Mr. Speaker, as the deputy critic for agriculture and agri-food, I have the pleasure of rising today to discuss Bill C-474, An Act respecting the Seeds Regulations (analysis of potential harm). This issue is of particular importance to me because there are many farms in my riding.
The purpose of the NDP member's bill is to require that an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted. In other words, it requires that the sale of new GE seeds in Canada be assessed from an economic perspective.
There is currently nothing stopping a new variety of seed from being sold and grown in Canada if it is registered and passes the environmental impact assessment required under the Seeds Regulations. The new seed variety must also be assessed by Health Canada under the Food and Drug Regulations if it is destined for human consumption or by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency under the novel feeds regulations if it is destined for the production of animal feed.
First of all, I would like to say that the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-474. We believe that it is important to consider all aspects of approving a new product, especially its foreign trade implications, before adding it to the range of products already offered to producers.
At present, the trade implications of new products on the market are completely ignored in GE seed evaluations. The effects of the marketing of these seeds could be devastating for the economy. Many countries are very prudent when it comes to genetically engineered crops, and some even ban them completely. In 2010, we can no longer ignore this reality. In fact, more than 26 countries have import restrictions on genetically modified products.
In recent years, a number of factors have increased foreign countries' wariness with regard to genetically engineered seeds from Canada. The speedy approval of some of these seeds is one reason. In fact, Canadian GMOs are not systematically tested. The government relies on the companies that produce GMOs and simply reads their studies without any further assessment. It relies on the concept of substantial equivalence. If a genetically modified food is similar to a conventional food, it is not subjected to scientific testing. This is not reassuring for those countries that are proceeding with caution when it comes to GMOs.
The current trend of not evaluating economic risks could have a number of adverse effects on the Canadian market. The recent history of marketing GMOs has proven this numerous times. Take, for example, the litigation between the McCain company and Europe. In the late 2000s, producers from New Brunswick, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island sold potatoes to McCain, but the potatoes had been genetically modified to be pest resistant. In 1999, when McCain decided to stop purchasing genetically engineered potatoes, the producers were the ones punished; they were the ones who had to make adjustments and bear all the related costs. Farmers who cannot market their crops will face serious financial difficulties and even bankruptcy. Unfortunately, that is the reality for producers who are refused access to certain European or Asian markets.
I would like to quote something said by the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell during the November 18 meeting of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri Food. He was addressing the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and said, “...the more markets our farmers have to sell into, the better it is for our farmers.” Basically, the member is opposed to Bill C-474 and wants farmers to have access to a greater share of the market. Given that more countries are now tending to demand safe, GMO-free products, this bill would certainly expand markets for our producers. I would invite the member and his party to be consistent and support Bill C-474.
Furthermore, adding an economic assessment step to the regulatory approval process for new seeds is nothing new, per se. The industry has already voluntarily slowed or stopped the commercialization of new GM plant varieties because of market-related concerns. For instance, the GM flax known as Triffid, which has been approved for human consumption, was to have been introduced in 1998. However, in the winter of 1997, the European Union banned GM canola imports. The Canadian flax industry therefore decided not to go ahead with the marketing of the Triffid variety as planned, for fear that flax imports would be affected. In 2009, the European Union found traces of GM products in one shipment, despite all the precautions taken. It therefore decided to ban all flax imports from Canada.
Farmers are still paying the price for this unfortunate incident, given that, since 2009, all seed samples must be subjected to costly tests to ensure they are harmless. It is worth noting that, until then, 68% of Canada's flax production had been exported to Europe.
Thus, a huge portion of our production had to find other markets or was simply disposed of.
It is possible that the flax industry would have been better protected if there had been a market impact assessment before the Triffid variety was approved. Several hundred flax producers could have exported their products to the European market without any problem.
In 1995, the industry tried to compensate for the wariness of importing countries by developing voluntary guidelines. For example, the Canola Council of Canada developed a market access policy agreement that stipulates that no new varieties of canola will be sold to producers before being approved in all of the primary export markets. This policy has been respected by all stakeholders since it was developed. Thus, we can assume that if Bill C-474 were passed, it would be well received by the industry.
The type of economic assessment proposed in the bill is nothing new and it is currently being used elsewhere in the world.
Argentina has been studying the repercussions of its transgenic seeds on markets since 2004. Before a GMO is approved for marketing, the government must have expert opinions available on the impact of large-scale production on the agri-food ecosystem, the safety of livestock feed, and the absence of undesirable effects of its marketing on exports. This assessment includes an analysis of the current state of regulatory systems and the degree of acceptance by the public. Furthermore, the situation of commercial competitors, potential markets, the proportion of the crops in their trade with each country and the proportion of their imports in their total purchases are also taken into consideration. These new regulations have not stopped Argentina from remaining one of the largest producers of GMOs.
The Conservatives say that adopting Bill C-474 would result in scientific analyses being abandoned in favour of socio-economic considerations. That is false; they are not mutually exclusive. Scientific and economic assessments are complementary. There is nothing in this bill that leads us to believe that scientific assessments would be set aside.
On October 5, Mr. Matthew Holmes, Executive Director of the Canada Organic Trade Association appeared before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food and had this to say:
Bill C-474 does not establish some unrealistic threshold, nor does it give economic considerations of veto over all other considerations. It simply provides policy-makers with one more tool with which to understand the implications of their decisions, and our sector feels this is a reasonable one.