Crucial Fact

  • Her favourite word was quebec.

Last in Parliament October 2000, as Bloc MP for Louis-Hébert (Québec)

Lost her last election, in 2000, with 37% of the vote.

Statements in the House

Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods May 5th, 2000


That, in the opinion of this House, the government should make labelling of genetically modified foods compulsory, and should carry out exhaustive studies on the long-term effects of these foods on health and the environment.

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise today during this first hour of debate on the motion that I proposed, which I will repeat so that everyone is aware of what it is about; it reads:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should make labelling of genetically modified foods compulsory, and should carry out exhaustive studies on the long-term effects of these foods on health and the environment.

Why are we calling for the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods? Why call for transparency in the process of evaluation and acceptance of GMOs? Why this debate and reflection?

The answer is very simple. First of all, we have a right to know what we are eating. Every person is entitled to know the nature of the foods he is eating. Second, 70% of the food available to Canadians contains GMOs in whole or in part. For the past five years, we have had GMOs in our plates and in stores.

But the truth of the matter is that the public and consumers have known about it only for about a year. If they know now it is probably thanks to our representations here in the House. Previously, the topic was totally ignored. And yet, there are already some 42 genetically modified foods on the market. Far too many questions remain unanswered.

In Canada, genetically modified foods are regulated according to their stated characteristics and not the way they are produced. In other words, a novel food is accepted or rejected according to its substantial equivalence.

What is substantial equivalence? It is the comparative analysis of a biotechnologically derived food and a conventional non-modified food.

In a study entitled “Food Safety of GM Crops in Canada, Toxicity and Allergenicity”, Dr. Ann Clark reviews the process used by Health Canada to asses the level of toxicity and allergenicity of genetically modified crops. Her study shows that the level of toxicity was neither tested nor measured in 70% of the 42 genetically modified crops that were approved in Canada.

What is more, the allergenicity—and God knows how many allergies there are around us—of those 42 genetically modified crops was assessed neither through lab tests nor food trials. According to Dr. Clark, statements to the effect that these crops are neither toxic nor allergenic are based solely on deduction and supposition.

According to her, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In other words, the acceptance of GMOs, under the Canadian system, leaves room for doubt. If the risks to health seem plausible, what about the risks to the environment?

Let me quote Elizabeth Abergel on this issue:

The applications of genetic engineering to agriculture have generated a strong controversy. Many consumers and a fair number of scientists view these technologies as risky and even useless.

Again, this person is a Ph.D. student at York University and she already has a master's degree in science.

The scientific community is divided as to the impacts associated with the introduction of transgenic plants in the environment. For many researchers, the scientific debate boils down to a lack of concrete evidence and adequate data to state that GMOs are innocuous. For others, the concern is with the methodologies, the scientific insertions, the objectivity of the criteria and parameters used by companies and governments to measure the impact of transgenic plants.

The assessment of risks remains a difficult scientific issue. However, the marketing of transgenic foods is accelerating, in spite of these scientific uncertainties.

In Canada, the approval of transgenic products is based on data provided exclusively by the companies. The obvious lack of transparency of this regulatory system does not allow the Canadian public to see the environmental issues related to biotechnology. The Canadian system deems as probable the management and mastering of the risks generated by GMOs, even though these risks can be irreversible. This goes against the principle of prudence, which promotes the anticipation of risks.

The Canadian regulatory framework is based on a scientific and legislative basis that ignores the inherent risks of genetic engineering. The expression “new form of plants” includes any new variety. Genetic engineering is associated with the classic methods of genetic selection, thus not generating new environmental risks. Only the product is subjected to government control, since the production method is not covered by existing regulations.

The scientific studies on which the Canadian government relied in determining the ecological risk associated with GMOs are based on two criteria: familiarity and essential equivalence.

These two concepts allow assessment of the environmental risks associated with new forms of plants. GMOs are treated the same way as the species from which they are derived, using the criterion of familiarity.

Thus, a GMO considered sufficiently familiar will not undergo any environmental risk assessment. However, one that is not as familiar will be put through an assessment to establish its degree of essential equivalence compared to its counterpart.

Unfortunately, the scientific tests to which GMOs are subjected in order to meet the essential equivalence requirements are short-lived and often rely on criteria having to do with agronomical rather than environmental performance. It follows that essential equivalence limits the scope of the research needed to establish the safety of GMOs, thus eradicating scientific knowledge in this area.

In addition, commercialized GMOs are used as a point of reference for the approval of new transgenic foods, thus implicitly forcing the acceptability of ecological risks already present.

All this is to say that ultimately, if we start with a inaccurate premise, we end up with an inaccurate result, and these results are being used to multiply new GMO approvals.

In an open letter to Le Devoir , Duong Dong Bong, a gene therapy researcher, wrote the following:

The ecological risks of applying genetic engineering to agriculture include the possibility that transgenic plants will become harmful and affect ecosystems. Plants manipulated to express or tolerate toxic substances such as herbicides can poison untargeted organisms. Other plants manipulated to carry viruses or virus fragments can promote the appearance of new viruses that will eventually be responsible for new diseases.

The introduction of GMOs in the environment may seriously upset natural mechanisms regulating both evolution and ecological stability.

Given that viruses and transposons can lead to mutations, strengthened vectors could be mutagens and be carcinogens for humans and animals. In addition, the presence of foreign genes in GMOs can promote the existence of new metabolisms. Thus, certain common foods modified by gene therapy could become dangerous.

Persons with food allergies could be exposed to increased risks, because some common foods would become allergens through genetic manipulation. These are more of the truly considerable ethical and cultural challenges raised by the new biologies and technobiologies.

To summarise my fears, I quote Jeremy Rifkin, who is probably known to all of you. He is an expert and the author of 14 books on the effects of scientific and technological evolution.

He declared recently before the Excellence 2000 symposium held in Banff, and I quote:

—that large biotechnology companies may have their biotechnology processes patented but this does not necessary give them the right to obtain a license for genes engineering. That would give them too much power, since anyone who manipulates genes can manipulate the century.

According to him, there are other risks:

The use of a new crop of mustard to produce plastic involves risks. What would happen to birds and insects during the seeding season? In many years from now, the ecosystem could be facing serious problems.

There are numerous crops which are being genetically modified so that they can resist weeds without the usual use of pesticides by farmers.

Where is the problem?

Mr. Rifkin adds:

With pesticides you can at least spray and stop there. But with new plants, toxins are continuously released and filter into the ground.

He adds:

Sooner or later, weeds will be able to resist the genes which are used to destroy them and we will always be forced to create new genes to fight them.

The questions raised are serious, but we still have found no answer. The future of agriculture and of the environment and the problems relating to health and biodiversity are at the heart of the reflection that we, as parliamentarians, have to do on the intrusion of GMOs in our lives.

Allow me to read a text written by Patricia Ramacieri, director of the seedling program at Heritage Canada, on the importance of biodiversity:

When we observe our planet, whether from the human, animal or vegetable point of view, the common theme is diversity. It is not happenstance, but a mechanism which makes it possible to maintain balance, complementarity and abundance.

Throughout the plant world, with the exception of extreme climatic conditions such as the Sahara desert or the frigid cold at the poles, nature fosters exchanges between multiple agents in order to create an ecological and self-sustaining environment.

For the past 50 years, our society has encouraged standards to maximize profitability.

The word profit is a constantly recurring one in this theory.

In agriculture, this has led to a more and more headlong rush toward optimum yields, through the selection and standardization of a few plants: soya, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, which constitute the basis of our diet.

As a result, monoculture is being practiced to an increasing extent and this artificially creates poor ecological and environmental conditions that demand more sustained human intervention via chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and all those other “cides”, where an environment of biodiversity could meet these needs naturally.

Today, when the limitations of human and chemical intervention have been reached, we are seeing a new wave of products that have been designed to change the genetic structure of the plant itself, which ought to prompt the following questions: Are we addressing the true problem? Do we have the right to change nature to suit our needs? Are we part of nature? Why not adapt to nature?

Every day, our planet is losing more and more of its biodiversity, whether consciously or through neglect. Whichever, the result is the same. Are we prepared to watch a system slip through our fingers which has taken millions of years to develop to the stage of a delicate balance, merely because we do not value, or do not yet grasp, its wisdom and logic?

Why, finally, should we put all our eggs in one basket with GMOs?

I gave many quotes this morning, which is unusual for me, but I think that these very recent texts are food for thought. It is a good thing to involve scientists to get a better idea of what everyone thinks about this very important issue.

To conclude, the purpose of the motion presented this morning is to stimulate thorough discussion and deep reflection. In other words, it is a call in favour of the precautionary principle or a moratorium on GMOs until there is transparency in the process, the public understands it, and labelling is made mandatory so as to let people decide what they want to eat.

Again this week the McCain corporation asked that the government implement a funding program for farmers and make the labelling of transgenic foods mandatory.

Right now, big corporations are in a monopolistic situation and the governments support them directly or indirectly instead of putting the money where they should to protect the population and preserve our markets.

Petitions May 5th, 2000

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to table a petition bearing 5,043 signatures. These people are asking the government to require the mandatory labelling of all GMOs.

This petition comes from my riding of Louis-Hébert, and I am very proud to present it.

Genetically Modified Organisms May 5th, 2000

Mr. Speaker, given that the Laboratoire d'environnement SM in Quebec and Genserve Laboratories in Saskatchewan can detect GMOs, does the minister realize that his explanations are devoid of logic and that he is losing all credibility on this issue?

Genetically Modified Organisms May 5th, 2000

Mr. Speaker, either the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is ill-informed about GMOs or he has his head in the sand.

On April 12, 2000, the European Parliament introduced mandatory labelling of foods with a GMO content of more than 1%. The legislation also covers foods containing food flavourings and additives made from GMOs.

Given that the European Union has the technology and the criteria for the mandatory labelling of GMOs, are we to conclude that the Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is less competent and that he has no wish to take action?

Petitions May 3rd, 2000

Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 36, I am pleased to present a petition bearing 179 signatures.

The petitioners call upon parliament to take all necessary steps to develop alternative sources of energy at affordable prices, to deal with the excessive price hikes for petroleum products, and for permanently regularizing pricing.

Supply May 2nd, 2000

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the member talk about the regulatory process. I wish the members could understand that we are somehow questioning the regulatory process because we would like to go beyond what exists at present, beyond the equivalence principle. Of course, what we want is the security of our food.

While we are not alarmists, we are quite happy when committees are struck to advise the government. I do not wish, however, for too many committees, because things would get bogged down and everything would be put off.

Yes, we want our food to be safe, and we will go beyond what the regulatory process offers today.

Supply May 2nd, 2000

Mr. Speaker, I listened to my colleague's proposal with great interest because it goes even further than what I have suggested.

He talks about the traceability of foods and, there again, we have a lot of catching up to do with Europe. I think that what he is proposing is ideal.

I was only involved in one aspect of this great project, but it would really be great if we went all the way, because we would be protecting both consumers and farmers.

What worries me is the fact GMOs have been on the market for five years. We started talking about this a year or so ago and, in the meantime, things have continued to happen.

I see the Minister of Industry. There is the biotechnology advisory committee, which was set up in September 1999, and there is also a committee on the future of biotechnology made up of scientific experts who will look at what is going to happen in the next ten years.

I want it to be very clear that I am not against setting up such committees because looking at the future is already something. What really bothers me, however, is the present. I have a problem with the present.

I reviewed a study by Ann Clark, a professor at Guelph University. She carried out tests on toxicity levels or loads and found that 70% of the 42 MGO crops in Canada had not been tested for toxicity. She adds that allergenicity was not assessed in laboratory or through feeding experiments for any of the 42 crops.

I am not an alarmist, but a scientific approach requires that we have scientific answers to our questions.

Today, I have this question for my colleague: Does he think that a collective effort is in order to move ahead faster in answering these questions? We are eating these foods; they are already on the market. That is what worries me.

Supply May 2nd, 2000

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The debate is important and I would like the members to speak to the motion. The hon. member is going on about steel, cancer and all kinds of things. These too are very legitimate concerns, but as the motion is rather precise and we are short of time, I would like us to stick to the subject.

Supply May 2nd, 2000

Mr. Speaker, I listened with great interest to the speech by my colleague and I am a bit disappointed by his position. He is well aware of the issue, since we talked about it several times at the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.

When he talks about fearmongering groups, I can tell him that it is also a frightening idea to let the farmers alone bear the burden of all that will happen.

How can the companies wash their hands of all this? How can the government leave all the responsibility for this to the farmers? This is not how I see events unfolding.

It is embarrassing to hear the member talk about the poor children, when groups of Canadian bishops, of American bishops and ecumenical groups are studying the question and are asking for mandatory labelling both in Canada and the United States. If ever there were people concerned about poor children, they are surely the ones.

However, I want to get back to the producers. I have heard it said that farmers producing non genetically modified foods will simply have to find their own market. Because my colleague comes from western Canada, I must say that in Saskatchewan, Mr. Hyden, an organic farmer, is losing customers because his neighbours are growing genetically modified foods. The seeds are blown into his fields or carried there by the birds and the bees, and when he applies for approval of his products, he gets a poor rating at the international level.

What can the member propose as a solution to those organic farmers who want to stay with traditional farming but are surrounded by genetically modified crops and lose their own market because of that? Last fall, in spite of all the problems they had in western Canada, organic farmers kept their market and fared better than the others.

Supply May 2nd, 2000

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the speech of my young colleague from Lac-Saint-Jean. I know he is greatly interested in globalization.

I also know that groups of opponents regularly stage big demonstrations, in Seattle or Vancouver, or in Montreal, as we saw recently. Their point, and I believe it is not well understood, is they do not want to be regulated by multinationals but they want citizens to be able to express themselves. They talk about health, the environment and biodiversity.

I would like my colleague from Lac-Saint-Jean to tell us if he shares these concerns or if he is aware of this phenomenon. How could we stop it, or support it, if need be?