Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to participate today in the debate on Bill C-517, introduced by the member for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles. This bill amends the Food and Drugs Act to make the Minister of Health responsible for establishing that a food or one or more of its components has been genetically modified, and for preparing a list of all such foods for anyone who requests it, because the public must know.
As the member for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles said when he introduced his bill, this is not a new bill, since a few years ago, two other colleagues, including one from the official opposition, were already concerned about the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods and organisms, commonly known as GMOs. Since 2001, Ontario has been calling for labelling; British Columbia and Quebec are calling for it as well.
The main purpose of Bill C-517 is to inform consumers about what they are eating, and to let them choose whether or not to eat genetically modified foods or food products. Therein lies the challenge. This is not about putting genetically modified foods or food products on trial; this is about the precautionary principle and fundamental information, and about protecting the consumer from any unknown risks or potential effects these types of foods could have on a person's health. As legislators, this is our duty.
This is about ensuring that consumers are safe, by giving them the opportunity to look at the nutritional information on labels of foods on the market, and to make an informed decision.
Genetically modified organisms, GMOs, could impact Canadians' health. We do not know today what could be the effect of GMOs, in the short term or the long term, on people's health and on the environment. Some scientists say that biotechnologically derived foods create or enhance diseases such as malaria, for example. Therefore, it is our responsibility as legislators to make sure that consumers have proper information on the food they buy and eat.
In Canada, there are already about 50 genetically modified products on the market. These have been approved by the government and can be consumed on their own or can be used to produce another food. We must also address the issue of the percentage of GMOs in the food and determine which level would require mandatory labelling.
In the European Union, for instance, traces of GMOs do not require mandatory labelling if they do not contain more than the threshold of 0.9% and only if their presence in the food is involuntary or accidental and technically inevitable.
This issue, like all environmental issues, does not concern just Canada, but the entire planet. I would like to point out that the European Union, which has ratified the March 2006 Cartagena protocol, already has mandatory labelling regulations.
In fact, the European Union has incorporated the Cartagena protocol, which came out of the meeting held from March 13 to 17, 2006, into its legislation. Signatories to the protocol commit to meeting a series of requirements pertaining to the international trade in GMOs intended for human or animal consumption.
Unfortunately, as our colleague proved a few minutes ago, the Conservative government still does not seem ready to take the necessary steps to make labelling mandatory for genetically modified foods or food products. On the contrary, the Conservative government continues to advocate voluntary labelling, which has been a complete failure because it has been left entirely in the hands of the agriculture and agri-food industries.
Proof of the government's bad faith can be found in an article that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on April 4. The newspaper reports that Canada is opposed to the mandatory labelling recommended by the WHO, the World Health Organization, to inform consumers about the quantity of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and added sugars in modified foods.
The Codex committee on mandatory labelling, which was put in place by the WHO to develop international codes of practice and implement the WHO's food standards program, met at the end of April.
The members of the Canadian delegation, headed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, stated their position, which unfortunately is that Canada will not support the amendment put forward by the WHO that would encourage national governments and give them more power to require agri-food industries to reveal the percentage of ingredients that could pose a risk to human health in modified foods. Bill Jeffery, national coordinator of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stated that Canada's position is indefensible.
The objective of the Cartagena protocol is to help regulate the transboundary movement, transfer, handling and use of any GMO that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and pose risks to human health.
The protocol provides that international shipments of GMOs must be accompanied by documentation that clearly indicates the exact identity of the GMOs concerned. If the exact identity is not known, this documentation must clearly indicate “may contain GMOs”.
This protocol affirms the precautionary principle, because it states the following:
Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects of a living [genetically] modified organism on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in the party of import, taking also into account risks to human health, shall not prevent that party [that is, the importing state] from taking a decision, as appropriate, with regard to the import of the living modified organism in question ... in order to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects.
The European Union's policy has two goals: first, to inform consumers, through labelling, about genetically modified organisms; and, second, to create a safety net due to the traceability of the GMO at every step of the manufacture and at the time the product is put on the marketplace.
The operative word in the European regulations is “traceability”, that is, the ability to track GMOs and products made from GMOs at all stages of their marketing, throughout the production and distribution chain.
Traceability of GMOs allows the monitoring and checking of information given on labels, the monitoring of effects on the environment and the withdrawal of GMOs that are potentially dangerous for human or animal health.
In closing, some farm organizations claim that Bill C-517 will not improve food safety and will not provide increased consumer choice, and that it will be enough for consumers to rely on foods containing the Canadian organic label to ensure that the foods they buy do not contain genetically modified ingredients.
However, we must ensure that the so-called organic label is properly certified by an independent, authorized organization that guarantees that the food is 100% organic. The fact is, these days, we are seeing a proliferation of foods labelled as organic that contain very little or no organic ingredients.