Thank you, Mr. Chair and MPs for this opportunity to share what we have been hearing from the public, and what we have observed and concluded from a decade of public engagement on this issue of genetic engineering specifically, and a decade of our own research.
I work as the coordinator for a national network that brings together 16 groups: farmer organizations, social justice groups, environmental organizations and regional coalitions of grassroots groups.
In the absence of mandatory labelling of GM foods and government tracking of GM crops, and in response to public demand, we track which GM crops, GM animals, GM traits and GM foods are on the market or pending approval. We also monitor, examine and discuss the environmental, economic and social issues that are raised by the use of this technology in food and farming. For example, we just published a report that documents, for the first time in one place, the GM escape and contamination incidents that have occurred in Canada and their impacts on Canadian farmers. In 2015, we published a series of six reports that reviewed the environmental, social, economic and health impacts of GM crops and foods, after 20 years, in Canada.
Our network exists to fill the gaps in information and public debate that many Canadians are seeking. These gaps are created by the lack of mandatory GM food labelling, lack of transparency in the regulation of GMOs and diminishing public research. In filling these gaps, we believe government would be meeting many objectives in the public interest and thereby also taking effective measures to improve public trust.
First is the issue, of course, of GM food labelling, which has already been discussed today. All polls since 1994 have shown that over 80% of Canadians want mandatory labelling and this is a high and consistent support for one concrete regulatory change. This consistency over two decades leads us to conclude that Canadians are not satisfied with the explanations provided for this lack of labelling. Multiple well-resourced education and public opinion campaigns have been implemented over the years. We do not think that a new campaign will change this public opinion. Rather, we believe the solution is to provide Canadians with the clear, accessible GM food labelling they have been asking for.
The lack of GM labelling is just the most obvious transparency issue undermining public trust. Canadians are also asking for more transparent regulation of GMOs and opportunities for public engagement. According to a 2015 Ipsos Reid poll that we commissioned, 57% of Canadians said they were not confident in the government's safety and regulatory systems for GM foods. There is a significant lack of transparency in government regulation of GMOs and a dependence on corporate science. The regulatory decisions that allow for commercial release are based on confidential information submitted by the companies that want their products on the market. Our regulatory agencies do not require that this science be peer-reviewed. This also means that if any testing is done by companies, all or most of it remains confidential.
Our regulators are independent, but the science they are evaluating is not. This situation was described as a problem in 2001 by the Royal Society of Canada's expert panel on the future of food biotechnology, a panel convened at the request of multiple government departments. The panel concluded that the lack of transparency in the current approval process, leading as it does to an inability to evaluate the scientific rigour of the assessment process, seriously compromises the confidence that society can place in the current regulatory framework used to assess potential risks to human, animal and environmental safety posed by GMOs. The panel, in 2001, made 53 recommendations for regulatory reform but none of the recommendations pertaining to transparency and the need for peer review were implemented.
Finally, we would like to flag a new government policy that's on the horizon that we think will create a significant challenge to public trust. The proposal to implement a “low-level presence” policy will mean that the federal government will ask Canadians to place their trust, not just in our regulatory system, but also in the regulatory systems of foreign governments. Canada has recently agreed, via the new trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico, to implement a “low-level presence” policy. This will mean that the Canadian government will accept food imports from the U.S. and Mexico that contain a small amount of GM foods that have not yet been approved as safe by Health Canada.
If there is a GM food that regulators at Health Canada have not yet assessed but has been approved by the U.S. and Mexican regulators, it will be allowed into our food system in a small amount.
In both perception and practice, this policy will mean that Health Canada's food safety regulation will no longer apply to all the foods Canadians eat. The public's ability to trust the safety of foods on the market will be challenged by this proposal to remove Health Canada from assessing the safety of some genetically engineered organisms entering our food system.
In a democracy, we require the public to be informed and engaged. This is currently impeded by the lack of product labelling and the lack of transparency in the regulatory processes.
We therefore would like to reiterate our long-standing recommendations for mandatory labelling of all GM foods using clear on-package text; government tracking of which GM foods are on the market and which GM crops and traits are grown; funding for more public research; a system of regular peer review of government safety assessments, as recommended by the Royal Society of Canada's expert panel on on the future of food biotechnology; zero tolerance for GM foods on the market that are not assessed as safe by Health Canada; and finally, the inclusion of an assessment of the potential economic and social impacts before new GM crops and animals are introduced.