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House of Commons Hansard #152 of the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was information.

Topics

Bill C-22—Notice of time allocation motionNational Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians ActGovernment orders

1:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

It being 1:35 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business, as listed on today's Order Paper.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

March 10th, 2017 / 1:35 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

moved that Bill C-291, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (genetically modified food), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I have the great honour to rise today in the House to kick off the debate on my initiative, Bill C-291. Members who are not ministers seldom have the opportunity to debate and eventually pass bills to amend existing laws or to create brand new ones.

Mine is a very simple bill, which has already been debated in the House a few times in the past. Almost 10 years have passed since this issue was raised in the House, but I believe it is the right time to do so.

My bill concerns the mandatory labelling of genetically modified food. The purpose of the bill is simple: to obtain more transparent information on the labels of food that is consumed in Canada because Canadians have the right to know in detail what they consume. That is why I introduced Bill C-291, which we are debating today.

Let me set the stage by first quoting the Prime Minister of Canada. As recently as December 15, 2016, in response to a question about mandatory labelling for genetically modified foods, he said on Radio-Canada, “This is about protecting consumers. I am hearing consumers say loud and clear that they want to know more about what they are putting in their bodies. This is a good thing. We are working with them.”

This works out quite well; I am going to give him the opportunity to work on it, since he will soon have a chance to vote on my bill. I hope he will vote to support it, since he committed to work on this issue. This is the perfect opportunity for him, for all government members, and for the opposition members, to walk the talk.

My motivations and reasons for introducing this bill can be summed up rather quickly. Naturally, I was very familiar with this issue before being elected to the House, but it was shortly after I was elected in 2011 that I began meeting regularly with André Nault, an active member of the group Amis de la terre de l'Estrie. He worked on this issue for nearly his whole life. Sadly, he has passed away, but I still wanted to recognize all the work he did and the fact that he came to see me on a number of occasions to talk about this issue, Canadians' right to be informed. Several times he drew my attention to the need for the House to pass legislation like this bill. I want to commend his work and the work done by Amis de la terre de l'Estrie. Even though he is gone, that group is continuing his work to demand not only that genetically modified foods be labelled, but that Canadians have access to healthy, high-quality food.

As I said earlier, this is a unique opportunity, so I thought long and hard about the bill to put forward. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I want to give my wife, Joanie, some credit for her part in the process. We talked about the issue, and she encouraged me to introduce this bill. This is important to her too.

I want to emphasize that my main goal in introducing this bill is to make sure Canadians get the information they have asked for over and over. Like the Prime Minister, they want to know more.

That is why I am hoping for Liberal support. December 15 was not the first time the Prime Minister said he was open to the idea and was going to work on it. The Liberals have talked about this issue a lot in the past. In 2002, Mr. Caccia, the member for Davenport, introduced a similar bill. He was a Liberal government minister.

More recently, the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party of Canada passed a resolution at its convention. It was even one of the policy resolutions on the agenda at the Liberal Party of Canada's most recent convention in 2016. Unfortunately, it was not voted on.

I would have liked to see the results to know what Liberal Party members think. It is certainly an issue that has repeatedly come back to the table and has the support of Liberal Party members because they talked about it at their party's convention. I hope to have their support here.

I am also following in the footsteps of some remarkable MPs who have worked on this file. There was Alex Atamanenko, NDP member who represented the riding of British Columbia Southern Interior. He introduced a bill on this more than once. There was Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who represented the riding of Winnipeg North and also introduced bills as part of her work on this file. And let us not forget Paul Dewar, then hon. member for Ottawa Centre, who also worked on this issue and introduced bills. They were remarkable NDP MPs whose work we applaud and remember today.

As I was saying, the last time we addressed this issue and voted on it was in 2008, when we debated a Bloc Québécois bill introduced by Gilles Perron, the hon. member for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles.

Today, I am speaking to an issue that has been debated a few times in the House and that has been presented by different Canadian political parties.

I know my Conservative and Liberal colleagues, and I know what they will say. I therefore want to reassure them today that this is not an anti-GMO bill or an anti-GMO campaign. Far from it. It is simply a campaign to ensure transparency and provide people with more information. I want to be sure that members have cleary understood me: this is not a campaign against genetically modified foods. This bill will not prohibit the production of GMOs in Canada. This bill will not prevent technological research to improve our agricultural practices.

There is no way for this bill to be viewed as anti-GMO. It is simply a response to opinion polls that have been conducted in the past twenty years. These polls repeatedly and consistently showed that between 80% and 90% of Canadians support this initiative. Over time, the polls have consistently confirmed this support, including the most recent Health Canada survey, which also reported majority support for the labelling of GMO food.

My bill is very simple and includes only three provisions. The first stipulates that no person shall sell any food that is genetically modified unless it is labelled as such. Since I recognize the government's regulatory authority over food labelling, the second provision of the bill grants additional regulatory powers to define what constitutes a genetically modified food. The bill recognizes Health Canada's scientific expertise in this area, and so it is up to that department to define what constitutes a genetically modified food and determine when labelling is required. The bill also gives the government the regulatory authority to define the form and manner of labelling, where the label will be placed, and the size and wording of the label.

What is more, I am allowing the government to determine when the bill will take effect. If my bill is passed, the government can decide, after consulting the industry and hearing from all the stakeholders, when it would be best for Bill C-291 to take effect.

It is the simplest bill we have debated in the House. It has only three provisions and recognizes the government's current regulatory powers over food labelling. I therefore hope that the government will vote in favour of this bill, since 80% of Canadians support it.

I will be very disappointed if less than 80% of MPs support this initiative. That would be a blow to our democracy. I therefore encourage all of my colleagues to support Bill C-291.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his speech.

My question is about the government's role in labelling genetically modified products. As a member of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, I learned that GMOs are not a health hazard. Companies are required to disclose health information. If this is not a health issue, is it really the government's role to get companies to label genetically modified products?

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague. He asked a valid question about health and the presence of allergens in food products, which is what led to labelling.

As he said in his speech, Health Canada uses industry research to decide whether to approve novel foods, as they are known in Health Canada jargon. Unfortunately, the big problem is that people do not trust the approval process. As my colleague pointed out, Health Canada relies exclusively on research paid for and carried out by industries that stand to gain from their products being approved. That is why the public does not have faith in the approval system.

My bill will restore some of that lost faith because people will have access to more information about the foods they are consuming. The information will at least be on the labels, which is a step in the right direction toward restoring public trust in the approval of novel foods in Canada.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

NDP

Ruth Ellen Brosseau NDP Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Mr. Speaker, I sincerely thank my colleague from Sherbrooke for all his work, his bill, and his fight to ensure that there will one day be transparency in Canada's consumer labelling.

Canada has approved the sale of genetically modified salmon, but the salmon at the grocery store all look the same. That is why it is important to have mandatory labelling in Canada for genetically modified products, especially when we know that 80% of Canadians are calling for more transparency.

Can my colleague explain how this works in the United States? Some states require mandatory labelling of genetically modified products.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her support.

This is an opportunity to talk about something I did not have time to get to in my speech and that is the economic argument for my Bill C-291.

There has indeed been some progress in the United States. Today, some form of labelling is mandatory across the country. Some say the system is not perfect, but it is better than nothing.

We are in the process of signing a number of economic agreements with other countries, including the European Union. There is an economic reason for wanting to align our regulations with those of the 64 countries who already have mandatory labelling. Canada has some catching up to do.

From a trade perspective, the argument in favour of mandatory labelling is that it will allow us to align our regulations not only with our main economic partner, the United States, but also with our other economic partners around the world who have also made labelling mandatory, including the European Union with which we just signed a trade agreement. There is a very strong economic argument for Bill C-291.

I urge my colleagues to consider this important aspect of my bill.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

NDP

François Choquette NDP Drummond, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague from Sherbrooke for all the work he has done on this file.

He recently came to Drummond to tell people about his bill and why it is important. I do not understand why the Liberals are questioning why we should label genetically modified food.

When we eat a food product, we know its salt and sugar content and we know what vitamins it contains. We have the right to know that information. The people of Drummond and of Canada have the right to know what they are eating. That is all we are asking. We want to know whether the food is or is not genetically modified. Then it will be up to the consumer to decide if they are going to buy the product.

What does my colleague make of the Liberals' argument, which I find quite puzzling?

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:50 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Drummond for his work on this issue.

I cannot understand why we would refuse to disclose this information, when this is being done in 64 other countries. Canadians are not second-class consumers. Canadian consumers have the right to this information as much as the consumers in these 64 other countries.

I do not understand why the Liberals and my other colleagues from all parties would reject such an initiative, which simply seeks to ensure that Canadians are on equal footing with consumers in these 64 other countries, where this information is available when they go shopping. I hope this information will finally be made available to Canadians.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to speak to Bill C-291. I understand its intention and why it was introduced, specifically, because consumers have the right to make informed decisions. However, today I want to talk about the unintended consequences of this bill.

Bill C-291 proposes to amend the Food and Drugs Act so that, once the regulations are in place, no genetically modified foods can be sold unless the label clearly indicates that the food has been genetically modified.

Canada does not currently require the labelling of genetically modified foods that have been approved following stringent scientific assessment by Health Canada, because those foods are as safe and nutritious as their non-GM counterparts. In Canada, companies may voluntarily choose to label genetically modified foods, provided the information is truthful and not misleading.

Let us be honest: this bill is calling for the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods so that people will choose not to buy them. However, that choice will be based on misleading information. Going ahead with this will help perpetuate the myth that genetically modified foods are unhealthy, which is false. In fact, foods are no more safe or nutritious if they do not contain genetically modified ingredients.

I want to share some facts that consumers should be aware of. Genetically modified crops and foods are organisms whose inherited traits have been modified in part. This may involve genetic transformation, such as combining the DNA of corn plants with the Bt bacteria gene, which improves resistance to the corn borer, a harmful organism that attacks corn stalks.

This important technology reduces farmers' crop losses and eliminates the need for certain pesticides. Many varieties of field corn and sweet corn have this resistance gene. It not only helps farmers' harvests, it also helps reduce food waste.

Consumers should also know that we do not genetically modify organisms just because we can. We do it to help farmers deal with production problems and to provide innovative products to Canadian families. In short, this technology helps society.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recognizes the benefits of genetically modified food. It has indicated that crops are genetically modified so they can resist weeds, pests, and disease; improve their tolerance for poor weather conditions, such as frost, extreme heat, and drought; and increase crop yields, which can help to optimize land use and reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides.

Work is also being done to develop fruits and vegetables that stay fresh longer, which will help create new opportunities, reduce food waste, and improve the food supply worldwide. Plants and plant materials that can generate biofuel energy are also being developed. Work is also being done on other genetically modified organisms in order to rehabilitate damaged and less fertile land.

The main goal is to provide Canadians and the rest of the world with safe and nutritious food that is produced in an environmentally responsible way based on scientific fact. All food in Canada is regulated by Health Canada, which is responsible for establishing standards and regulations to ensure the safety and quality of all food sold in Canada, including genetically modified foods.

Genetically modified foods are already a safe part of Canadians' diet. Genetically modified foods have been approved by Health Canada and eaten by Canadians for years. No negative effects have every been reported, and these foods are just as safe and nutritious as foods that are not genetically modified.

Over 120 different genetically modified crops have been approved in Canada since the 1990s.

Genetic modification is recognized, in Canada and around the world, as a safe, effective, and more environmentally-friendly production method. Nearly 70% of processed foods sold in Canada already contain genetically modified ingredients. The most common processed ingredients are canola, corn, and soy. It is estimated that integrating genetically modified crops into Canadian farming activities increased our aggregate farm income by over $5 billion between 1997 and 2014.

Our goal is to feed Canadian families and meet international needs. As the global population increases, experts estimate that in 2050, we will have 10 billion people to feed, compared to 7.3 billion today. In its 2017 report entitled “The future of food and agriculture: Trends and challenges”, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, stated that farm outputs need to increase by 50%.

The report reveals that we need to invest more in agriculture and agrifood systems, as well as research and development, in order to promote innovation, support sustainable production increases, and find better ways to cope with issues like resource scarcity and climate change. Genetically modified crops are part of those innovations. The use of genetically modified plants that are more tolerant to herbicides has helped improve soil health and even helped ease climate change, since this reduces the number of tractor passes needed in the field and means better carbon sequestration in the soil.

Let us come back to the issue of labelling. As I said earlier, mandatory labelling could mislead consumers. Making it mandatory to list genetically modified ingredients could be seen as a warning that the safety of the food is unknown. Not only will mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods not improve consumers' understanding of the issue, but it could have unintended consequences that consumers should be aware of.

Negatively influencing consumers' perceptions of these foods could reduce the productivity and safety of the global food supply because there would be less food if we relied solely on non-GMOs. There could also be harmful consequences for the environment because of the increased use of pesticides and herbicides to protect traditional crops. Finally, it could reduce investment in innovation that has the potential to support the long-term viability of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector.

We have already put in place strict and effective regulations. We have already put in place a rigorous framework that requires detailed and comprehensive assessments by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. We have already put in place a national standard for the voluntary labelling of genetically engineered food.

In the interest of maintaining the health of Canada's economy and agricultural industry and considering that the consumption of genetically modified food poses absolutely no health risks, the government will not be supporting private member's Bill C-291.

I thank my honourable colleagues for their attention in this matter.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

2 p.m.

Conservative

Kelly Block Conservative Carlton Trail—Eagle Creek, SK

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-291, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act, genetically modified food, put forward by the NDP member for Sherbrooke.

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.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.

NDP

Richard Cannings NDP South Okanagan—West Kootenay, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak today to Bill C-291, a bill that would require the labelling of food products made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

I want to start by acknowledging the work and mentorship of Alex Atamanenko, who served as MP for British Columbia Southern Interior for almost a decade. Mr. Atamanenko introduced bills that were very similar to this one in previous parliaments, and worked tirelessly in his time as MP for the farmers of Canada and for food security for all of us in this country. He was a very popular MP in the southern interior, and he has left big shoes to fill in my riding. I am sure he is very happy to know that his work is being carried on by the member for Sherbrooke. I tabled a motion on GMO labelling last year in this place, but I am happy that my colleague has taken forward this issue as a bill.

Why do we need GMO labelling in Canada? For one thing, it would bring us into line with regulations used by our major trading partners. The European Union requires GMO foods to be labelled, and the United States passed legislation last year to do the same. The current government and my Conservative colleagues are always promoting the value of harmonization of our regulations with the European Union and the United States. Here is a wonderful opportunity for them to get on board with more of that. These labelling regulations are in place in Europe and the U.S.A. because many people are concerned about GMOs and their effects on the environment, on their health, and on agricultural practices themselves. Much of the debate I have heard here has been about health. However, it is more than that. It is about other concerns that GMOs create when they are used in agriculture.

Labelling gives people the ability to make informed choices about the foods they eat and the agricultural practices these products support. Again, the Conservative member who preceded me talked about how people should be given a choice. That is what this bill would do. As the member for Sherbrooke said, this is not an anti-GMO bill; it would simply give people the right to know what they are eating. Many people have valid concerns.

There are some ecological concerns about GMOs. Most GMO crops, about 86% of them, are modified to be herbicide resistant. A previous Liberal debater said there would be less herbicide use if GMOs were not around. It is quite the opposite. Most GMO crops are called Roundup Ready. They can be sprayed with herbicides that kill every plant in the field except the crops themselves. This is a great idea from the farmer's perspective, but it allows the application of huge amounts of chemicals on farms across Canada.

Roundup and similar herbicides do not just kill weeds. The surfactant that allows the product to bind to the plants is highly toxic. It is deadly to amphibians and fish if it gets into water-filled ditches, ponds, and streams. There are some health concerns about Roundup as well. The World Health Organization recently classed its active ingredient, glyphosate, as probably carcinogenic. Health Canada, of course, has downplayed those concerns, because normal diets would only expose Canadians to about one-third of the daily dose required to cause problems. This directly points to the need for GMO labelling. Some people want to be able to make that choice.

There are also deep concerns from the public around the ownership of seeds from plants that individuals have grown. For most GMO plants, it is illegal or even impossible to use seeds from the crops that people grow to plant next year's crops. This fundamentally changes the age-old practice of many farmers, particularly those in developing countries, of saving the seeds they produce to grow the next year's crops.

There are also concerns from some growers in Canada about the risk to our national reputation as a producer of safe, healthy food if we do not tackle the GMO issue. The BC Fruit Growers' Association opposed the licensing of the GMO Arctic Apple because its markets depend on the trust its customers have in the apples we produce.

People buy apples because they are considered a tasty and healthy food, and any risk to that reputation could be bad news for Canadian orchardists.

As a scientist, I know that every GMO is different, and that the effects they might have on our environment and our health are different as well. I do not want to spend all my time here today debating those issues.

I can say that views about GMO effects are very polarized out there, with many people believing that all GMOs are evil and many believing that they are universally harmless and beneficial. As in almost every debate, the truth is somewhere in between. However, it is hard to get at that truth when much of the data from studies around GMO effects are hidden from public view. One thing I would ask is for the government to adequately support Agriculture Canada's research programs in this field and ensure that Canadians are well informed on the issues.

My father worked in an Agriculture Canada research station throughout his career, and I am well aware of the great benefits the work of our scientists have for the citizens of this country, from help to farmers in producing better crops with higher yield, to creating new products, and planning for a future with a changing climate.

I think that Agriculture Canada and Health Canada could play central roles in rebuilding trust in the science behind food safety. Too many Canadians have simply lost all trust in reports they hear about that subject when most or all of the studies have been carried out by large multinational companies that have a huge financial stake in the outcomes and interpretation of those studies.

How do Canadians feel about GMO labelling? Health Canada reports that almost 80% of Canadians want GMO products to be labelled, and about the same number of Canadians feel that voluntary labelling does not work. The will of Canadians could not be clearer. They want GMO labelling. They want this bill to be passed.

This bill bends over backwards to give industry and the government full discretion in how labelling is introduced, what it would look like, and even the actual definition of what is or is not a GMO product. Members simply cannot argue that it is too prescriptive or restrictive. This bill is about transparency.

GMO labelling is a first step that would help diffuse the polarization in the GMO debate in this country. It would allow Canada to join the rest of the world in giving its citizens a clear choice about what they eat and, as the Prime Minister put it last year, "know more about what they are putting in their bodies".

I would like to finish by thanking the member for Sherbrooke once again for bringing this bill forward. I once again thank Alex Atamanenko for his work in my riding and across Canada.

I trust all members will vote for this bill and give Canadians the GMO labelling and the choice they want.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

2:15 p.m.

Louis-Hébert Québec

Liberal

Joël Lightbound LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, first of all, I want to thank the hon. member for Sherbrooke for calling the attention of the House to this very important issue, and I thank him for the work he put into his bill.

I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say that Canadians are informed consumers and it is important that they remain so. This includes having information on food labels when there are health risks and, equally, not having potentially confusing label information when health risks do not exist.

There are more than 105 million meals prepared and consumed every day in Canada. Canadians deserve to be able to trust the food they eat. We can all agree on this. However, where some may disagree is on whether a mandatory labelling declaration of “genetically modified” or “GM ”should apply to certain food.

Our government believes that Bill C-291, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act, genetically modified food, is not the way to go. The bill does not align with the government's role to improve the health and safety of all Canadians and to better protect consumers from fraudulent practices.

I studied law. I see things through the eyes of a lawyer, which involves conducting a thorough analysis before making a decision. I will then present the information that is pertinent to this debate.

What does “genetically modified” mean? First, genetically modified food is not merely food that has been genetically engineered. Genetically modified food is simply food derived from an organism that has had modifications made to some of its genetic traits.

It can involve using chemicals or radiation to alter the genetic makeup of an organism's cells in a process called mutagenesis used, for example, to develop varieties of Canada's world-renowned canola. It can also involve joining DNA from two different species to produce new genetic combinations that are of use in agriculture, such as those used to develop Canada's groundbreaking, non-browning Arctic apple.

All food is regulated by Health Canada, which is responsible for establishing standards for the safety and nutritional quality of all food sold in Canada, and by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, CFIA, which enforces those standards. This includes GM food.

Once again, Canadians' health and safety is our priority, and we have a rigorous scientific review process to ensure that products are safe for humans, livestock, and the environment. It usually takes seven to ten years for a company to compile enough data from its research, development, and testing on a genetically modified food to be able to submit a request for pre-market approval to the Government of Canada.

The company must provide Health Canada with detailed information describing exactly how the product was developed. The information is then reviewed by Health Canada scientists who specialize in areas such as molecular biology, toxicology, chemistry, food science, and microbiology.

GM foods that have been approved by Health Canada are as safe and nutritious as their non-GM counterparts.

I also mentioned livestock. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the CFIA, evaluates and regulates all feed ingredients, including those derived from GM organisms, in the same manner that Health Canada assesses food for human consumption. Any feed ingredient that is new or has been modified such that it differs significantly from a conventional ingredient is required to undergo a pre-market assessment and approval before being allowed into the Canadian marketplace.

We use the term “novel” to define products with traits that were not previously available for sale in Canada, such as those products produced through genetic engineering. For example, some corn feed grown in Canada has been genetically modified to survive drought conditions. The CFIA works closely with Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada to thoroughly assess that GM products are safe for food, feed, and the environment.

Let us talk about labelling, which is at stake here. Health Canada requires mandatory labelling for food products where clear, scientifically established health risks or significant changes to the nutritional qualities of the food have been identified and can be mitigated through labelling. For example, if there is an allergen present in food, it must be labelled to alert consumers. The rigorous scientific reviews conducted have shown us that GM foods approved for the Canadian market do not pose a health risk.

What is more, Canada already has a national standard for the labelling of genetically modified foods. This standard can be used when companies choose to make claims. The standard was developed following broad consultation with the industry and the public. The standard for the voluntary labelling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering was first adopted by the Standards Council of Canada in April 2004. This standard guides food manufactures that choose to make claims regarding genetically modified foods so that they meet the labelling requirements set out in the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.

Products can be voluntarily labelled based on the national standard provided conditions are met and the claim is understandable, informative, accurate, and not misleading. The CFIA is responsible for enforcing these labelling requirements. The decision of whether or not to proceed with voluntary labelling rests with the company.

I mentioned earlier how our laws need to reflect the sound science that we use for decision-making in Canada. Given that science supports genetically modified foods as being as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts, and the fact that voluntary labelling measures are already in place, the government will not be supporting Bill C-291. Having said that, the Government of Canada will closely monitor developments on this particular file south of the border. Since the U.S. and Canada have traditionally adopted a similar voluntary approach, we are closely following the development of the mandatory disclosure rule in the United States, and will participate in any public consultation process. Once the details of the U.S. government's direction on this issue are better understood, the Government of Canada will be better positioned to assess whether changes should be considered to better align with the new U.S. approach.

In addition, the CFIA and Health Canada are consulting with Canadians on food labelling, including discussions on a new approach for claims made on food labels. The Canadian government agrees with the need for transparency in the regulatory system, and is committed to providing Canadians with useful and timely information.

Ensuring the safety, quality, and the integrity of Canada's food supply is a top priority for our government. Canada has one of the safest, most affordable, and most abundant food supplies in the world. That is due in no small part to our science-based regulatory system.

In closing, I would like to once again thank the member for Sherbrooke for raising this issue in the House and drawing members' attention to it, even though the government does not support this bill. I wish him all the best.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

2:25 p.m.

Conservative

Matt Jeneroux Conservative Edmonton Riverbend, AB

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.

Food and Drugs ActPrivate Members' Business

2:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

It being 2:35 p.m., the motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, the House stands adjourned until Monday, March 20 at 11 a.m., pursuant to Standing Orders 24(1) and 28(2).

(The House adjourned at 2:35 p.m.)