing a sustainable development policy. Consequently, it works to ensure the protection of biological diversity by providing the necessary land for animal and vegetable species. This is a far cry from what we see in documentary footage on the treatment of animals here in our craze for mass production. Animals virtually never go outside, yet the land belongs to them.
There is also a connection between farming and tourism. Farms must be laid out in a decentralized manner, and must not spoil the landscape.
In closing, the Government of Canada must announce its policy direction regarding the agricultural model that it wants to pursue. More importantly, it must reflect on rural development as a whole and try to rationalize the industrial model with the family model and try to come up with policies that will meet the needs of our communities.