Mr. Speaker, It is my pleasure to rise in the House today to speak on Bill C-291, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act, genetically modified food, put forward by the NDP member for Sherbrooke, Quebec.
The issue of genetically modified food has been debated in the House many times over several parliaments. Each time it comes before Parliament this bill, or a variation of it, our answer is always the same. Canadians are best served when the government limits itself to what it should, and that is issues of food safety.
The bill proposes to amend the Food and Drugs Act to prevent any person from selling food that is genetically modified unless its label contains the information prescribed by regulations.
The bill also proposes to amend subsection 30(1) of the act by adding the following after paragraph (b):
(b.1) defining the expression “genetically modified”;
(b.2) respecting the labelling of genetically modified food, to prevent the purchaser or the consumer of the food from being deceived or misled in respect of its composition;
This bill is unnecessary, and I will be opposing it for a number of reasons. The first reason is that our current regulatory system is already working well. The role that the government has taken in the past, and should continue to take, is to be the regulator of the health and safety of food products.
Under the current regulatory framework, labelling is mandatory where the health and safety of a food product is an issue. Regulation extends to labelling for an allergen or situation where safety is a concern for people. If someone has an allergy to peanuts, for example, they would know not to buy a product containing peanuts at the grocery store because there would be a label indicating the presence of peanuts. Labelling for health and safety is mandatory and are the parameters of Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Canada has some of the safest food in the world because of the application of our consistent food and safety regulatory system in Canada. However, the member opposite seems to think that the genetically modified presence in a food must be labelled because the public deserves to know what might be a threat to human health. The reality is, GMO foods are safe for people to eat. They are just as safe as non-GMOs. For decades, they have been used by consumers and the science has demonstrated that there is no evidence that GMO foods pose a danger to people. In fact, the scientific consensus is that genetically modified crops and food are safe for use and consumption, and pose no greater risk than conventional food.
Health Canada and the CFIA notes that after 20 years of GMO for animal food and human consumption there has been no evidence of harmful effects on humans. This is due to the fact that Health Canada has stringent standards examining data submitted from industry about new GMO products and evaluates them according to international standards.
GM foods have been consumed safely as part of our diets for decades, and it would be both impossible and unnecessary to label every genetic trait. Take a certain aesthetic quality of a GMO apple for example. Accepting this bill would require that apple to be labelled. Where does it stop? The bill does not say.
There is adequate science to prove that a GMO food is no different in its composition than a non-GMO food. Canola, for example, the country's largest crop, contributing to $26.7 billion to our economy annually and producing approximately 250,000 jobs, has revolutionized agriculture and food preparation through oil, which has been seen as a healthy and safe alternative to other oils. When canola is processed into canola oil, the oil is identical whether it was from a GMO or not. There is absolutely no difference between the two. This is why if one walks down the aisle of the supermarket, one will not see a difference in the way it is labelled either.
GMO has resulted in positive gains in agriculture as well. The plant biotechnology industry, for example, is a global, research-based industry with significant amounts of capital and time invested into the discovery, development, and regulatory approval of a wide variety of products of plant breeding innovations. These innovations have produced new varieties of crops that are resistant to insects, diseases, drought, and certain herbicides. These genetic traits deliver more predictable yields for farmers, improve crop quality, and encourage more environmentally sustainable farming practices.
Genetically engineered crops are valuable tools for farmers that have been adopted around the world on over two billion hectares of farmland.
Another reason this bill should be opposed is that it is a bureaucratic burden on our trade and regulatory processes. Most of our GM crops are exported. Would GM foods that we import need to be labelled as well? The bill leaves this unanswered. I would argue that adding an additional layer of red tape in our regulatory process would hinder our ability to be ideal trade partners.
Making GMO labelling mandatory would be an unwanted bureaucratic burden on our regulatory process as well. Approving the bill would turn the current government's regulatory framework into a marketing tool rather than a judge of food safety. This is not acceptable and is one more reason not to support it.
Companies should make their own marketing decisions. It is inappropriate for the government to be doing it for them. This is the position our previous government took and is one the government should continue to hold to.
For many Canadians, labelling of foods that have been derived from biotechnology is an important issue. This can and should be dealt with in the marketplace, as more people are making their shopping decisions based on it. Retailers will provide the information consumers want when there is a demand. The standard in Canada for voluntary labelling of GE foods, entitled “Voluntary labelling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering”, has already been developed to address non-health and safety labelling.
Companies that want to indicate that their product does or does not contain GMOs are free to do so. They can advertise as they choose, provided that their claim is true and not misleading. Those wanting to label their food as GMO-free can put the spotlight on it. We see more and more of this taking place, as consumers are demanding it. That is the proper way to handle GMOs and labelling and is far better than what the bill would create.
Bill C-291 seems to imply that manufacturers might try to deceive consumers about the composition of Canadian food, especially food with GMO content. The truth is, safeguards are already in place for the authenticity, approval, and sale of GM foods. In Canada, GMOs are subject to a rigorous evaluation for food, feed, and environmental safety before they ever get near the supermarket.
CropLife has said that it takes typically seven years to bring a GMO product to market. That is from the lab to seed, and it could take about $150 million. This is a lot of time and money that should itself deter anyone from trying to mislead the public. Products that come to market have also gone through strict, rigorous pre-market assessment and testing by Health Canada. We can be assured that new GM food products lacking adequate scientific data do not go to market.
Bill C-291 does not outline what resources would be required to implement the mandatory labelling of GM food, nor does it talk about how, or when, it would be implemented.
Another reason to oppose this is that it proposes to amend the Food and Drugs Act to include a definition for genetically modified. This is unnecessary. The term "genetically modified" is already defined in the food and drugs regulations under the novel foods section. It is also defined by Health Canada, the agency that regulates the food labelling responsibilities set out by the Food and Drugs Act. The requirement to define again that which is already defined would only add to the bureaucratic burden of the bill.
There is a cost to the bill that is completely undetermined at this time. What is it going to cost to implement the mandatory labelling scheme that would be necessary to satisfy this bill? We have no way of knowing.
Given the safeguards in place, one must ask whether it is fiscally prudent for the government or members to support the bill. The answer is clearly no. The government needs to regulate for food and safety, but consumer choice should be the responsibility of the companies that make the products, not the government. The government should not have to do this for them.