Evidence of meeting #55 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was motions.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

March 10th, 2011 / 12:35 p.m.


Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Before I read the motion, I would say to Randy that we will be supporting his Wheat Board motion because we believe they should come before the committee.

The reason that we had to move this up is that with some of the other motions we considered urgent, and still regard as urgent, we find that the government members will--as we've seen here previously--talk it out so that we don't get them forward.

At any rate, the motion that I move is as follows:

That the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food recommend that the government place a moratorium on any approval of Roundup Ready Alfalfa until the government completes public research:

(a) into Canada's ability to ensure the genetic integrity, production and preservation of a diversity of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), non-GMO and organic alfalfa production;

(b) the ability of Canada's handling and transportation system to ensure segregation of forage seeds and detection of genetic commingling in alfalfa seeds and hay;

(c) the development of industry-led, third party audit and verification systems;

(d) that these findings be reported back to the Committee; and

(e) that this motion be reported to the House.

The urgency of this motion in part comes about as a result of the Bill C-474 discussions, including Mr. Atamanenko's motion, and in part as a result of the discussions that we're currently undertaking on biotechnology, for which a number of us have travelled across the country.

Given the U.S. decision on genetically modified alfalfa and allowing it to be commercialized, following that decision, Secretary Vilsack has come out and laid down some pretty tough conditions after the fact. I believe they got the cart before the horse.

So there is a need for this, no question. There's a need for the federal government to ensure that genetically modified organisms such as GE alfalfa do what it is claimed and not what should not be permitted, namely, to cross-contaminate. There is a lot at risk there. We've heard this from many witnesses. The foundation of the organic industry in livestock production is alfalfa. That could be undermined by cross-contamination. So we're worried about that. That's why we need some of the safeguards.

At this time in Canada, the provisions to prevent cross-contamination from occurring have not been demonstrated to be in place. I'll not go through the things that have been happening in the U.S. to prove that. To save time, I'll just make the point that the federal government should ensure that the relevant questions and concerns are addressed prior to approval—not afterwards, as was done in the United States.

This is a moratorium, not a ban. I want to underline that. It is not a ban. The reason for it is to give the Government of Canada the opportunity to ensure that there are no negative consequences from the commercialization of GE alfalfa. Clearly the United States administration is of the opinion that there are reasons to be concerned—thus the call for studies and the development of mitigating provisions.

The course of this action in Canada would be the reverse of what it is in the United States. We believe the studies and the development of mitigating provisions must be in place prior to the approval being granted.

This motion implements a moratorium on the basis of the necessity to address the science involved. It's motivated by a need for scientific information that has yet to be presented. There are a lot of economic concerns and we realize those. Should GE alfalfa contaminate alfalfa, we could lose European markets, undermining the organic industry. And the list goes on.

So there are lots of economic considerations. But what I'm basically saying in the thrust of the motion is let's do the sound science. These studies would be at, and should be at, the government's expense, not the industry's.

The last point I'd like to make that shows the seriousness, I think, of the issue is that according to testimony presented to a committee in the United States, data from GE alfalfa trials in the United States show that 11 of 15 plots were contaminated, despite a 900-metre buffer being obeyed. And some of those plots were 2.5 kilometres away. So some of the buffers we're talking about that would supposedly allow safety have been proven not to in the United States.

In a submission to the USDA last year, the National Organic Coalition cited studies from the USDA itself, which found that “...honey bees can cross-pollinate at distances over 6 miles. Alkali bees cross-pollinate at 4-5 miles. All of those distances are much further than those included in Monsanto's 'best practices.'” That's what was determined in U.S. hearings.

I think that for us as a committee, and for the Government of Canada, it's important that we err on the side of caution and ensure that the federal government addresses these matters prior to, not subsequent to, any approval.

I would go back to 1994. In April of that year, this committee recommended unanimously that the federal government of the day, which was a Liberal government, impose a moratorium on the approval of Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone, bovine somatotropin--or rBST, as it was more commonly known. Health Canada had been posed to grant approval of this product, and it was only after the intervention of this committee that the federal government granted a moratorium on the approval, with the expectation that the concerns raised with respect to that biotech product would be responded to by Monsanto. To date, rBGH has not been approved for use in this country.

I believe this committee did its job in 1994 with one particular genetically modified product. I believe it was the right decision then. And I believe if we were to support this motion today and ensure that these criteria were met, it would be the right decision for this committee to make. It would be the right decision for the Government of Canada to err on the side of caution.

We've heard lots of concerns from the organic industry, and I think we should respect those concerns. Therefore, I ask you to support this motion.

Thank you.

12:45 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

Go ahead, Mr. Hoback.

12:45 p.m.


Randy Hoback Conservative Prince Albert, SK

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'm still a little disappointed in how we came to this, but that's fine. We're here now. We need to deal with the motion as is.

The concern I have isn't necessarily with the motion itself.

Wayne, I think your heart's in the right place here. When I go to my farmers in my area—we have a lot of alfalfa production—they're concerned about Roundup Ready alfalfa. There's no question about it. They don't know what the drift tolerance is or the pollination areas are. They've heard stories out of the U.S., and they've heard stories out of Canada. There is a lot of information that needs to be looked at and talked about here, for sure. There's no question about that.

I get a little concerned, though, when we start using U.S. data, because you can't use data out of Arizona and then take it into northern Saskatchewan.The logistics are summer versus winter. We have this thing called “winter”. We have our leafcutter bees that go into hibernation, where in alfalfa they could be going year round. The pollination areas can be totally different. I just use that as one example.

But I don't want to defend it; as I said, my farmers are saying very clearly that they have some serious concerns. That's where I was hoping in our biotech report that we could actually start to flesh out what those concerns were and then flesh out what the industry was saying with regard to how they're handling it. I wanted it with Canadian data, not American or European data, because the environmental situation around that data is totally different.

You can't take a data pack out of Arizona and take it into northern Saskatchewan. It just does not work. We need to see that in northern Saskatchewan, if that's the way we want to go.

Now, my understanding is that in 2005 the Liberal government went through the regulatory process on this product and actually approved it. It actually has regulatory approval here in Canada. But I also understand that there is no variety in the registration process at this point in time that is coming forward for this year. This is something that is happening in the U.S.

Now that it's happening the U.S., I have some concerns about the pollution coming up here if they're not able to keep the integrity of their system. Do we do as they did with the honeybees, where they banned all the queen bees coming out of the U.S.? Do we ban all the alfalfa coming out of the U.S. to keep our integrity? Is that where we're going? I really don't know. I don't know what the answer is. But that was point of the study. That's my concern. We're coming out, before we finish the study, with recommendations that may or may not be right. I really don't know.

I'd like to hear all sides of the story before I say yes or no. I just feel I don't have the information in front of me to say yes or no. How do we move forward on this? This is the problem I have, because there are concerns. There is no doubt about that. I think everyone around this committee would say that our farmers are very concerned about the usefulness of alfalfa, especially Roundup alfalfa.

We also understand how important alfalfa is in the fertilization process for the organic sector. They can substitute to peas or lentils in certain parts of the country of Canada to get their nitrogen requirements, if that's an option. But again, I'd like to see the data set here in Canada.

We did have a data set done under the regulatory side of things, to say that it's safe for human consumption. As a government, when you take a step back, when we're talking about human consumption, they're saying there's no issue here, but there is a marketing issue. There is a marketing issue in terms of whether the Europeans will accept it and some of those things.

Those concerns are definitely valid concerns, but what is the role of the Canadian government here? Is it the role to start restricting where and who and what we can sell and where we can sell and what we can't sell? Or is it just to ensure that what we do sell, what you put on your table what you eat, is actually safe to consume, is actually safe for the cow to eat? That's where it starts to get really dicey, because we start going into a grey zone now. Where does it start and where does it stop? You could say, in this situation, on alfalfa, this might be a good example of where you may want to go into that grey zone and say, no, we don't want it.

But then what about canola? If we would have used that example in this scenario, we would not have some of the GMO varieties of canola. We would not have yields pushing 50 or 60 bushels an acre right now in western Canada. We would not have the infrastructure of crushing plants, the employment and the value-added sector in Saskatchewan and Alberta. All that was because we used safe science as the approval mechanism to ensure that the food that we got, the oil that came from the canola seed, was actually safe to eat.

That's why you need to have the science approach, and that's why I'm not willing to bend on the science approach at this point in time unless there's a reason to do it. Is there a way whereby we can accommodate the farmers who don't want to do it? Is there a way to ensure that the guys in organics won't have cross-pollination? I'm not sure. We need to figure that one out.

That is definitely an issue that needs to be discussed, but I don't want to put something like this motion in front of somebody right now without hearing all the sides. That's the concern I have. It's really awkward to have this motion now just because of that: we don't have all the facts in front of us.

I know you'd agree with me, Mr. Atamanenko. You want to hear all the sides before you make a decision.

In some ways, this motion would be better as a recommendation in the biotech study itself. Then we would at least be able to back it up with witness testimony from both sides, and then we could probably address it better.

As I said, though, it's sitting here in front of us, and we need to deal with it. We need to figure out what Mr. Easter is talking about.

He mentions in the motion “Canada's ability to ensure the genetic integrity, production and preservation of a diversity of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), non-GMO and organic alfalfa production”. Well, those issues aren't just in alfalfa. If we were to look at a GMO wheat or a GMO barley somewhere down the road, those issues would also have to be re-addressed in this situation.

Again, you take the balancing of what we need for food requirements throughout the world. We know that organics aren't going to feed the world. I don't care what anybody says. That's pretty well agreed upon among the experts around the world. So if we're going to have people starving just because we want to go to organics, is that the right way to go? Is that a responsible measurement for farmers?

We also know that the organics have a right to make a living. We understand that. They have the right to market their products to be able to put a label on something they believe is right, even if that label has some conditions around it, has some.... I'm looking for the proper word. I don't want to offend anybody. “Regulatory” isn't the right word; what I'm trying to say is “standards”.

When we look at the organic sector and when we're pulling organic vegetables out of the U.S. and Mexico, the standards they're using for their organics sector are very questionable compared to the standards we use here in Canada. Canada has a much different standard system. But the reality is that when we put the label “organic” on there, the consumer doesn't necessarily know which standards are being followed for that product. They know that for wheat it's one set of standards, and they know for lettuce it's another. But if it's coming out of a third country and we have no clue what their standards are, we cannot ensure what they're claiming is true.

So again, it creates an issue in the organic sector of getting them into a situation where they have a set of standards that can accommodate the need for other farmers to use GMO products. What we're talking about is low-level presence so it still meets the organic standard the consumer wants, with the understanding that the farmer next door is producing safe food also and isn't restricting his options.

There are so many issues in this debate. To try to round it up into one motion is very awkward. And I think it's unfortunate, because we have a good study going and we're actually bringing forward a lot of good witnesses.

Even Mr. Atamanenko would agree with me; it's given him an opportunity to bring forward the concerns he had when he brought through Bill C-474. Even though I could not support his motion or his bill--I think he understands why I couldn't support it--I think he appreciates the fact that he can still vet the problems and concerns that he is hearing.

We need to see that report finished before we can start making motions and recommendations. I feel we're only halfway through it.

Mr. Chair, I'm looking at this and I'm just thinking it's premature, at this point, to take any “yes” or “no” on this thing. I really don't know.

I will reiterate, though, that the farmers in my riding are concerned about Roundup alfalfa. It is an issue, and we need to deal with it. We need to have some imagination to do it in such a way that we do not chase away that investment in the GMO and the biotech sectors. As we have heard, GMO is just one small tool in the biotech sector. A lot of the companies are saying it's too expensive a tool to use, so they're using other methods that are non-GMO to bring forward new products.

The pulse sector is a good example of that. If we look at the new varieties coming out of the pulse sector and what they're addressing--the need for fertilizer, the need for water--there is a good example that I think we can look at to see advancements in varieties that are non-GMO that work for everybody.

With that, Mr. Chair, I'll wrap up my concerns. I'll turn it back to you.

12:55 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

Thank you.

Mr. Lemieux, you have three minutes.

12:55 p.m.


Pierre Lemieux Conservative Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Having read through the motion, I would say it is a motion that is definitely worthy of consideration and debate. We are in the middle of the biotech study as Mr. Hoback mentioned. We've heard the concerns that farmers and farm groups have about Roundup Ready alfalfa, and I think we need to seriously consider the testimony we've heard. We need to finalize this into a report. We're just not there yet. We haven't heard everybody. We haven't had all the witnesses. We're not at the end of the report. We're in the middle of the report.

So there is nothing wrong with this motion. The issue is just the way in which it was tabled, Chair. If it was so important, I don't understand why there was no consultation. We've worked so hard as a committee to have a good, positive relationship amongst members. There has been no consultation on this at all, and it has basically been strong-armed to the top of the list.

I don't understand that. I think about motivation, and the only thing I can think of, Chair, is that.... Mr. Easter sent very confusing signals during Bill C-474. He supported Alex Atamanenko's bill every step of the way. He voted for it every step of the way except the last step. When it came time to actually pass the bill and move it to the Senate, he voted against it.

He used to be president of the NFU, Chair, and I think some of these groups are very unhappy with him. He's trying to make up the ground now by giving his 10-minute speech on how outraged he is about alfalfa.

As I said, this motion is worthy of more study and more debate. There's nothing wrong with this motion, but the way in which it was presented was completely wrong, and I think it was coming from that advantage, Chair.

I'll just give you an example of some things that need to be considered. There is a move, particularly in Europe, from zero tolerance to low-level presence. What caused undue hardship for our farmers was this zero-tolerance policy of Europe whereby if there was a single grain in there that was GM, the whole shipment was rejected. Of course that is unreasonable. We've agreed on committee that this is an unreasonable approach. It's not manageable, and it's not affordable either for us as the providers of grains and alfalfa or for the purchasers either, because of course they're rejecting crops all over, and the price is going up because the supply is going down. In a sense they are limiting their own markets.

So what are some things that need to be considered before outright bans are considered? There are things like low-level presence. What sort of emphasis should the government be placing on promoting low-level presence, which of course allows for some level of presence to be considered acceptable provided there's no risk or threat to health and safety?

That's the kind of thing we're looking at in committee. What are some of the other factors? It's easy to say...an outright ban, but what are some of the other factors that could actually help the industry and help our farmers? This is one of them. We're starting to see movement.

As you are probably aware--and as, I think, the committee is aware--only one to two weeks ago Europe decided that when it comes to feed they will accept low-level presence. This is a dramatic game-changer. This is a huge shift, and yet it's not considered in this motion.

So I am divided on this, because on the one hand this motion is worthy of consideration, and it's worthy of discussion, and it's worthy of debate. On the other hand, the manner in which this motion was brought in front of committee, the manner in which it was bullied onto the list and bullied to the top, I completely disagree with.

I also disagree with the fact that we are in the middle of a study, and full consideration needs to be given to biotechnology, which as we know and have said many times is not just GM. The GM is just a small subset, a small microcosm, of biotechnology at large, and we are studying biotechnology.

So I think it's important that we continue with our study and that we consider something like what's in this motion as part of the study. It should be a recommendation in the study that can actually be part of what our witnesses said. Right now this kind of stands on its own. There are no reference points on this motion, and we don't know what testimony contributed to it or took away from it.

12:55 p.m.


Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE


1 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

Okay. I'm going to have to....

We're out of time, Mr. Lemieux.

1 p.m.

An hon. member

There you go.

1 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

The meeting is adjourned.