Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to rise in the House this evening to participate in the debate on Bill C-474, An Act respecting the Seeds Regulations (analysis of potential harm), which was brought forward by my NDP colleague, the member for British Columbia Southern Interior.
I will be the first to admit that as a member of Parliament from Hamilton, which is nationally known as Steeltown, I am more familiar with the manufacturing sector than I am with the agricultural sector. It was not that long ago that over half of my riding was in fact prime agricultural land, with successful family farms like the Youngs, the Bethunes, the Ryckmans, the Burkholders and the Marshalls, to name but a few. Sadly, as Joni Mitchell would scold us, we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
That is simply to say that many of the people in my riding of Hamilton Mountain may be urbanites, but they feel a deep, personal connection to agriculture and bring those values to bear in thinking about Canada's future.
Similarly, we have a thriving environmental movement in Hamilton that led the “eat local” campaign in our community, and has done much to raise awareness of organic foods and, more generally, healthy eating.
Also, a great many Hamiltonians are keenly interested in food and product safety, as well as proper labelling. I do not think there is single piece of legislation outside of the Conservative government's reviled decision to impose the HST on Ontarians that generated more petitions, letters or phone calls than Bill C-51, which sought to amend the Food and Drugs Act in the last Parliament. That bill purported to modernize our food and drug provisions bringing us into the 21st century and bringing our rules and our regulations in line with modern day science. It did not take too long for Canadians to figure out that this was a ruse. It was an attempt to make Canadians believe the government would be on their side when in fact it was loosening its regulatory control.
What Canadians wanted was legislation that operated on the basis of the do no harm principle, the precautionary principle, which means that we do not allow products on the market unless there is evidence that they are safe beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, this is not the risk management model that we saw with the Liberals before and with the Conservatives today.
There is a marked difference between the do no harm principle and the risk management model. Do no harm means that we put people and safety first. The risk management model means that we can only go so far in ensuring the safety of Canadians so we will allow the products on the market, cross our fingers and then see what happens. It will be up to individual Canadians to determine whether it is worth taking the risk. It will be up to the corporations that produce the products to regulate themselves and decide if they are in line with the standards on paper.
The risk management model is not a proactive regulatory model that puts the needs and concerns of Canadians first. It is a model that puts the needs of big pharma, large corporations and global capital forces ahead of ordinary citizens. It is a model that makes guinea pigs out of Canadians.
We have had our share of offering up people as guinea pigs for large corporations. I do not need to remind people who may be watching us on TV right now about the incidents in our past, especially when women were treated as guinea pigs. Thalidomide and breast implants are just two of the examples that come to mind right away.
What does that have to do with the bill that we are debating today? It is relevant for two reasons.
First, it is because many of the people who were concerned about Bill C-51, and in particular about its impact on natural health products, are also deeply concerned about the issues related to the genetic engineering of our food supply. They have strong views on Frankenfoods and they understand the importance of ensuring that a robust framework is put in place when it comes to genetically modified organisms or GMOs.
Frankly, at the moment Canada's framework is inadequate. Canada is currently the fifth largest producer of genetically modified crops in the world, after the United States, Brazil, Argentina and India.
Canada could learn a lot from Argentina. It has legislation which ensures that the release of GMOs first requires an assessment of the safety of food and livestock feed, of the bio-security of the environment and an assessment confirming that its exports will not be negatively impacted. In Argentina, therefore, the analysis of the impact on exports in the GMO approval process is an integral part of the analysis that determines whether the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted. In Canada, that is not currently the case and Canadian farmers are suffering the consequences.
It is this deficiency that Bill C-474 seeks to redress.
However, as I said earlier, there is also a second reason why this issue is being followed so closely by many of the same people who were engaged in the debate around Bill C-51, and that is because Bill C-474 also pits a tenacious advocate who represents hundreds of thousands of Canadians against an entire industry. It is David versus Goliath. In this case, David is the member for British Columbia Southern Interior who is battling the Goliath of the Monsantos of this world. There is absolutely no doubt that the hope of the biotech industry is that over time the market is flooded with genetically-modified organisms and that at that point there will be nothing anyone could do about it except quietly surrender. In fact, that is exactly what Don Westfall, the vice-president of Promar International and a biotech consultant, was quoted as saying in the Toronto Star in January 2001.
However, the member for British Columbia Southern Interior is not about to surrender and neither are his colleagues in the NDP. We understand what a disastrous impact the absence of an analysis of potential harm would have on Canadian farmers and therefore on Canadians as a whole.
We have long been convinced that big biotech companies, such as Monsanto, have been running a scam with regard to their genetically-engineered crops. Despite 15 years of failed promises to feed the world's hungry and, more recent, to save humankind from climate change, the Canadian and U.S. governments inexplicably continue to write all the rules completely in big biotech's favour. As was recently revealed in WikiLeaks cables, U.S. ambassadors were even going so far as to advise Washington to start military-style trade wars against any European country that dare stood in opposition to GE crops.
Despite lengthy court challenges which, for a time, kept the decision at bay, the USDA has just authorized the nationwide and unrestricted commercial release of Monsanto's genetically-engineered seed. After acknowledging that GE alfalfa poses many risks to organic and conventional farmers, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, whose ties to Monsanto are well known, has just imposed the impossible burden of keeping alfalfa seed free from GE contamination entirely on farmers. The Center for Food Safety in the U.S. has already announced that it will again challenge this decision in another round of expensive court action.
One way or another, and regardless of the imminent threat this poses to all farmers, especially to our lucrative domestic and export organic markets, it is only a matter of time before U.S. Roundup Ready Alfalfa will be found contaminating our fields in Canada.
The silence from the Canadian government has been deafening. Monsanto could decide to go ahead and register its GE varieties in Canada, as it has already been awarded the necessary health and environmental approvals by the current government.
It was in order to prevent that very scenario that my colleague, the member for British Columbia Southern Interior, moved forward with Bill C-474. His bill would require that the government conduct an analysis of potential harm to our export markets prior to approving new genetically-engineered seeds.
The Conservative Party has sided completely with Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry since the debate first began. Although the Liberals initially supported our bill, they have since succumbed to pressure from the biotech lobbyists and now say they, too, will vote against it at the final reading. I know, another flip-flop from the Liberals is hardly even worth noticing any more.
However, just as it is in the States, the one-sided mantra from both of these parties is now to preach coexistence with non-GE farmers and to keep Canada's regulations science-based and entirely free of any political or market considerations.
What did witnesses actually say when they testified about Bill C-474 in front of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food?
Let me just quote Kurt Shmon, president of Imperial Seed. He said:
Canada's science-based approach works very well for the domestic marketers of seed, the Monsantos, the Syngentas, and the Bayer CropSciences, but what does it do for the producer? This approach does not take into consideration what the producers want, nor does it address what the market wants. These are the two most important issues and they are absent from the registration process.
That powerful theme was then reiterated by several other presenters to the committee, yet both the Conservative government and the Liberals are wilfully ignoring it.
We cannot just ignore what is happening to farmers in our country. Farmers feed cities, and that is more than just a catchy slogan. It underscores an important reality that is crucial to our economic future.
Yes, we need to acknowledge advances in science. However, we must also acknowledge the economic reality of farmers.
In short, we must pass Bill C-474. Let us do it now.