Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House this afternoon to speak on the motion put forward by the Progressive Conservative Party.
This motion comprises a number of elements, the main ones being the financial difficulties currently being experienced by Canadian farmers, Ottawa's incompetence in dealing with this issue, the failure of the federal government to assume responsibility and leadership with respect to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v Marshall, and the federal government's failed fisheries policies and its lack of vision.
I would like to share my time with my colleague from Lotbinière. This morning, my colleague from Bonaventure—Gaspé—Îles-de-la-Madeleine—Pabok spoke about fisheries.
Since we are sharing our time, I would like to spend time on the fourth point of the Progressive Conservatives' motion, that is, the lack of vision on the part of the government, something that very often results in a lack of leadership. I will relate this to a matter particularly dear to my heart, one I have spoken of quite frequently of late, and that is the matter of genetically modified foods. This is an issue in which the government has been very short on vision, and one that illustrates my thoughts very well.
First, it starts with inertia. For five years, our shopping baskets have contained genetically modified products, and up to now the government has not brought this to the attention of consumers. The delay is rather hard to explain and may be likened to a lack of transparency.
In the fall of 1997, when we were working on the matter, the agriculture committee recommended to the government unanimously that there be mandatory labelling so consumers buying the products would know what they had in their baskets and what they were eating. Knowing what one is eating is a basic right.
The government has not acted since 1998, except to say that labelling is optional in Canada and that we should wait until the issue comes up for debate. But it did not, with the result that events have now overtaken us.
We therefore find ourselves in another kind of debate with scientists, Health Canada employees, and all sorts of people on one side or the other, while the consumer, who is at the heart of the debate, cannot get a straight answer.
What are the short, medium and long term effects on health? We do not have all the answers to this question. Furthermore, what are the effects on the environment and soil degradation? What are the socioeconomic and legal impacts? There has been no follow-up and, in this final and very progressive century of the millennium, I do not think that an entire population can be left in the dark. I do not know how the government sees this, but I see it as a complete lack of vision.
There are all sorts of underlying issues. There is a lot of talk about consumers because, as users of all these products, they are on the front line, but agricultural producers should also be mentioned. They are also becoming increasingly concerned, and their concerns are twofold. Those producing genetically engineered food have questions about biological diversity.
What will happen if we continue to take this increasingly specialized approach? The diversity of seed available to farmers or producers is becoming extremely limited and is being controlled by a certain group of individuals, or companies, monopolizing the sale of agricultural products. This will inevitably lead to monoculture. In an agricultural context, it is a short leap from monoculture to the risk of a disease that can wipe out an entire crop.
Even those who are proactive on this issue and those who are now using genetically modified seed grain have questions, not all of which have been answered, although they should have been. This is the situation in which those farming with genetically modified organisms find themselves.
Then there are those involved in biological or traditional agriculture. They are ending up in a dangerous situation, because of their smaller fields, which will turn into veritable minefields, for pollen can be carried a very long way. In the spring, they were talking of one kilometre. Then a little later it was five, then twenty. This week I heard a figure of fifty.
How, then, is it possible to have the crops one desires in traditional agriculture, as in the case of Mr. Schmeiser, if one is in an area where there is airborne contamination? There is also a race for patents going on at the present time. All living things are on the verge of being patented. I do not know if this House is aware of the case of a mildly hallucinogenic plant that is used in the Amazon traditionally for medical and religious purposes. One day an American arrived on the scene and announced “This is a rather extraordinary plant, with major characteristics, so we are patenting it”.
The Amazon natives can no longer obtain the plant—which is about as common as dandelions are here in Canada—because it is patented. All these matters relate to ethics. If there are no standards for labelling transgenic food, there is no code of ethics when it comes to discoveries in a rapidly expanding field which affects us all.
This shows a lack of vision, a lack of leadership, and I would venture to say as well a lack of commitment by the government. Let us look at the situation. Since 1993, the budgets have not changed, they have been shrinking continually, and we have reached the threshold we were at in 1993 for research and development budgets.
If there is no funding, no basic research, there is a void, but a void is always filled. So it was filled with a transfer of responsibility that the companies supported, because there was no government expertise, no government funding or independent scientists to do this sort of research.
It is strange, because the government is going to negotiate at the WTO, where they will be talking of export subsidies and domestic support, but they should be talking about international trade barriers too. Such major countries as Japan, the European Community, Korea, Australia, Brazil and in fact a whole series of countries are currently requiring labelling of products containing genetically engineered food.
What are we going to do in this market if there has been no leadership? We will again see a lack of vision resulting in us losing ground it will be hard to make up.
Another comment arising from the situation is that there is some confusion in federal infrastructures leading to a lack of accountability. The entire field of biotechnology is the responsibility of the Department of Industry, product approval is the responsibility of the Department of Health, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reports to the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food. Yet no one deals with all the environmental problems, since in terms of accountability and responsibility, no one looks after this area at Environment Canada. This matter is the responsibility of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Bouncing the ball back and forth leads to a problem of accountability, and this is what I contend today. The motion by my colleague from the Progressive Conservative Party contained a lot of elements, including the lack of vision. I think we have a responsibility as parliamentarians, and we must bear this in mind.