House of Commons Hansard #104 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was workplace.


Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

May 31st, 2000 / 7 p.m.


Hélène Alarie Bloc Louis-Hébert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would need an hour to refute some of the things that were said by members who spoke before me; yet I only have ten minutes, but I will surely have other opportunities to do so. First and foremost, I want to express my support to the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre and to thank her for tabling Motion No. 252, asking the government to take immediate steps to implement a labelling process that will make us consumers aware of what foods are genetically modified.

Far from being an attack on biotechnologies, the hon. member's motion is a serious initiative asking that light be shed on the scientific process used to approve these foods and to evaluate their potential long term effects on health, on the environment and now on culture, agriculture and international trade.

What is great is that the more we look at this issue, the more components we must take a stand on as members of parliament.

I want to tell the House that we are not scaremongers, that we are definitely not sheep, and that we do not belong to any sect. Let us be very clear. The fact that we want to inform our fellow citizens and to get to the bottom of things does not put us in any of these categories, on the contrary. We are members of parliament with a responsibility for what goes on in society, and it so happens that GMOs are a new and growing phenomenon.

I would like to say, particularly, in response to my honourable colleague from Egmont, that we read everything that has been written, everything that has been said, everything we can get our hands on about the subject. What was done two years ago in committees, what was produced by the government two years ago, we also read. I should point out, however, that this is a constantly evolving field and so a person has to be constantly updating. What was being said two or three years ago is very quickly out of date, I believe.

There is one other thing I would like to add. There is talk of labelling. and there is an adjective I really feel must be added to that, mandatory. I will explain why. In the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food, we received some people responsible for voluntary labelling. We came to realize immediately that this was a problem: no two organizations share the same definition of what a GMO is.

It is clearly evident from our readings, whether from the USA or Japan—in translation obviously—or from Europe, that there is near-complete agreement on reference to GMOs as relating to the mechanisms of recombinant DNA, and procedures for detecting genes that have been created in a laboratory in order to confer new characteristics to organisms to which they are transferred.

Now another totally different subject is cropping up very regularly: mutagenesis, which is something completely different. It is a totally different process, one which refers to chemical or physical actions on genes which result in certain progress changes in the organism.

Now they are trying to lump these two together. The resulting whole is something that no one can grasp. The result: confusion in both scientific and consumer communities. All this confusion gives us more time to do nothing.

Speaking of doing nothing, I listened very politely to the government member. Ways must also be found to centralize action and information. I did a small calculation and came up with eight ministers responsible for this issue. I often say that having one minister and one agency to deal with is already a lot; but if this is multiplied by eight, action is sure to grind to a halt.

So we are thus being given more time, and on this issue, more time is not what we want. What we want is to inform consumers, the public, as quickly as possible and to reassure ourselves about the effects of genetically modified organisms, especially on health and on the environment.

I can hear certain members asking whether I know of anyone who has died from eating GMOs. I find talk like that so simplistic that I have a tendency to become annoyed, although I am usually even-tempered.

I will tell members why I get annoyed: I get annoyed because we must not minimize this issue. We must be wise enough to tackle it head on and examine it thoroughly. All sorts of things can happen: there are environmental diseases, which we are hearing about with increasing frequency, allergies, resistance to antibiotics. Perhaps there is no connection with GMOs, but what we do know is that, right now, nobody is studying this or has proven otherwise.

It is very simple. We always met with representatives of Health Canada in the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. They told us they were there merely to obtain budgets to start assessments on humans, in other words on us, the consumers.

The thought is that there must be medium and long term evaluations, but the budgets are just starting to come through. When the government talks of budgets, believe me, that does not mean that the studies are begun.

Why not take the precaution of taking time to do these analyses before getting into an evolution that cannot be reversed, because it moves ahead too rapidly? The hope is that the consumer will be well informed. As we begin a new century, one so anxiously awaited, we ought to have labelling that is readily understood, quick to be inaugurated, and mandatory. We have seen that making it voluntary opened up all manner of opportunities for getting around it and for not holding this debate.

This is part of what we are calling for, and we will continue the debate in all possible forums until we have that certainty.

It is a year now—this almost feels like an anniversary to me— since I started the tour, petitions on GMOs and the demands for mandatory labelling. I also called for the public to be informed and trained, not to send out a little propaganda pamphlet to people's homes telling them to wash their hands before they eat, on the right hand page, while on the page opposite treating GMOs as if there were nothing to worry about, no questions to be asked.

Consumers have questions. Without wishing to contradict the member who spoke before me, we know that consumers have questions. There have been surveys for years. The results are always the same. We all want the same thing—information—and information means mandatory labelling of transgenic foods.

There is so much going on right now. Last week, I was listening to a greenhouse grower who produces tomatoes. He tried to label his tomatoes as not containing GMOs. Major food stores, which I will not name but which can be found throughout the region, would not let him label his tomatoes “not transgenic” because apparently if the other tomatoes were not labelled, it might have given the impression that they were transgenic.

Farmers do not have much leeway, but consumers do not have any at all. That is why I am supporting my colleague's motion and why we are pushing for results on this issue, because we want everything to be analysed: the effects on health, as well as the effects on ethics and on the economy, social and environmental effects and, of course and above all, for me, the effects on agriculture because that is my particular concern. I will be following this issue.

Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

Mr. Speaker, first let me thank hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre for bringing forward once again the issue of genetically modified foods and that of mandatory labelling. I appreciate that her motion does not speak to mandatory labelling. It simply speaks to implementing a labelling process that will make consumers aware of all genetically modified produce and components in processed foods. I do understand the motion that is before us.

I also want to thank the hon. member for Louis-Hébert, in particular, who sits with me on the agricultural committee. In my estimation, she is probably one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the House when it comes to debating, talking about and certainly understanding the ramifications of genetically modified organisms. I do thank her for educating me on a number of occasions at the agricultural committee.

As the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre will recognize, the members speaking to this motion are the ones who have the most to gain or the most to understand with respect to agriculture.

Two or three members of the agriculture committee are here. The member for Palliser is here as well as is the parliamentary secretary, who is not only on the agriculture committee but also represents the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

There is a member here who sits on the health committee who has brought forward the motion with respect to genetically modified produce. I do feel some compassion for the member for Winnipeg North Centre and the fact that she could not get her committee to debate this very important issue.

As a matter of fact, at one point in time we had hoped we could get the health committee and the agriculture committee together in a joint committee to debate this very complex and important subject on which Canadians are asking for a resolution.

I cannot speak to the hon. member's inability with her own committee, but I will give her some assurance right now that the agriculture committee takes this situation extremely seriously. The committee is now dealing with this very issue.

I will not be supporting the member's motion as it stands. It is not that I do not agree with a lot of what the hon. member has said, but simply because I do not understand this very complex situation well enough to be able to say that mandatory labelling or labelling of any sort will be the best resolution for this issue.

Let me talk about biotechnology. First of all I will not take a long time, even though I know the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food would like to stay and listen to me for as long as possible because he learns an awful lot. I know that the Speaker would love to stay here a little longer and learn a little bit about genetically modified organisms, but I will very briefly and succinctly try to explain the Progressive Conservative Party's position on this.

We in the Progressive Conservative Party accept biotechnology and genetically modified organisms as being a very major opportunity for Canadian agriculture. We have always supported biotechnology and genetically modified organisms and believe that agriculture and Canadians as consumers are the beneficiaries of strong, very good science, and we will continue to do so.

The parliamentary secretary referred to comments by Mr. Romanow in Saskatchewan. Right now Saskatchewan has one of the world's most renowned biotechnology centres. That is very positive. Canadians are on the leading edge of biotechnology. This is very good for consumers because consumers, and producers to a degree, can take advantage of the changes in biotechnology.

We would like to make sure that Canadians can protect their position in world markets right now with biotechnology. We believe that the consumers must have the proper knowledge and information available to them.

I am saying to the member for Winnipeg North Centre that yes, I agree that the government, we as the opposition and we as a parliament must be able to give consumers what it is that they want, unlike some other parties in this House that will remain unnamed who wish to turn a blind eye, stick their heads in the sand and simply say, “Never mind what the consumers want. We will simply say it is safe as predicted by science and continue to go on with biotechnology”. That will not happen.

In the real world consumers are demanding more information and knowledge when it comes to biotechnology and that is a very good thing. We have to make sure we listen to all the stakeholders, to all those organizations and groups that are demanding that knowledge and information. We must make sure we put forward that information in a logical and knowledgeable way.

Let us not have fearmongering, as some may wish to suggest. Let us make sure we do it logically.

I would like to thank the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre for bringing this motion forward. My party and I will support her in certain movements toward information based genetically modified organisms with information given to consumers as they demand it. It may or may not be mandatory labelling, but it will be—

Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.


Paddy Torsney Liberal Burlington, ON

A Manitoba solution.

Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

A Manitoba solution? Quite possibly, but it will be based on what consumers require from the government and parliament.

Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Resuming debate, the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre. I should advise the House that if the hon. member speaks now, she will close the debate. She has five minutes for reply.

Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.


Judy Wasylycia-Leis NDP Winnipeg North Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have a few more minutes to speak on this important issue. Before doing so, I would like to thank members of all parties in the House for participating in this debate and ensuring that we had a very comprehensive discussion in the brief amount of time allocated for a very important topic.

In response to some of the comments, I wish to say four things. First, this debate is about ensuring that the concerns of consumers as well as farmers are addressed. There is no doubt that the uncertainty in this field is wreaking havoc not only in terms of individuals' concerns about their own health and well-being but also the grief and anxiety caused to farmers everywhere in the country.

It is absolutely apparent to me and I am sure to the hon. member for Brandon—Souris and others, that farmers and consumers, Canadians everywhere, want from the government a clear public policy, an open consultation process, a tough regulatory regime and decisions based on scientific evidence and independent research. That is absolutely clear. That is not happening today.

The Liberal spokesperson suggested that there was a wide open consultation process involving Canadians. That is not the case. There has been little opportunity for individual Canadians, citizens groups and farmers organizations to participate in an open discussion about where we go in the future with respect to biotechnology.

When it comes to the government statement around in-depth research and scientific investigation of this matter, I want to tell the hon. member that he is not portraying the situation as it actually is. There is now very little capacity in government in terms of in-depth research to determine the long term impacts of genetically modified food on health, soil and the environment.

As one example, I want to mention to the hon. member that his own Minister of Health promised back in 1997 to reopen a lab in the health protection branch to study genetically modified foods. Three years after that, the lab is still not open.

I also want to mention to him that I actually tried to inquire of the government how much money is spent on research in terms of genetically modified foods and how much of that $65 million it keeps touting as being assigned to food safety has been spent on genetically modified foods. What did I learn in a recent response to my question? There is currently one ongoing research project on a topic related to genetically modified foods with a planned expenditure in 1999-2000 of $166,389. There is no secret around the fact that the government has neither the capacity nor the will to do the ongoing research that is required.

Finally I want to say that no one in the debate has ever questioned the fact that there are benefits in terms of biotechnology. We are bringing to this discussion the issue of human safety and the right for consumers to know. What we are proposing today is very clearly a process that will allow individuals to know what they are eating and to make decisions based on the knowledge they are able to acquire.

We would like to go beyond that. Hopefully there will be time for another debate in the future to get the government to be more proactive and not to be bound so much by the needs of industry. It should not restrict its actions to blue ribbon committees which are very closely tied to the industry and not linked to consumer groups. We would like it to broaden the approach, be proactive on this issue, involve citizens and create exactly what I think every member of the House wants, which is a regulatory and policy framework that takes into account the impact on human health and the environment, and that it be done on the basis of ethical determinations that are agreed to by all Canadians. I do not think that is unreasonable.

As a final comment, I want to put on the record some thoughts from the New Democratic Party in terms of where we would like to see the government go with respect to biotechnology.

We have said that biotechnology as applied to food production is poised to expand significantly in the next millennium. That is no surprise to anyone. That is why we are having this debate today.

We have said that agricultural biotechnology contains both the promise of increasing production and adding value to agriculture, but also poses potential risks to production patterns, food safety and the environment.

We have said, and it is intrinsic to this whole debate, that preserving the health and safety of Canadians should be given the highest priority in evaluating and regulating new technologies in food production. This safety should be determined through science based decision making and independent sources of information.

We bring to this debate the sense from Canadians that they have grave concerns over the safety of genetically modified foods but lack the means to identify those products and make an informed choice about their purchase and consumption.

Those are the concerns that we bring to this Chamber and hope they form the basis for government action.

Genetically Modified FoodsPrivate Members' Business

7:25 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired. Since the motion was not selected as a votable item, the item is dropped from the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Genetically Modified FoodsAdjournment Proceedings

7:25 p.m.


Dennis Gruending NDP Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, SK

Mr. Speaker, I want to speak this evening about the importation of toxic waste into Canada.

The House may recall that Canadians were stunned about a month ago when they learned that 90 tonnes of toxic waste from an American military base in Japan was bound for Canada. In fact, this shipment of PCBs was on a boat bound for Vancouver. From there, this waste was to be shipped across the country to northern Ontario where it was going to be concentrated and then shipped back across the country to Alberta to be burned. It is really quite remarkable that this material was going to be shipped back and forth across the country and it was not even produced in Canada.

Canadians were shocked to learn that their health was going to be put at risk to take care of someone else's toxic waste, in addition to the fact that tonnes of toxic waste of our own, PCBs for example, sit untreated at thousands of storage sites.

It is quite clear that Canadians do not want their country turned into someone else's toxic waste dump. Yet, we are importing this waste more quickly than we can take care of of the waste we produce ourselves. We should not be importing toxic waste.

The Americans have refused to import PCBs from other countries and I believe Canadians should be worthy of the same protection. The government is not taking the necessary measures to ensure that the importation of toxic wastes into Canada, whether it be PCBs or others, is legal.

There has been a new development on this front. Yesterday a report was released by the commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development. He had some startling things to say. I will quote briefly from the report. It says:

There is still a problem in detecting hazardous waste illegally entering or leaving Canada. The extent of possible damage to human health and the environment is unknown. As well, Canada does not know whether it is fulfilling its international obligations to prevent the illegal traffic of hazardous waste at the border. Enforcement continues to be a problem.

The environment commissioner is telling us that we do not know what is coming across our border. We are not looking for it, not finding it and not enforcing it. This is not the first time the commissioner has talked about this. A report in 1997 came to the same conclusions. Two years later he is looking at what improvements have been made. He has a report card and there are only a couple of check marks and many x s. He has failed the government on this one. He is saying that we do not know what is going on and we have to know.

Three years after the auditor general told the government it was not protecting Canadians from illegal shipments of toxic waste, he is telling us that we are still not doing so.

We have signed the Basel Convention, but we still refuse to get serious about ending the global trade in toxic waste. This government refuses to sign a sidebar to that agreement which would put an end to the deadly practice.

What has happened to date on the whole subject of toxic waste is really quite startling, it is quite frightening and it is just not good enough. The kind of crisis management we have seen on this issue is no substitute for good regulation and good administration. Canadians are not getting that today.

The report from the independent Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development proves that. It is not simply things that the opposition parties are saying. The government's own watchdog is blowing the whistle.

I could go into more detail about the government's sorry record on the environment, but I do not have the time to do that. This is simply one more case where Canadians are being let down when it comes to environmental and health protection.

Genetically Modified FoodsAdjournment Proceedings

7:30 p.m.

Burlington Ontario


Paddy Torsney LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of the Environment

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to report that the shipment of waste containing PCBs from U.S. military bases was not in fact off-loaded in Vancouver, but went on its way back to Japan.

We are pleased that the U.S. government has taken responsibility to dispose of this cargo outside Canada. Throughout we have maintained and continue to maintain that the cargo and its disposal are the responsibility of the U.S. department of defence and Trans-Cycle Industries. As a result of this incident we have asked the U.S. department of defence to inform us in advance of any shipments of PCB contaminated waste intended for Canada, no matter what the PCB concentration.

We would ensure that our obligations under the Basel Convention and all federal and provincial regulations were complied with before any decision on allowing such a shipment would be rendered. Under our regulations Canada ensures that hazardous waste imports and exports are handled in a manner that protects the environment and human health.

The new CEPA provides enhanced authority to control imports and exports of hazardous waste. We will continue to introduce new regulations to implement specific criteria to assess the environmental soundness of proposed imports and will refuse any import if these criteria are not met. The criteria will be developed in co-operation with the provinces and other stakeholders and will take into account the guidelines developed under the Basel Convention and the controls applied by the U.S.

We will continue to honour all of our international obligations and will take steps to continuously improve the standards for hazardous waste, whether these wastes are domestic or international in origin.

Genetically Modified FoodsAdjournment Proceedings

7:30 p.m.


Michelle Dockrill NDP Bras D'Or, NS

Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to the issue of employment insurance.

In March the Minister of Human Resources Development tabled a report which showed that only 30% of unemployed women qualify for EI benefits. At the same time the Prime Minister and the Liberal caucus from the Atlantic provinces called for changes to the unemployment insurance system so as to ensure more seats for this federal Liberal government in Atlantic Canada.

It is rather clear that the government recognized there were problems with the EI system.

The government recently made changes to EI in order to reduce unemployment rates in the country. The problem is that it did nothing to actually reduce the number of unemployed in Canada. The government is simply playing a shell game with Canadians. It is easy to fool people with numbers.

In order to address the growing unemployment rate in Canada the government redrew the boundaries for EI economic regions. In Nova Scotia, for example, there are currently five regions and soon there will only be three. With the old boundary system, Cape Breton Island was in its own region with Guysborough County. Now Cape Breton has been lumped in with an even larger part of the region, all the way to Halifax County. This new boundary reduces the unemployment rate for Cape Bretoners and, in doing so, reduces the benefits which Cape Bretoners can receive. This was just another devastating blow from the government.

We all know that the numbers used for the unemployment rate do not reflect the reality of unemployment across the country. I know for a fact that on Cape Breton Island the unemployment rate is incredibly high. In some areas it is as high as 50%.

It is a real shame that this could happen only a few short weeks after the House adopted a motion introduced by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst and seconded by myself which called on the House to restore EI benefits to seasonal workers. The motion set out to urge the House to undo the damage that was done back in 1996. Now what do we get? Even more damage.

The federal Liberal government has destroyed the fish. It is presently in the midst of destroying the coal industry. This is all due to the mismanagement of our resources by the Liberal government. What do Cape Bretoners get in return? Less access to EI than they had before.

The devastation is even worse for women. As I said earlier, only 30% of unemployed women qualify for EI benefits. If we turn the numbers around it means that 70% of unemployed women do not qualify for EI benefits.

How is this possible? The finance minister is praising the so-called wonderful surplus budget. He also tells us how great the economy is. If the economy is so great, why is there still so much economic devastation? Why do women have to pay such a high cost?

The government has acknowledged that the EI system does not treat women fairly. Why can the government not address the issue by taking a step forward rather than taking two steps back? Why will the government not do something for Canadian women? It knows its own programs have shown discrimination as they relate to Canadian women, so my question is very simple. Why is the Liberal government refusing to do something about it?

Genetically Modified FoodsAdjournment Proceedings

7:35 p.m.

Oakville Ontario


Bonnie Brown LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Human Resources Development

Mr. Speaker, it is difficult to respond to the charges laid by the member opposite, particularly the ones about the federal government destroying the fish in the fishery and destroying the coal industry. Even if the federal government had the power to do such things, there is absolutely no logical reason why any government would set about to accomplish it.

The employment insurance reform she refers to cannot be looked at in isolation from what is happening in the economy and the labour market. The decline she referred to in regular claims by women reflects improvements in the labour market rather than changes to the rules. In fact, the unemployment rate for adult women is now at 5.8%, its lowest level since 1975. Perhaps that is one reason why the number of claims has lowered. Women have enjoyed the best job growth in a decade at 3.2% per year. Furthermore, strong employment growth means fewer claims and longer periods of employment for women.

EI also has features that are important to women such as the small weeks adjustment projects which provide workers in high unemployment regions such as Cape Breton with higher benefits. Women qualified for 61% of the claims under these projects. Also the family supplement for low income Canadians with children has been increased to nearly $150 million. Six out of ten recipients of that program are women.

The government is working to ensure that all Canadians have access to jobs and to employment insurance when it is needed.

Genetically Modified FoodsAdjournment Proceedings

7:35 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7.38 p.m.)