For those of us who have been here for a while, this is an issue that we have debated before. In each Parliament, this bill, or some variation of it, comes forward. These bills never become law, because the majority of members recognize that Canadians are best served when the government limits itself to its core responsibility, which is ensuring that the food Canadians eat is safe.
Bill C-291 is very short. It 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. However, the bill is unnecessary, and I will be opposing it for a number of reasons.
The first reason is that the present system is working well. The role that the government has taken, and should continue to take, is that of a regulator for the health and safety of food products and not that of a marketing agent.
Under the current regulatory framework, labelling is mandatory where the health and safety of a food product could be an issue. This responsibility extends to labelling for an allergen or in any situation where safety is a concern for susceptible people. An example of this would be labelling that indicates a product contains nuts so that those who are allergic have a warning prior to any problem arising.
Canadians enjoy the strongest standards of food quality and food safety. This is because of the consistent enforcement of clear rules that govern food safety. The bill before us would change all of that by expanding the role of the regulator beyond its core functions.
A second reason to oppose the legislation is that it aims to introduce a new component to the whole Canadian food safety regime. The bill proposes making the process of developing food the centre of our regulatory framework, rather than the monitoring of the safety of the food as it is now. Let us look at one example of how this would work, and coming from Saskatchewan, I do have to talk about canola.
Canola is now the country's largest crop. Our canola contributes $26.7 billion to our economy each year and is responsible for 250,000 jobs. It has revolutionized not just agriculture, but food preparation through an oil, which is seen as healthier than some of the alternatives. Canola oil has been used for decades, and there is no question that its quality benefits human health, feed, and biofuel feedstock.
Canola has been accepted as a healthy and safe food product for Canadians. It is not labelled in any way other than the typical ingredient breakdown we see on all of our food. However, most canola is GMO. When canola is processed into canola oil, the oil is identical whether it was from GMO or non-GMO canola. I will repeat that: the oil is identical. However, the bill would require that canola oil from GMO canola would be labelled differently from non-GMO oil, even though there would be absolutely no difference between the two.
The reality is that the main result of the bill receiving royal assent would be that the government regulatory framework would become a marketing tool rather than a judge of food safety. This is unacceptable, and it is one more reason not to support the bill.
Bill C-291 would also put the government in the position of legislating consumer choice. Consumer choice should be the role of the market and not the role of government. Companies need to make their own marketing decisions, and it is inappropriate for the government to be doing that for them. This is the position that our previous Conservative government took, and one that the current Liberal government should continue to hold to. Making GMO labelling mandatory would create an unnecessary and unwanted bureaucratic burden from the government on producers.
Food companies that want to indicate that their products do or do not contain GMO can do so. They are free to advertise as they choose, provided that their claims are true and not misleading. Those companies wanting to label their food GMO-free can put the spotlight on it. We see more and more of this taking place as consumers are demanding it. This is the proper way to handle GMOs and their labelling.
The choice to label is already in place. To make GMO food labelling mandatory would be to do the job of the market. We all know that 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 have a commercial imperative to 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.
The reality is that 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 any danger to people. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that genetically modified crops and foods are safe; they are safe for use and consumption and pose no greater risk than conventional food.
Bill C-291 seems to imply that somehow GM foods are less safe, and therefore need to be labelled differently, and that manufacturers might try to deceive consumers about the composition of Canadian food, especially food with GMO content. The truth is that safeguards are already in place for the authenticity, approval, and sale of GM foods.
In Canada, GMOs are subjected to a rigorous evaluation for food, feed, and environmental safety before they ever get near the supermarket. Products that come to market have gone through testing, and because Health Canada employs a strict, rigorous pre-market assessment, we can be assured that new GM food products lacking adequate scientific data do not go to market.
Another reason to oppose Bill C-291 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”, or GM, 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 only adds to the bureaucratic burden of the bill.
In conclusion, government needs to regulate food for safety. Providing the information that consumers demand, including whether a product has been genetically modified, and to what extent, should be the responsibility of the companies that produce and sell the products, not the government.