Mr. Speaker, it is very important for me to rise today to speak to the motion by my hon. colleague relating to genetically modified organisms. This is a matter of great concern to me personally, as well as to a large number of the constituents of Jonquière, whom I have the honour to represent.
I would like to thank my colleague, the member for Louis-Hébert, and the Bloc Quebecois agriculture and agri-food critic, for having proposed this motion, which is aimed at making it mandatory to label genetically modified foods or foods containing genetically modified ingredients in order to enable Canadians to make informed choices about the foods they eat.
I also wish to congratulate her on her courage and determination. She has kept the heat on this issue for a number of weeks. She has met with hundreds of individuals and organizations and has appeared in many forums to bring this matter to our attention. I congratulate my colleague on her persistence and success.
As members know, I am greatly interested in environmental issues and this will be the thrust of most of my speech. Let us bear a few facts in mind.
In 1994, negotiations for the adoption of an international protocol on biosafety were launched. Among other things, the purpose of this protocol was to regulate the export and import of GMOs, and to protect the environment from the dissemination of these new organisms.
At the first multilateral meeting on the Cartagena protocol in February 1999, negotiations centred on the initial project, the purpose of which was to establish a procedure for assessing the risks of GMOs and rules for their labelling, and to make companies responsible for the damage caused by their genetically modified products.
Hundreds of countries believed in this vision. Unfortunately, Canada joined forces with five other GMO-exporting countries, including the United States, in opposing the signing of such a protocol. At the time, the Canadian government felt that no trade restrictions should be placed on GMOs.
European countries felt that caution should prevail on this issue. In the absence of scientific certainty as to the potential risks of GMOs, they felt that all necessary measures should be taken in order to avoid the devastating effects of these products on human health.
Once again, Canada turned a deaf ear to this example of responsibly managing a product that could prove dangerous to human health. The final round of negotiations for this biosafety protocol, which I attended, took place in Montreal on January 24 and 25, 2000 and led to numerous confrontations.
Canada and the five other countries concentrated on defending their commercial interests and, once again, in the name of a free market, opposed the adoption of international standards that would limit genetically modified organisms. Yet, these standards merely seek to put in place effective mechanisms to ensure the protection of the public and of the environment.
I cannot help but draw a parallel with the importation of plutonium based MOX fuel. In December, Canada imported samples of that product by air from the United States, even though such a way of doing it is prohibited in the United States, because of the very high risk to health. Now, Canada is about to do the same thing again with samples from Russia.
As far as it is concerned, the risk no longer exists north of the 49th parallel. The Liberal way of managing is unbelievably irresponsible. Canada is doing the same thing again by wilfully ignoring the laws of a foreign country. A number of countries use a rational approach regarding transgenic foods and Canada should take its cues from them. Incidentally, the labelling of GMOs is now mandatory in the countries that are members of the European Union.
Here, the situation is different, since these foods are not subjected to any scientific experiments other than those used for other foods. What is truly worrisome is that, in order to approve a transgenic product, the federal government relies on studies made by companies and merely reviews them. It does not conduct a systematic second assessment of all the plants and foods that are to be put on the market. While approval of new drugs may take years of in-depth studies, approval of transgenic foods takes only a few weeks. It is ridiculous for the federal government to be telling us that there is no risk with GMOs, when the studies have just been thrown together, and many are too superficial.
Of course, these preliminary studies must not lead to our rejecting GMOs. Perhaps transgenic foods do indeed represent no health risk but, as I have already said, given the lack of scientific certainty because of the paucity of information and scientific expertise on the scope of the potential harmful effects of GMOs, we must err on the side of caution.
There is, moreover, another risk, a potentially serious risk to the environment. This is the transmission of genes in nature, what is termed gene flow.
This is not merely a theoretical possibility, but indeed a certainty that has been proven on a number of occasions. When a plant has escaped into nature, it is extremely difficult to recover it, and it can spread before we become aware of the undesirable effects.
It is a matter of concern, therefore, to see companies doing outdoor testing. This might have disastrous effects. Some of the developing countries have raised this very important point. As hon. members are aware, some of these countries are heavily dependent on an economic development strategy that relies on exports, particularly in the field of agriculture.
Genetically modified seeds could quite conceivably harm their agriculture, with the change in genes, the transmission of the resistance to herbicides of some GMOs in nature could give rise to almost invincible weeds that could invade the genes and replace the natural species, including the rare or more vulnerable species. The development of this resistance could lead to the use of herbicides even more poisonous to the environment, benefiting the companies manufacturing these products, which are often the companies that developed the GMOs in the first place.
We become aware of the vicious circle we find ourselves in and we know full well the disastrous effects of pesticides. At the moment, the Standing Committee on the Environment is examining the effect of these pesticides and will soon table a report on their effects on human health. We will be forced to use them more often and in greater quantity in order to eliminate invisible weeds whose existence is directly dependant on GMOs.
Developing countries are very familiar with this problem and do not want their fertile land to serve as a testing ground in order to satisfy the scientific advances of more favoured nations such as Canada and the United States. It may be that a handful of companies will exercise unprecedented control over the world seed and pesticide supply market with all that this entails for prices and the safety of food supply and on farmers' lifestyle.
There is something called the terminator technology, which gives rise to plants producing sterile seed. Producers, especially those in developing countries, are challenging this technology, which makes it impossible to sow seed from the preceding crop. It is therefore not surprising that some European producers are challenging this monopoly. For all these reasons, it is important to take appropriate measures in order to regulate the use of transgenic foods.
The Bloc Quebecois's motion is a step in the right direction because, by supporting the international protocol on biosafety, Canada could better protect the environment, particularly with respect to the export and import of GMOs.
There is increasing pressure in Canada to follow the European approach. The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, which represents food wholesalers and a number of other retailers, feels that there should be a Canadian labelling standard.
When it is known that 30% to 50% of Canadian canola plants are GMOs—twice the number in 1997—consumers are entitled to wonder about the potentially devastating effects of these products.
The government has a moral responsibility to ensure public safety, whatever the cost. It is clear that the federal government is completely ignoring this responsibility. On the contrary, it is shutting its eyes and is in no hurry to provide Canadians and Quebecers with protection against the potentially harmful effects of GMOs.
The health of consumers and the environment must come first. There is no question of sacrificing our health and standing by while fertile land disappears. That is why, on behalf of the inhabitants of the riding of Jonquière, I am asking all members of parliament to support the motion introduced by the member for Louis-Hébert.
I wish to make an amendment to my colleague's motion. I move:
That the motion be amended by adding, in the French version, after the word “denrées” the following: “alimentaires”.