House of Commons Hansard #88 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was products.


SupplyGovernment Orders

10:55 a.m.


Lyle Vanclief Liberal Prince Edward—Hastings, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member may want to clarify this later, but I believe she referred to some countries of the world, probably meaning those forming the European Union, which have put in place regulations which suggest that any food product that has over 1% of content which comes from a crop that has been genetically modified should be labelled as such.

I pointed out in my speech, and I have done so many times in response to questions from this hon. member and others, that even though these countries have done that, no one has yet found a testing process that can assure it. That is the type of thing that needs to be done.

The government is not opposed to labelling, but it has to be credible, meaningful and enforceable. It is not enforceable. If we are going to be fair to the consumer, all of those criteria have to be met.

The hon. member referred to the difficulty in finding product, and I am not sure what she meant. If she is talking about the availability of seeds and plants to the individual producer, that choice is there. They can make that choice. If they wish to plant products that have been genetically modified for whatever reason, then that opportunity is there for those producers. They will have to make that decision. They are very capable of making decisions on which ones to plant and which ones to grow, and I am sure that they will do so.

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11 a.m.


Rick Casson Reform Lethbridge, AB

Mr. Speaker, I too thank the minister for being here this morning to take part in this debate, and certainly the member of the Bloc Quebecois for bringing forward this motion.

Genetically modified organisms and what effect they have on people have been a topic of debate across the country and around the world. We need to have more research and we need to know more about what is going on.

There are many questions I want to pose to the minister this morning about grain transportation, increased fuel costs and increased input costs to farmers, but I will stick to the issue at hand.

As the minister is aware, there have been suggestions that a joint subcommittee of the agriculture committee and health committee be struck to study this issue. If this does happen, I would like him, as the agriculture minister for Canada, to assure the agricultural community that it will be well represented as the witnesses come forward to bring testimony to that subcommittee.

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11 a.m.


Lyle Vanclief Liberal Prince Edward—Hastings, ON

Mr. Speaker, this is within the jurisdiction of the House leaders. It is my understanding, and I could stand corrected, that the issue of labelling will be before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.

As the member mentioned, there was a desire to have a joint committee but it is my understanding that in order to have a joint committee there has to be full agreement of all parties in the House.

I personally think that a better way to discuss this would have been a joint committee of Health Canada, which sets the regulations, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food for doing, enforcing and monitoring the labelling. However, it is my understanding that the Bloc Quebecois would not agree to that and therefore there will be one committee, the agriculture committee. The discussion will be around the labelling of food. I do not know whether it will get into a discussion of the role of the Ministry of Health.

As far as safety to humans, the Ministry of Health reviews all food products, including those which are the results of biotechnology. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency reviews those with respect to the safety of animals and to the safety of the environment.

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11 a.m.


Dick Proctor NDP Palliser, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have a brief question for the minister based on his remark that no other country has developed effective mandatory labelling.

This morning some of us had the opportunity to hear the secretary general of the OECD, a former cabinet minister in the House, Donald Johnston, speak on this subject. He indicated to those in attendance that on April 10 a mandatory labelling process had come into effect in the European Union. He also indicated that one is already in effect in Japan.

There seems to be a discrepancy from what I heard a couple of hours ago and what the minister is saying now. I wonder if he could clarify it from his viewpoint.

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11 a.m.


Lyle Vanclief Liberal Prince Edward—Hastings, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I said in my comments, there may very well be other jurisdictions in the world that have a system, but to date none of them have been able to make it work. It is one thing to pass laws and to have regulations, but we want to make sure that when we do it in Canada it is one that is enforceable. When that is done in any country of the world, the role of Codex Alimentarius is very important because they set the international standards for the labelling of foods.

Even in Canada, with all the incredible ability we have to produce a diversity of different food products, we import nearly one-third of our food. Food is moved from one part of the world to the other. When any country determines that there must be a mandatory something, and I am not saying it should not, as long is it meets those other criteria, in this case the labelling with regard to GMO or the labelling with regard to the level of protein, fat or carbohydrates, there must be a world standard so that if a product comes into a country, that country is assured that the process in the country of origin is one that is credible, meaningful and enforceable. If this is not done, then it is very meaningless and could be misleading to the consumers. That is the importance of the discussions around Codex Alimentarius. Everybody must know that what is happening in another country is meaningful to them and vice versa. Everybody must know what is expected when they ship or sell a product into another market and be able to demonstrate that there is testing, et cetera, for that product.

At the present time a number of questions need to be answered. The challenge we all have is that if it cannot be tested then how meaningful is it to consumers. If consumers see something, bring it to the authorities, point out what it says on the packaging, ask whether it is right or not and there is no ability to take the product and say it is or no it is not right, then the consumer is no better off. If it is not right, then the consumer may be even more misled than before. We cannot and do not want to go there.

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11:05 a.m.


Reed Elley Reform Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am indeed pleased to participate in today's supply day motion put forward by our Bloc colleagues, that the government be called upon to make it mandatory to label all genetically modified foods, including genetically modified ingredients in foods so the population can make a clear choice as to what they consume.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are one of the fastest growing issues of concern for Canadians today. This is a truly global issue. However, one of the difficulties vexing Canadians on all sides of this debate is the ability to find bona fide research that confirms or negates different parts of the argument.

On one side of the debate are those who feel that any changes to our food supply are automatically bad. Regardless of the quality of science, good or bad, the result is bad. There are also those who believe and are willing to accept what the scientists say without questioning whether or not the scientific proof comes from a company or someone who has a vested interest.

I believe that prior to any knee-jerk reactions calling for labelling of any sort, we must define what a GMO actually is. Although I am certainly not a scientist, I believe that an appropriate working definition for a genetically modified organism would be any plant or animal that has had genetic information inserted into it from a different plant or animal.

One of the greatest difficulties in debating a subject such as GMOs is the incredible rate of change that the scientific field is undergoing. What was unknown yesterday is common knowledge today and passé tomorrow.

The rate of change that we see in genetic engineering is incredible and what we may consider as being unthinkable or unattainable today is surely within the realm of the possible and the reachable tomorrow.

Within this debate, we must also remember that the cross-pollination of plants has led to new hybrids that have assisted Canada a great deal. I am no expert but I do know that new hybrids for wheat and other grains, as well as certain fruits and vegetables, have been cross-pollinated specifically for our northern climate and, consequentially, the shorter growing season that we experience.

I am certain that my hon. colleague from Selkirk—Interlake, our agricultural critic for the Canadian Alliance, would be able to add greatly to this particular part of the debate.

The debate is not as simple as whether or not we want to label genetically modified organisms. We must be sure of course of the safety of the product before we even release it to the public. If we accept that a product is safe and viable for the general public, what is the best way to label the product? Should we label those products that are modified or should we label the ones that are free of modification?

One major concern I have is that the debate on genetically modified organisms is being largely led by rhetoric and sometimes scare tactics without the reliance and proof of good, sound, provable science.

When organizations or noted individuals speak out, of course they gain immediate media attention, and certain portions of our society will follow along with their recommendations regardless of the validity and truth behind their statements. People will follow along simply because a certain organization or individual, an individual who they perhaps support, has made that statement. When any notable person or group makes a statement, they need to be able to stand by their comments, not in a micro-version of the words used but from a macro standpoint. Any organization that needlessly elicits concerns without proof is being negligent in its duties not only to its membership but to the general public at large.

We live in an information society and many people willingly accept what information is displayed for them across the banner headlines of their daily newspaper or what they happen to read on Internet sites. Unfortunately many people also read these headlines without taking the time to critically think about what is being said or reading the full debate.

I believe that such is the case with some of the tactics used in the debate on genetically modified organisms. We have all seen the headlines calling for a complete banning of Frankenfoods. We have all seen the news clips of anonymous people destroying fields of wheat in Europe all because we have been told that it is bad for us.

I do not really know if it is bad for us or not. I am not a scientist. I am not a genetic engineer. What I hope I am is a critical thinker. I do want to know, however, the full story on genetically modified organisms. I think every member in the House wants the same thing. Members should note that I said the whole story not just a selected portion that fits the agenda of any particular group.

I think we would all agree that our food supply is one of the most critical things necessary to sustain life not only here but around the globe. Whether we read today's newspaper or one from five or ten years ago, we can read stories of crops or food supplies devastated by drought or plague, early frost or lack of nutrients. The fallout effect of these things have been devastating. To see the pictures of starving children pulls on my heartstrings, as I am sure it does on everyone else here.

Can genetically modified organisms solve those problems? I frankly doubt it. Can they solve some of the problems? Possibly. Are there risks involved? Most certainly. I believe the bigger questions are: What are those risks, and, are they acceptable to the public at large?

We all take risks every day. Most of us take a risk just getting up in the morning. Stepping off the curb in front of Centre Block carries the risk of a car or a bus running us over. I think I can safely state that the risk of endangering our food supply is something that all of us want to be very cautious about. This brings us back to the question of the need for scientific proof.

We are not unique in our debate on this issue. There are many countries around the world that have entered into the current debate. Many world governments have expressed concerns over GMOs. However, we must note that many of these foods remain on European store shelves around the world.

I am concerned that we have not fully researched the entire issue of genetically modified organisms. As a father and grandfather, I share the concerns over the testing, publicity and safety of genetically engineered products. Canada currently has 42 genetically modified organisms approved for use in Canada. However, the issue of labelling and perceived safety by consumers certainly remains an outstanding issue and one that has to be faced.

On February 23 of this year I introduced a private member's bill, Bill C-434, an act to amend the Department of Health Act (genetically modified food). Through this bill, I have requested that the Standing Committee on Health review and recommend legislation concerning the testing, approval and labelling of genetically modified foods.

Specifically in that bill I have identified the need to conduct research in order to, first, establish whether the consumption by a human being or an animal of genetically modified foods produces, in the short term or in the long term, dangerous or harmful effects on their health.

The second is to establish whether the cultivation of plants from genetically modified seeds produces in the short term or in the long term dangerous or harmful effects on the environment, insects and other plants.

The third is to make regulations on the labelling of genetically modified foods in order to allow consumers to easily identify that characteristic of the food.

The remainder of my bill sets out steps to take for implementation and examination of ethical problems which may go against certain religious practices. It encourages a public debate on the issue and is intended to set up information programs for the general public to make people aware of the effects of the consumption of genetically modified organisms, including a full parliamentary review process.

Then we come to the rather delicate issue of labelling. If we recognize that genetically modified organisms exist and therefore will continue to exist in one form or another, and if we have a general agreement that individuals want the ability to freely choose what they feed their families, we need to be clear and consistent with our labelling.

I note that one aspect missing from today's motion is the cost factor in the whole equation of labelling. There is no doubt that there would be a cost involved when additional labelling comes about. The Manitoba Co-operator reported that the largest portion of the increased costs would arise from the need to segregate GMO crops and non-GMO crops all the way from the field to the consumer's plate.

Although something like this is very attainable, what is the full cost and who will bear it? We do not know that. Will the producer bear the additional costs, considering that he is the one who planted the seed? Will food processors bear the costs since they are the ones who purchase the raw material and sell a finished product? Or, should consumers bear the cost since they are the end users? Certainly labelling has a cost involved and today's motion does not particularly identify what that might be.

Down under in Australia and New Zealand a report by KPMG estimated that the cost of mandatory labelling to the food industry would be $3 billion in the first year and $1.5 billion in each subsequent year. According to its study this amounts to a 6% tax on all food products.

Also according to the study the true costs of labelling compliance would include such things as verification of the maintenance of an identification system for both GMO and non-GMO food products. It would include checks and audits for each batch of ingredients within a product. It would include testing and record keeping for each batch. It would include analysis on non-compliance and/or non-specified testing or audit results. It would also include the investigation of non-compliance complaints and subsequent prosecution records.

I have not asked my constituents but I am pretty certain that I know the answer if I asked whether or not they would be willing to add 6% to their food bill. A few would say that it would be worth it. A few would not care. However I suspect that the vast majority would be very concerned about adding 6% to their food bill.

Recently a meeting took place in Montreal to debate and determine a protocol regarding genetically modified organisms. I believe it is important to note that the protocol fails to follow the principles supported by the Canadian Alliance of using scientific information to determine if an agricultural or food biotechnology product meets Canadian health and safety requirements.

I also note that, as for most treaties or protocols, parliamentary approval is not required for Canada to ratify this particular protocol. It will not come before parliament. We will not have our say in it. That is fundamentally wrong in our democratic system.

The signing of such agreements should not be left to bureaucrats alone. Rather they should come before parliament for debate and ratification. We are the lawmakers of the land. The courts are not the lawmakers. The United Nations is not the lawmaker. We are the lawmakers and we should be the ones to make the final decision.

Where do we go from here? I believe it is safe to say that there is a great deal of scientific research being done on genetically modified organisms. Is it all valid research? I do not know, but experts are available that can assist members of parliament to better understand the entire issue.

We are sent here as members by our constituents to represent their views, to determine the best policy route for our great nation, and to ensure that all Canadians are well taken care of no matter what the issue. It was with a great deal of enthusiasm that I filed a motion with the Standing Committee on Health that we study the health and safety of genetically modified organisms.

All members of the opposition on the health committee supported the motion, but as usual the Minister of Health dictated through the parliamentary secretary and the chair of committee what would and would not be studied, so the health committee at this point in time is not studying GMOs. Yet it seems to me that is exactly where it should be studied, if we are concerned about the safety of our food system, our food supply, and its effect upon the health of Canadians.

To those on the committee this should not be a major surprise, considering that the same committee has also refused to study the larger issue of health care, the number one issue of concern for Canadians today. It steadfastly refuses to study the number one priority of Canadians.

Unfortunately the Liberals have no answers or solutions to the enormous questions and problems concerning health care and GMOs. Therefore there is a lack of desire to seek them out and to be embarrassed by the public response to their non-compliance with the demands of Canadians to study such vital concerns. Unfortunately in the end result all Canadians continue to lose under the Liberal government.

Is mandatory labelling the full and best answer? In order to make clear personal choices some consumers wish to be assured what foods do or do not include genetically modified organisms. Clear and concise labelling is important to these consumers. The Canadian Alliance would cite the volunteer labelling and industry regulated process that organic farmers currently use.

In stark comparison to the motion put forward by the Bloc Quebecois today, I would like to read a press release from SPEC, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation. It indicates:

Lower Lonsdale's trendy Artisan Bake Shoppe is the first retail outlet to display the bright yellow and green sunflower symbol indicating products that are free of genetically modified organisms. SPEC president, David Cadman, and Artisan master baker, Katarina Dittus, launched the new GMO-free label campaign on Saturday, March 18, 2000. SPEC will be inviting restaurants, grocery stores, specialty shops and other food outlets throughout the lower mainland of British Columbia to commit to carrying only GMO-free products.

I believe the lead taken by this north Vancouver bakery is probably a far more appropriate route to follow than mandatory labelling. It seems more akin to the process used by organic farmers.

I agree consumers demand choice. I agree they need to have the resources to enable them to make knowledgeable decisions. To not allow consumers to have access to full and good science restricts them from being able to make those complete and full decisions.

I am led to believe that mandatory labelling of all genetically modified organisms leads to a food supply that is overregulated by bureaucrats and subject to the whims of government. By comparison, voluntary labelling for all products that are free of genetically modified organisms encourages a food supply that is self-regulated, market driven and supports the freedom of choice of consumers.

I would also question the minister of agriculture and his department and wonder aloud what the cost of sending out a food safety booklet to every Canadian would be when the researchers and the minister's blue ribbon panel have not completed their work. How can the government waste money when the job at hand is not yet completed? Has it learned nothing from the HRDC boondoggle? Maybe not.

While I relish the opportunity to debate genetically modified organisms today, I believe that the debate is perhaps not in the proper space. As a House we need to have the experts come before its members and discuss the entire issue and safety of GMOs. That is properly done before the health and agriculture committees. I call again for a joint committee between agriculture and health to discuss this huge issue. We need to have that done. Although we have asked for this opportunity, the government has so far refused to research and publicly debate the issues at the committees that should be studying them.

I thank my hon. colleagues from the Bloc. As much as I agree with the need to bring the particular motion to the House and to have this kind of debate, I would say that we have to keep the debate open in terms of labelling.

The Alliance does not have an issue with safety of these organisms, but we do take issue with the mandatory labelling of all GMO products. We should look at the other side of the coin, the labelling of non-GMO products that could be driven by consumer choice and not by the bureaucracy.

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May 2nd, 2000 / 11:25 a.m.


Hélène Alarie Bloc Louis-Hébert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the remarks of our colleague from Nanaimo—Cowichan with great interest. He addressed an aspect that had not yet been looked at: the cost of mandatory labelling of transgenic foods.

If this is an aspect that is rarely addressed, it is because there is so little information available. I listened to his demonstration. If there is labelling, this will amount to a 6% tax on all food products to cover the costs of monitoring, which is moreover already being done by the agency, according to the information we have currently available, because there are few laboratories.

I would like to ask my colleague whether he has weighted the cost factor against the potential loss of market, for instance in Japan, the European community, Korea, and many other countries requiring mandatory labelling. I think this would lead to a most interesting cost reduction.

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11:25 a.m.


Reed Elley Reform Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, as my hon. colleague and her party have put this matter before the House I know that it opens up the whole debate. There is no question that we must have it and we must ask ourselves important questions such the one she has raised.

Personally I would not know the answer to the particular question. There are many unanswered questions in this whole area, but I think the issue of cost is one which was not raised in her motion. I am perhaps the first person to raise the particular point in the debate today.

It is not an issue that has had the full investigation it should have. We can only go on what we have before us. There is the example of the Australia-New Zealand experience where they are suggesting that there would be an extra cost to the consumer for the mandatory labelling of these products. We must look at it in terms of what it would do to our markets overseas and weigh that in the balance. We must look at all sides of the issue. The verdict is still out and I am grateful we have the opportunity to debate it in the House today.

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11:25 a.m.


Dick Proctor NDP Palliser, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate this morning. I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Kamloops.

The motion before the House today deals with proof of transparency in genetically modified foods and labelling to permit the public a clear choice in this matter. I congratulate the member for Louis-Hebert and her colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois for bringing this interesting debate to the House today.

Some significant witnesses will appear before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, beginning in a couple of weeks, to look in depth at the issue of labelling. Certainly we will be looking forward to that. I suppose today's debate serves as a preamble to it.

I listened with care to what the minister of agriculture said in his remarks a few minutes ago. To paraphrase it I think he is clearly saying, and we all agree, that the onus is not on the Monsantos, Novardis and DuPonts of the world to prove the safety of foods but it is government that must regulate those. He believes and we all hope he is right when he says that we are well served and that Canadians do have a very high standard and can rest assured that the food they are ingesting is regulated well in advance of its going to the public.

The issue seems in many ways to come down to one of the environment. As has been noted several times already, there has been lots of discussion on this topic.

We know for example of the battle between the giant Monsanto versus a farmer in Saskatchewan, Mr. Schmeiser, about pollution from a GM crop that went to Mr. Schmeiser's field. Today in the Toronto Star Thomas Walkom has a column based on a report out of the New Scientist about a farmer in Alberta who grew three different fields of GM canola, one that was seed resistant to Roundup, another from Cynamid and a third for Liberty. What has happened over the last three years since he first planted those crops is that he now has weeds that are resistant to all three. He is looking at an extensive cocktail solution to try to dispose of the supermutant weeds that have been created in the wake of using these.

A lot of questions are being raised by Canadians. I think there is a growing market concern as a result of that and perhaps even a rebellion by some farmers to the giant chemical and pharmaceutical companies that are busy promoting these products.

Consumer resistance has certainly come to Europe in the wake of the mad cow disease, to the extent that the European Union is prepared to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars a year for importing North American beef into that continent. Because the beef may well have been injected with hormones, they are not going to allow it to come in and they are prepared to pay a significant penalty under the WTO provisions in order to keep that product off the European food shelves.

It is fair to say that consumer resistance is also spreading to Canada and North America. We have seen a significant growth in that in recent years. In recent months giant Canadian companies such as McCain, McDonald's hamburgers and Frito-Lay have indicated they want to ensure that their consumers are not ingesting genetically modified products. Even a company like Monsanto is obviously aware of the problems. It is hiving off its agricultural division because of the spate of bad news and it is changing its name. It is interesting that Novardis, one of the leaders in GM food, now has a baby food is labelled as GM free. Marketers and big business are doing what they always need to do to ensure they have a strong market.

Ninety-five per cent of Canadians say that we should have the right to purchase non-genetically modified food and a corresponding high percentage say that there has to be labelling. We know that in a few very well to do Canadian households there is the opportunity to purchase non-GM foods, but without labelling the vast majority of us would not necessarily know where to go, although we did hear about the flour that a member talked about previously.

What I am trying to say is that the precautionary principle should still prevail in this area. Lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures. That means it has to be science based and not based on science fiction.

At the New Democratic Party convention last year I was pleased to take part in a resolution that dealt with this topic. The points contained in that resolution which was passed overwhelmingly at the convention were that there be a full scale public discussion initiated on GMO foods; that the labelling process to make consumers aware be mandatory; that there be adequate protection for farmers; that liability for genetic pollution shall rest with the huge companies, the Monsantos et cetera; and that for food safety there must be the capacity to evaluate GMO food and to ensure that this evaluation is independent of the food producers and the food producing industry and government food marketing.

Recently the government in its wisdom, or lack thereof, dispensed a booklet that was referred to by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, “Food Safety and You”. This has generated a lot interest in my constituency. I had a recent letter, an e-mail, from people who are very concerned and unhappy that the government had put out this product. To quote in part from a letter from the Hjertaas family:

As for “labelling,” it seems to me that Allergy Associations have been fighting for years to get all ingredients labelled for health reasons and I'm not sure we are there yet. For instance the unlabelled practice of putting corn grits on the bottom of bread has made my son sick more than once!

And why in the world would the Government of Canada use the organic standards developed under the Canadian General Standards Board as a model for the development of labelling for foods derived from biotechnology? Biotechnology has no place in organics as is well illustrated in the new U.S. organic standards.

The writer concludes that the Government of Canada has absolutely no business supporting the corporate agenda.

There was a very recent interesting article by Brian Flemming, a Halifax writer and columnist, in the current issue of Policy Options Politiques . He talked about the huge government conflict of interest brewing in Ottawa where genetically modified foods are beginning to trouble both bureaucrats and the Canadian public. He indicated, as I have said, that a majority of Canadians would be less likely to buy GM food if they knew it had been modified. The same Canadians would no doubt also overwhelmingly demand that the country's food regulator be just that, a regulator, and not a promoter of GM foods like canola. He said:

Ethically, the federal government has a duty not to extend its regulatory reach any further into the GM food world without first divesting itself of its current, conflicting roles, of promoter of, or financier for, GM foods.

He ended by saying:

—the following “regulatory commandment” should be posted on the walls of the offices of all ministers and deputy ministers: Thou shalt not simultaneously regulate and promote, regulate and finance, or regulate and insure any industry.

In closing, I think that would be a very good commandment for the government to follow on this lively issue of genetically modified foods.

SupplyGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.


Hélène Alarie Bloc Louis-Hébert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have listened with a great deal of interest to what my colleague from Palliser has had to say, and there are a lot of questions I could ask, because he raised a number of different aspects, but I will restrict myself to one on research.

I would like to know whether he has asked himself questions about the somewhat embarrassing, if not downright incestuous, connections between major companies and those carrying out research. It is true that the government has pulled out, which has forced our researchers, our academics, to look for partners—a term I feel has been worked to death.

Is it possible to maintain independent research, purely scientific research relating to GMOs that responds to the concerns of the consumer, not just those of big business?

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11:40 a.m.


Dick Proctor NDP Palliser, SK

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Louis-Hébert for the question.

This is a developing area for all of us. What I was trying to say in my remarks, and it is reflective of the question and what is going on in the industry, is that the latent concern people have had about this issue has become more significant in recent months and the last few years. There is a recognition that we need to have independent research and an arm's length or longer arm's length relationship between the government and generally speaking the transnationals that are engaged in or funding much of the research in this area.

To that extent the government's announcement to fund more science, scientists and chairs at universities will be helpful. We have gone away from that in recent years in our obsession with eliminating the deficit as quickly as possible and cutting back in so many areas of the public sector. It is to our detriment that we have done that. It seems that at least in some areas we are now in a period of modest growth. This may very well be one of them and that would be welcome news for all.

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11:40 a.m.


Nelson Riis NDP Kamloops, BC

Mr. Speaker, I too want to indicate our appreciation to the hon. member for Louis-Hébert for bringing this issue before the House today. It is possibly one of the most important topics we will be discussing this year. If we think of the old adage that we are what we eat, the question we are discussing today is what on earth are we eating? We do not know what we are eating. We do not know the impact of the foods we are eating.

Consider the number of people whom we all know who at this time of the year spend a good deal of their waking hours scratching their eyes and sneezing. There are allergies from coast to coast to coast in increasing numbers. On any plane these days half of the passengers are sneezing, wheezing and hacking. It looks like they are all sad and crying. It is an increasing reality.

Then we hear of pesticides all over the world and people dying of this and that. There are pesticides in the snow in the Antarctic and Arctic, dying whales and so on. There are increasing levels of cancer in our society. I suspect there is not a single one of us in the House of Commons who does not have a close associate, friend or family member who has contracted or died from this horrible disease. It is everywhere.

What causes all of this? It is increasing. To say it has nothing to do with what we are talking about today, I do not think anybody would believe that.

This is a very important topic. I want to indicate my appreciation to my colleague from Palliser for enabling me to say a few words about it this morning. I look forward to listening to the debate as it progresses.

A number of elements of the genetically modified food issue are important. As my friend from Palliser indicated, one of them is the issue of the environment. In his comments he referred to a recent study in the prestigious New Scientist magazine. Thanks to Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star it was brought to more public attention than those who simply read the New Scientist .

The article refers to an Albertan farmer who has recently made history. His genetically modified canola crop has created mutant weeds which are now resistant to not one, not two, but three common herbicides.

Mr. Speaker, you have a quizzical look on your face. You thought, like others, that the reason we used the products which Monsanto has been promoting was to avoid spreading extra pesticides on weeds. They were supposed to take care of all this. Allow me to continue.

One of the main selling points which the New Scientist points out regarding genetically altered crops is that they are supposed to require fewer toxic herbicides. Genetically engineered canola, for instance, includes an alien gene which makes the crop resistant to specific, common, broad applications of garden herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup.

If the farmer sprays his crop with Roundup, the theory goes, everything except the canola will be killed. Otherwise the farmer would have to use a cocktail of more toxic, weed specific herbicides, including the very potent 2,4-D.

This article refers to alien genes. I become a little concerned when I think of alien genes coming into my system, alien genes coming into my body because of what I am eating. The thought that alien genes have invaded my body, and presumably everyone else's, makes me nervous.

The backers of genetically modified food and genetically modified crops say that this is a boon to the environment, that it will save the environment and be useful for environmental reasons. Surprise, surprise, the New Scientist is now almost like a joke book, because it has said “Wake up and smell the roses. This is not happening”.

For example, the New Scientist reports that an Alberta farmer began growing genetically modified canola in 1997. He planted one field with seed resistant Roundup from Monsanto, another with Cynamid's Pursuit herbicide, and the third with Liberty. We are all familiar with these from our own gardening. The alien genes in this canola refused to stay still. They migrated to the very weeds they were designed to control.

By 1998 the farmer found that he had weeds resistant to two of the three garden variety herbicides he was using. By 1999 his weeds were resistant to all three.

Now the poor farmer in Alberta has to use 2,4-D to control these new superweeds, these supermutant weeds which his genetically modified crops were supposed to have eliminated.

What is the point of this? This is where we get kind of panicky, because the Ontario government has been flogging this report which shows that insecticide use has dropped in Ontario during the past 15 years. This was to imply that these new Monsanto type of products were being effective.

We now find after more thorough research that this study about the drop in herbicide use took place before the genetically modified food issue came up.

What has happened since the genetically modified crops have been introduced? Herbicides have increased by 50%. Not only are we using these potentially monster type approaches, we are requiring vastly more toxic chemicals to apply to crops as well.

As my friend from Palliser pointed out, Monsanto is a little red faced today. It is saying “We are getting out of this business. We are selling off our agricultural products and we are changing our name as well”. If Monsanto is saying that it is clearing out of this field, that is a pretty big name and we should be paying attention.

Anyone who has looked at the biotech stocks in the last little while has seen that they are on the way down because people are concerned. They realize that maybe this has been kind of a snow job which we have all been led to accept.

As my friend from Palliser pointed out, and I am really happy that he did, all sorts of private sector companies are saying “Listen, we are getting concerned about this from a profit point of view”. Frito-Lay is saying “We are out of this genetically modified food business”. McDonald's, which realizes the value of popular viewpoints, is saying “We are getting out of this”. McCain's is saying “We are out of this”.

All around the world people are saying “Wake up. What is going on?”, except for one group of people, the folks sitting on the other side of the House which form the government. They are sending out little brochures to everyone saying “Relax. Everything is okay. We have this under control”, when in fact we have been hearing today that it is not under control.

Is this an absolute Frankenstein system? We do not know the answer to that. Many people say it is not. Some people ignore David Suzuki, but a lot of people pay attention to him. He says that we have to be very careful about this. The point is, we really do not know.

The government has been handing out the document Food Safety and You , telling Canadians “Don't panic. Don't worry, the Government of Canada will take care of you”. That is probably the first clue to panic. These are the same people who said “Don't panic. Elect us and we will not sign the North America Free Trade Agreement, and for sure we will get out of the GST business”.

When government members say “Trust us, we are working on your behalf”, we should be aware that these are the same people who promote the WTO, support the IMF, the activities of the World Bank and so on, unquestionably. We should be concerned. That is why having this debate today is helpful. I want to thank my friend and colleague from the Bloc for making this possible. As she has indicated, we will have other opportunities to discuss this subject.

My colleague from Palliser reminded the House, and I am pleased that he did, that not long ago, being normally ahead of a lot of the issues, the New Democratic Party saw this coming. We realized we had to take this more seriously. We introduced a motion at our last federal convention. I do not have enough time to read the entire motion, which was overwhelmingly adopted, but in brief it said “Let us look into this very carefully to ensure that the farmers, the food producers of Canada, are protected and that consumers are protected. Let us look into this issue of labelling foods carefully”.

It seems a little odd to me that we would be reluctant to tell people what is in a food product. Why would we not want to do that? We do it for all sorts of other things. Why would we not tell consumers that a certain food has been genetically modified? What does the government do? I do not want to get into the possibilities because I would be speculating and fearmongering. The point is, we should let the consumer decide. For the consumer to be able to decide they have to know which foods on the food shelves are genetically modified or have come from genetically modified crops.

I want to thank my colleague from Palliser for allowing me to participate in today's debate and the hon. member for Louis-Hébert for bringing this issue to the floor of the House of Commons.

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11:50 a.m.


John O'Reilly Liberal Victoria—Haliburton, ON

Mr. Speaker, actually, with respect to the name of my riding, Victoria County has been eliminated under the new restructuring and it is now called the City of the Kawartha Lakes.

I want to thank the member from Louis-Hébert for bringing forward this issue and the questions brought forward by our colleague from Kamloops, Thompson and Highland Valleys.

My question to the member deals with the allergy season and the medications people are required to take. I have allergies and I use a spray every morning. I suffer from watery eyes and usually by the end of the day I lose my voice. Allergies have many different effects on people.

Something that has always concerned me is the labelling showing the country of origin on products. A bottle of orange juice claims to be 100% orange juice, but on further study the label actually says “from concentrate”, which is really pulp. I automatically think of Florida and California. After calling the 1-800 number for consumer information which is listed on some of the products, the one thing I am not told is the country of origin. A lot of the pulp for oranges comes from South America, Malaysia, Singapore or Ceylon, places which use any kind of spray whatsoever. A chemical analysis is almost required when we pick up a bottle of orange juice to know where the pulp originated. As we know, in business, whether it is making orange juice or anything else, it is purchased where it is cheapest.

I wonder if the member would comment on that and suggest how the government could correct that particular problem, which fits into genetically modified foods, which are also going to be very tough to identify unless we have a chemical analysis.

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11:55 a.m.


Nelson Riis NDP Kamloops, BC

Mr. Speaker, I do not think I can answer my colleague's question in any great depth, but I thank him for flagging another important issue that is related in some respects to today's discussion. He is absolutely correct that if we are going to know whether we are ingesting safe foodstuffs we need to know their source, origin, what is being applied on those crops and so on. I thank my friend for his interest in this topic and for adding one more element to be addressed.

I will take the opportunity to read through a recent poll, which indicated that 75% of Canadians are very concerned about the safety of GM foods and 95% said that consumers should be able to buy food that is not genetically modified. Another 95% felt that genetically modified foods should be labelled and 56% said they lacked confidence in the government's ability to protect the health and safety of Canadians when it came to GM foods.

That goes back to a question that was raised earlier about scientific research being done and the fact that we have seen such significant cutbacks in federal sponsored research programs. A lot of this now falls in the hands of the corporations involved in the products or the research that they finance, which is always somewhat suspect. This points out another issue that today's debate has revealed, which indicates the value of it.

I close by suggesting that we urge the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food and the Standing Committee on Health to get together to evaluate the issues that are being put on the floor of the House of Commons today. Also, as parliamentarians we should give some thought to having a special debate on this subject before the summer recess, because only a handful of members will be able to participate today. That would give everybody who wishes to participate the opportunity. Perhaps we could have an eight hour debate around this issue to get all of the items on the table.

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11:55 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

Mr. Speaker, the impression I got from the member for Kamloops, Thompson and Highland Valleys was that he was speaking in opposition to GMOs, genetically modified organisms, or foods in general. In fact, the allergy reference obviously indicated that any GMO would cause allergies.

As the hon. member is aware, we have a huge problem with peanuts. There are a number of people in this society who are allergic to peanuts. There is an opportunity, by genetically modifying the peanut, to remove the allergens so that people will not die.

Does the member say that this is an area that we should not be researching, that it would not be a benefit to society, and that, in general, we should not be going forward with GMOs?

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11:55 a.m.


Nelson Riis NDP Kamloops, BC

Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to my friend's intervention. I think what we are all saying today is that we are concerned about genetically modified foods. We want more good scientific based evidence before we proceed with the enthusiasm we are proceeding with today. We want to make sure that the health of Canadians is not put at risk by ingesting these kinds of foods or foods made from these products. That is all we are saying.

I want to tell my friend what is always in the back of my mind when we have these discussions. I remember the debate around irradiated foods. I remember a group of scientists who came before the committee on irradiated foods who said that we should not be concerned because they had done a lot of study on rats and not much happened to rats that ingest vast amounts of irradiated food. They said that the only things that happened were that the female rats often became barren and the male rats lost their testicles. Other than that, nothing else happened. We thought that losing testicles or becoming barren was something that we should be a little concerned about. For a scientist, this was not an issue of much concern.

I was referring to the mindset of scientists, their terms of reference and the points of view they bring to these discussions. A bit of caution at this point is certainly warranted.

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Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

Mr. Speaker, that is certainly a great segue to move into my opportunity to talk about genetically modified organisms. The previous speaker has already taken fearmongering to a whole new level. Now we will obviously lose our testicles if we eat genetically modified foods. By the way, we have all eaten genetically modified foods every day of our lives for the last number of decades. Members of the House may have to go back and check to see whether or not they have gone through the same process the hon. member just suggested.

First, I will be sharing my time with my colleague from New Brunswick Southwest who will be taking 10 minutes of the time I have to speak. At this time I also thank the member for Louis-Hébert, an excellent member on the agricultural standing committee who speaks with eloquence and passion when dealing with genetically modified foods. She does it not as a fearmongerer but simply as an individual, a member of the House who wishes to put on the floor of the House debate of a very important issue.

As the member previously suggested, each and every one of us recognizes that food safety is the vital component of the debate we are having today. There is absolutely no question about that. Anything we deal with respecting genetically modified foods or biotechnology must deal with the confidence of consumers in food safety not only in Canada but internationally as well. Canada is an exporter of a number of food products. We must have the confidence of the world market in order for us to export those foods. This means that we must have confidence in our food safety.

The Progressive Conservative government in the 1980s identified biotechnology as a key and strategic area of future economic prosperity and promise for Canada. The opportunities with biotechnology and genetically modified organisms are phenomenal. Canada today is a leader in the research and development of biotechnology in GMOs.

The challenge we now face in creating a solid and dynamic biotechnology industry is twofold. First, we must create a climate in which industry sectors can flourish both here and internationally. Second, we must meet the public's concerns about health, the environment and the safety of genetically modified organisms.

Although much of the focus in the media has been on food products derived from biotechnology, there are also pharmaceutical, health and pest control products on the market. With respect to food products, biotechnology has the potential too. I would like everyone to pay very close attention because we have an awful lot of benefits in Canada with respect to biotechnology.

First and foremost, it increases the competitiveness of the Canadian agri-food industry by increasing individual competitiveness in exporting high value agri-food products. We in Canada are an export nation. We must export the products we grow in order to prosper as farmers and agri-food producers.

Biotechnology increases the yields needed to compensate for the increase of world population. We will be seen as the bread basket of the world. We will be providing food for the world in the not too distant future.

Biotechnology will allow us to develop more sustainable agricultural practices by reducing the need for chemical and pest control. The hon. member spoke about how this was a fallacy and that more pest control and chemicals were required. That is not the case. It has been proven by science that with genetically modified organisms we can control the use of our pest controls, which is very important for us as consumers. I do not want to have any more chemical and pest control products affecting my food than is absolutely necessary.

Biotechnology enables the environmentally beneficial practice of no till agriculture, which reduces carbon monoxide emissions, a very important factor when dealing with the environment today. We recognize that we have to remove and reduce our CO2 emissions. One way of doing that is to allow us to develop the type of agricultural production which will reduce it.

Biotechnology will create new markets by introducing value added products. Value passed on from producer to consumer can be and is being done. It is possible to immunize the population by placing medications in foods known as neutraceuticals or output traits.

For example, it was reported recently that scientists in the U.S. had created a strain of genetically altered rice to combat vitamin A deficiency, the world's leading cause of blindness. I ask the member from Kamloops if it makes sense to be able to use the genetically modified and biotechnology science of today. We would then be able to have a rice, which is consumed by the poor populations of the world, that will reduce vitamin A deficiency. This is a wonderful innovation from biotechnology. We should not stop just because there are those among us who believe that we should go back to the way it was in the 1920s and 1930s and not allow us to develop our foodstuffs.

There are a number of concerns. I have done an 180° turn on the issue. Initially I asked why we would want to have a mandatory labelling policy. Why not? On the food shelves of our stores right now 75% to 80% of products have in some way, shape or form been modified. Whether it be potatoes, flour products or the canola oil we sometimes use for cooking, whatever we pick up has been modified. Why would we want to mandatorily label 95% of products?

I have done a turnaround because I agree with the member who has just spoken. Our consumers must have the opportunity and ability to choose what it is they are consuming. We as a federal government and as members of the House have put forward the proper information and education. We must allow consumers to make their choice based on proper science, education and information.

Unfortunately another group of individuals has put quite a substantial amount of misinformation out there which does not allow the consumer to make an honest and rational decision. That is what we have to do. That is where the federal government comes into play.

My colleague from Louis-Hébert, a very honourable and effective member on our committee, has put forward a motion which speaks to mandatory labelling. Unfortunately I must tell my hon. colleague that I cannot support her motion. I do however support the principle that we must go forward and listen to the stakeholders who will come to our committee in the near future to discuss their positions with respect to genetically modified organisms and biotechnology. I cannot support this mandatory labelling motion without listening to the arguments that will be put before the committee.

That is not to say that it may not be the only way to go. That is not to say that the member for Louis-Hébert is not bang on. We may well have to mandatorily label. I am perhaps leaning a little more to that side than I was not that many months ago. However I would like to listen to the stakeholders such as the farmers who produce the food and are impacted substantially by any changes we may make in the House regarding what they can and cannot grow effectively or economically. Food processors will be impacted. Some 95% of food products may have to be labelled if there is mandatory labelling. What will that do? It seems to be a waste of energy and time.

What happens with segregation of our food products? We do not have the ability currently to segregate a canola seed that may be genetically modified from one that may not be. How do we segregate? There may be a cost that is substantially more than what consumers are prepared to pay.

The hon. member from Kamloops made some very valid points. Industry is probably its own worst enemy. It has a tendency not to put forward solid, scientifically based information or to have a terribly good reputation when it comes to educating the public. Perhaps we have to move in that direction to make it more achievable for consumers.

We have to deal with a number of issues and we will deal with them over the next number of months, but I say to the member for Louis-Hébert that this issue has to be dealt with sooner rather than later. The hon. member and I, as well as number of other members on that committee, have been pushing for it for a long time. The government seemed to be somewhat reluctant. It is finally coming out of its shell and allowing it to happen at the agriculture committee. We will finally be able to get to the root of some of the major issues.

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12:10 p.m.


Hélène Alarie Bloc Louis-Hébert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the speech by my hon. colleague from Brandon—Souris. I know he is wise, and, if he is better informed, he will perhaps change his mind.

I do not think we can let consumers be treated as unwilling guinea pigs and not know what is in their plate.

What interested me particularly in his speech were his remarks on the biotechnologies, which we all support, if they mean better things for humanity. He spoke of the bread basket of the world, an appropriate expression for people from the west.

In this context, how can we export? We talk of the bread baskets of the world, so we will have to export more than we do now. The canola market is closed in Europe at the moment and will be closed in Japan if we do not make labelling mandatory. There is a world trade problem.

How, can the government want to become an ever expanding exporter and fail to honour the requirements of the countries we export to?

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12:10 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

Mr. Speaker, the member for Louis-Hébert recognizes that Canada depends quite a substantial amount on export markets, the globalization we have identified over the last number of years through free trade.

Some of our trade partners have closed their markets with what I consider to be non-tariff barriers, particularly with canola, and that is the European Common Market. It is not so much the genetically modified organisms in my opinion that have closed that market with non-tariff barriers. We recognize that commodity has actually grown in Europe. It is trying to stop us from exporting or importing into its markets a better quality and certainly a cheaper product than what it can produce.

We need a global understanding as to genetically modified organisms. There has to be a global agreement. As a matter of fact, in Montreal recently Canada agreed with other countries of the world that we would have a labelling component to genetically modified organisms. I am not opposed to that, as the member knows.

I am simply saying that rather than identifying it as mandatory in the motion let us listen to the stakeholders. Ultimately the decision will be made and perhaps it will be made to the satisfaction of the hon. member that it may well have to be a mandatory labelling of genetically modified organisms.

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12:10 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative Charlotte, NB

Mr. Speaker, this is a truly interesting debate today. It reminds me of the story of two economists locked in a room. After discussions they came out with three different points of view because one disagreed with himself at the end of the day. The more we listen to this debate, the more confusing it gets in a way. We all have our views on the issue which are all worthy of note. Who is right and who is wrong is what we are attempting to determine in terms of genetically altered and modified foods. There are varying degrees of genetically modified foods. As the member mentioned, there are very few of us who will go through a day without having eaten some genetically modified foods.

The race to achieve success within the agricultural community is the one single thing that has driven this. At the end of the day it means a profit for the corporations that get to the starting gate the quickest. We have seen that in the U.S. and certainly in Europe more than in Canada.

After the member from Kamloops spoke, he was questioned by my colleague who used the story of the peanut. He wanted to know if we could genetically modify a peanut to make it less dangerous or not dangerous at all to those people who are allergic to the peanut, which is probably the number one allergic reaction in terms of a food commodity that can be deadly for many. The member is absolutely correct in talking about what could happen if we were able to achieve that by taking the enzyme, which causes the allergic reaction, out of the peanut. That would be an advancement.

I want to point out how complicated this can become and ask where it actually ends. I will mention something that is contrary to the situation that the member pointed out. In 1995 a group of scientists from a company called Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. placed genes from a Brazil nut into a soybean. The Brazil nut is frequently seen at Christmastime and is really hard to crack. The objective of placing genes from a Brazil nut into a soybean was to help increase the levels of the amino acids in the soybean which made the beans more nutritious for animal feed. The plan worked but there was an unforeseen demonstration of what can happen in the food chain when just a few molecules of DNA are altered.

Many people are allergic to the Brazil nut. Anyone eating the soybean product could die from an allergic reaction without making the connection to the Brazil nut and this gene coming from it. In other words, what might have worked for the peanut did not work for the soybean situation. That just shows how terribly complicated it can become.

In this case science won out because it actually was not taken to market because of the unforeseen consequences of crossing a soybean with a Brazil nut. It might help in the House if we were to cross-pollinate some of the nuts in this place. The message is clear that when we start tampering with science, where does it end. What we are talking about today is what controls can we in a common sense way place on that industry.

Most of what we are doing is for a good cause. We are attempting to increase competitiveness, increase crops and reduce the number of hungry people in the world. Those intentions are all good. If we can develop a crop that is resistant to weeds or cold, or extend the growing season later into the fall, that is good, but there is also a downside. We have heard more than one member today speak about the effects it had on the weed crop. In other words, superweeds have developed in some fields around the crops.

We are now building a supercrop that, in turn, cross-pollinates with weeds which develop into superweeds. We are then back to square one in what we can use to kill the superweed. What happens then? If it is a bug, we must come out with stronger pesticides and herbicides to kill stronger weeds. It is a process that never ends. That is why there has to be control over it and common sense built into the equation before we simply run rampant with these advancements not knowing fully what will be there for us at the end of the day.

A poll was conducted to show what average Canadians were thinking about in this area of genetically altered foods. The Globe and Mail of January 15 reported on a survey of 500 people in Canada in late November and early December 1999. The survey found that 67% said that they would be less likely to buy foods they knew contained genetically modified products. A lot of that was through fear-mongering because there has been a great deal of that, as happens in any unknown science. Another 28% said that it would make no difference. Only 4% said they would be more likely to buy genetically altered products and 1% said that they were unsure. The survey states that a sample of 500 is accurate to 4.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The same survey was taken in other countries of the world. For example, 82% of the people surveyed in Germany said that they would be less likely to buy food if it was genetically modified, and so on.

The fear is out there. The agricultural community has to be cognizant of that fear. There can be a downside to it. I am not disagreeing with any of the members in the House on either side of this issue. It is an important one and it is worthy of debate.

We want safeguards built in that can work. I am not sure that enforcement is the right way to go on this issue. Enforcement would be almost impossible. What we want is some truth in labelling and public education on behalf of the consumer so that they are knowledgeable about what they are eating. At this point, a ban would be very difficult. It would be very tough on the agricultural community. I think a great deal of study has to go into this topic. I am sure that as Canadians we will ensure that happens.

At the end of the day I believe we will be more confused than we were at the start of the day. We will agree on some things and disagree on others but the topic is worthy of debate. We look forward to this as it goes through the various stages in the House.

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12:20 p.m.


Nelson Riis NDP Kamloops, BC

Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to my colleague's normal, thoughtful intervention in this debate. I find that I agree with much of what he said.

With his opening remarks about two economists having three viewpoints by the end of the day, the member indicated the complexity of this issue and the need for unbiased, objective research. Does he share the concern that I have, with the cutbacks in federal financial support for pure research, that we have to rely more than ever on corporate sponsored research, either directly or indirectly, and that this in itself will not necessarily hasten the clarification that we and others so desperately seek on this issue?.

I would appreciate his views on how he sees the research, particularly the funding of research in this area, as having somewhat of an impact on its validity.

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12:25 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative Charlotte, NB

Mr. Speaker, a point we have to stress in the House, and where we are headed in the question and the answer, is the power of some corporations to push their agenda. At some point there has to be someone to call them into check and to examine what they are doing.

Let us take a look at company called Monsanto. The resources, the strength and the research capacity of that company are simply unbelievable. It is a case of whether the tail is wagging the dog when it comes to a company like Monsanto versus the government and public awareness. There is a role and probably a stronger role for the government to do the research that is necessary for the safety of Canadians.

There is much to be considered in that regard. The federal government has to use enough foresight so that we have some confidence going into the future that these foods are safe and that there will not be repercussions down the road for farmers and consumers alike.

The hon. member for Quebec mentioned the impact some of these genetically altered foods have had in the marketplace in terms of our export capacity. It is something for which we have to be careful. I would love to think that the government is wise enough to put more resources into research and, at the end of the day, make it safer for all consumers.

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12:25 p.m.


Nelson Riis NDP Kamloops, BC

Mr. Speaker, my supplementary question involves Monsanto. On a number of occasions the hon. member has indicated the very strong positioning that Monsanto has taken in this discussion and the development of these genetically modified products and genetically modified crops. We recently learned that Monsanto has decided, in its best corporate interest, to sell off its agricultural sector and to change its name. Would the member have some views on why it would have taken this corporate course?

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12:25 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative Charlotte, NB

Mr. Speaker, part of it has to do with share price. If I am not mistaken, the share price of Monsanto in U.S. dollars was about $95 a share a year or so ago and it dropped to around $30 in December. That was in large part simply because of the reaction by the public to some of these so-called Frankenfoods that people envisioned the company was working on. It basically boils down to the company moving too quickly in the marketplace.

Mr. Speaker, do you remember a company called Panasonic whose slogan was “Slightly Ahead of our Time”? In politics we cannot be too far ahead of our time. In business we cannot be too far ahead or obviously too far back, but just slightly ahead of our time.

Monsanto was leap years ahead and pushed too aggressively and was forced to sell because of public backlash on some of the advances it was making. If the member recalls, it was Monsanto that came up with the so-called terminator seed, a seed we would have to buy from Monsanto but a seed that could not reproduce. Someone growing wheat, canola or whatever would be forced to buy that seed from Monsanto year in and year out. The repercussions in some Third World countries would be devastating. They would be held captive by a huge corporate giant. I think public reaction was one of the reasons it was forced to sell. I think the public was right. They had to bring these people into check. We hope governments will continue look out for the interests of their citizens.

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12:25 p.m.


Odina Desrochers Bloc Lotbinière, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to rise today in this debate I would describe as one of the most important ones going on.

This issue has been amply studied. We are debating this very important question today thanks to the work of my colleague from Louis-Hébert and the members of my party, who worked extra hard to enable us to have a real debate on this issue of the GMOs.

First, I will touch upon two points which, I think, are of interest for farmers. Since the riding of Lotbinière has one of the highest concentrations of farming in Quebec, I want to talk about the consequences of not labelling seeds and agricultural exports in general. Second, I want to talk about organic farming, which was adopted by many farmers in my riding who are very concerned about the ever increasing presence of GMOs.

Let us begin with the international context. On April 12, 2000, the European Union amended its regulations on genetically modified organisms, which were adopted in 1982, to impose mandatory labelling. Japan did the same thing and Korea is about to do likewise. The countries of E.U., Japan and Korea are countries to which Canada and Quebec export on a regular basis.

If those countries begin to wonder whether or not our agricultural exports contain GMOs, our producers could lose millions of dollars. This is why it is so important for Canada to follow the example of these countries and impose mandatory labelling.

There is a lot of talk about GMOs these days. There may be some interesting things with regard to GMOs, but there is also the whole issue of international marketing. Last October, I attended a meeting, the last one before what can now be called the Seattle fiasco, where GMOs were at the forefront of discussions among the various countries present at that meeting, namely countries from South, Central and North America.

It is imperative that the federal government act quickly in this area to reassure farmers and also to show its biggest clients that it is making every effort to see to it that agricultural exports to those countries do not contain any GMOs. Those were my comments regarding the economic side of the issue.

Now, let us look at the side of the issue that is of greater interest to the riding of Lotbinière, namely the future of organic farming. It is a known fact that transgenic seeds are more expensive than traditional seeds. This means that farmers must have an increased yield for that practice to be cost-effective. It seems that the yield of GMOs varies greatly depending on the area and the type of soil, and some studies apparently show that the yield is often equal or even inferior to that of traditional seeds. What is Canada doing to ensure that serious studies on GMOs are done?

With all the cuts to research and development budgets, the only studies that are now available to the Canadian government are studies done by companies that produce GMOs. So how can the government have a serious policy on the future of GMOs? Without long term studies, what will we know about the effects of GMOs on cultivated soils and on the environment around the farms?

The introduction and large scale production of GMOs is a real threat to organic farming. In the riding of Lotbinière, as well as in many others agricultural ridings in Quebec, there are pioneers. People have been fighting for 15 or 20 years. There are more and more who are responding to a trend, to a demand by consumers for organic farming. In this respect, I want to mention someone who is very well known in my region, namely Gérard Dubois, of Plessisville. As a member of the UPA, he introduced these notions of organic farming.

Presently, these people are concerned because we do not know how a field containing transgenic seeds may be affected. What would happen to another field farmed organically?

Genetically modified plants pollinate plants grown in surrounding fields. This is called the gene flow, because genes may be dispersed by wind, insects or animals over a distance of up to 10 kilometres, according to certain evaluations. For producers of organic plants and food products, this represents a real threat of contamination to their fields by neighbouring transgenic crops.

If we do not know that seeds contain GMOs, and a producer happens to plant such seeds, one can imagine what the consequences could be for an organic farmer established a kilometre or two away if the transgenic seeds were to mix with the organic ones.

Organic farmers have made enormous efforts. They have to abide by very strict standards in order to obtain the certification of their crops. Once again, if we ever discovered that there was even the slightest possibility of contamination by genetically modified seeds or some of their by-products, those people would see all their efforts of several years reduced to nothing. They could lose their certification if their neighbours were producing genetically modified plants close to their own fields.

This is a matter of common sense. How can we ask of organic producers that they start a business, put in the efforts and market organic products if the arrival of genetically modified seeds and plants constitutes a permanent threat to organic products? The federal government must act quickly.

At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the potential threats to the agricultural industry and our exports to countries which have already moved towards mandatory labelling. In a riding such as mine, organic producers also feel threatened by the presence of genetically modified foods.

I could keep talking for a long time on this issue because I am vitally concerned with it. During the last two weeks of recess, I had the opportunity to meet agricultural producers who told me about their concerns.

I am very pleased to support the motion moved by the hon. member for Louis-Hébert. It reads as follows:

That this House urge the government to demonstrate openness with regard to genetically modified organisms, starting by making 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.

We intend to make another effort to inform the population of Lotbinière and make it aware of the issue. On June 3, we will be holding a symposium organized by the Centre agronomique de Sainte-Croix, which is affiliated with Laval University. Experts will be in attendance. Once again, we will bring ourselves to date on this most important issue of GMOs.