Mr. Speaker, as always, it is a great honour to stand up in the House to speak on this agricultural issue, in this case Bill C-18 and the question of plant breeders' rights. It is a great honour for me as well because I represent a very large agricultural region in the Timiskaming and Timmins—James Bay region.
What we have seen over the last number of years through the boom-bust economy of forestry and mining is a growing strength in northern agriculture. In the southern part of my riding, known as the little clay belt, extending down through Témiscaming, Quebec and over into northern Ontario, there is now a $91 million a year direct agriculture business with another $111 million in spin-offs for support organizations, dealers, and milk organizations in our area. There are over 1,000 people now directly involved in agriculture just in the Timiskaming region. Therefore, these issues are important to them.
Moreover, a very interesting transformation in northern agriculture has been happening over the last 25 years in areas that had opened up to development back at the turn of the last century. People who had homesteaded had found out that it was very hard and brutal work, and because of the climate it was simply not possible to maintain farming over any period of time. Therefore, in the so-called upper northern clay belt, we did have an incredible number of farmlands cleared, but people just could not make a go of it and much of that land was beginning to go back to dogwood and poplar. However, we are now seeing a new move back into agricultural regions in the upper part of Timiskaming and Timmins—James Bay, Val Gagné, Black River-Matheson up toward Cochrane.
A number of factors have made this possible. Certainly a changing climate has affected the north, although I would say this past year we did have a very erratic year that was very troubling for farmers. From putting tile drainage in northern fields we have seen an increased ability to get a crop off the field more quickly and in a more sustainable way, which makes lands that were less profitable before, or less possible for farming, now able to support farms.
One of the other factors is that we have seen new breeds of plant varieties that work in the north. This is testament to research and development. There is now an ability to grow soybeans and grains, with canola in particular being a big market for producers in our region, as well as corn, something that no one had ever thought possible but in which we are now having large growth.
At the same time there has been a whole change in how people perceive agriculture in the north. Back in the day we had many small local dairies, because we could not transport food very long distances, but there has been a move toward bigger agriculture. There is a belief that big agriculture is the only way to go, but we have seen in the last number of years smaller producers starting to create niche markets, the organic producers, the people producing specialty foods that people want.
In terms of balance and what really cuts to the heart of Bill C-18, as much as we want to have innovative farming and to make sure that we are supporting research and innovation on the new breeds and varieties that make it possible to expand agriculture in a world where we need to be able to build our food supply, we also have to take into account the fact that consumers are making very clear choices and want to be heard in the choices they are making about the food supply, food security, and the food market.
It is not good enough simply to say that big is the only way. We now see in our areas the local farmers' markets. People are wanting to buy local. They want to know where their food is from. They are willing to pay more for meats they know do not have a heavy hormone treatment. They want to know what they put on their plate. This is not the whole food market but represents a growing segment of the population. Last year in Timmins, we saw for the first time a march against Monsanto due to a concern about very large corporate interests and what role they are playing. These citizens are saying they want to be part of the decision-making, they want to have choice when they buy, and they want to know what is in GMOs.
The GMO issue is certainly very complex, and we cannot treat the public as though they should be left out of it. This is a right they have. People are raising their voices about the use of neonicotinoids as pesticides because of the clear damage that is being done to bee populations.
This bill is very important in making sure that balance is maintained, but the problem with Bill C-18 is that it is yet another omnibus bill. A whole manner of regulatory changes in agriculture were put in this bill. Some of them are long-standing and some are very much needed, but in some areas the government just did not get the mix right. The most striking example is the issue of implementing UPOV '91 and balancing the rights of the corporate breeders that are creating the new varieties. The royalties they receive will certainly be protected very well under this regime.
Coming from the artistic community, we see that the government has made no effort to ensure that artists ever get paid for their intellectual property, but very large corporate interests are being paid.
There is no problem with making sure that people are paid for their research and development. This is what drives the economy and drives development, and Canada needs to keep its own in the world. However, there is also the question of balance in terms of the small players who want to have more traditional agriculture. These are not hobby farms anymore; these are people who have a direct right to be heard, and the issue of long-standing traditions and rights that people had for saving and reusing seeds is a big question. We have seen corporate interests attempting to go after these traditional rights in India and in other jurisdictions in the third world.
New Democrats were trying to find a balance and put forward 16 amendments to fine-tune the language. Some of this language is about protecting farmers from needless litigation, an issue that was raised by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. It wanted to make sure that producers were not going to be sued, as we have seen happening in the United States, for claims of patent infringement with respect to the natural accidental spreading of patented plant genetic materials.
Corporations cannot say that if they put genetic materials in seeds, the seeds will not propagate elsewhere. They cannot make that claim. Farmers are worried that if they use patented genetic seeds, they can then be charged with infringement if these seeds accidentally start to move elsewhere. New Democrats clarified the language on this aspect so there would be no unnecessary litigation against farmers. That was a big issue.
One of the other things that was a real concern raised by many people was the issue of protecting farmers' privilege. This bill would take decisions on the protection for farmers' traditional rights out of the legislation and put them into the hands of the minister. New Democrats do not believe that is accountable. Making sure there is some mechanism for oversight is about fairness. The fact is that the minister could simply rewrite the regulations himself and farmers would have to live with them. That is not an accountable system.
These are reasonable amendments. Unfortunately, there is a culture within the government that any attempt to improve a bill is seen as a dire threat, so it turned down the 16 amendments. It is not that the government had to accept all 16, but it could not accept one. My colleagues in the Liberal Party put forward amendments; the government would not accept any.
That is a standard practice the Conservatives have. Even when they are bullheadedly wrong, they believe that accepting amendments is somehow seen as a form of weakness. I would argue that not being able to work with one's colleagues and not being able to accept recommendations brought forward in good faith is a sign of an immature political personality.
We saw that happen with the Copyright Act. The government said there would be lots of opportunity for amendments and then struck down every single amendment. We ended up with a fundamentally flawed bill. It was so flawed that it actually struck down amendments that would have protected the right of blind people to access materials without being threatened as criminals. The government turned that down.
What happens when we do not listen to others? We end up with failed legislation and recalls. This is the problem. This is why New Democrats are raising these issues. These concerns were not respected in committee. Canadians have a right to be heard on the issues of agriculture and food security.