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.