Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate this evening.
I want to begin with a tribute to my colleague from British Columbia Southern Interior who is also the NDP's agriculture and agri-food critic.
My colleague has done yeoman's service in this area of responsibility for our party and this parliament. I know of no other critic who has taken their role so seriously. He has gone the distance to find out what Canadians think about this issue and has also heard from farmers, people in rural areas, and in the cities about issues related to agriculture and food.
He engaged Canadians in his Food For Thought tour, a tour across Canada from coast to coast to talk to Canadians about issues of food production and food security. He developed a report after his meetings in over 28 communities, called “Food For Thought: Towards a Canadian Food Strategy”. People in these 28 communities were engaged in this issue in a very important way. They were interested in the topic and made recommendations that he used to draw up his final report.
In my home community of Burnaby—Douglas, the member for Vancouver East and I held a joint session with the member for B.C. Southern Interior, where we discussed issues of food security. It was one of the best attended public meetings I have held in my time here as a member of Parliament. People were very interested and engaged in the issue and very appreciative of the work the member did.
The report that came out of that is also very important to the folks in my community. While the recommendations do not deal specifically with the topic of Bill C-474, they certainly set the stage for a piece of legislation like that, which deals with genetically engineered seeds.
I want to quickly go over the recommendations that came out of the Food for Thought tour.
Under the heading, “Ensure all Canadians have access to healthy food”, the recommendations included enacting legislation that would require that food be properly labelled with information on its origin, nutritional value and whether it is genetically modified; requiring imported foods to meet the same environmental and health standards that apply to food produced in Canada and provide resources to enforce those standards; and working with provinces and territories to include food production and food preparation in school curricula.
A group of recommendations under the rubric, “Help Canadian farmers produce adequate amounts of secure and healthy food”, included offering incentives on designing tax policies to promote local food production, processing capacity and distribution networks, including things like farmers markets and agricultural co-operatives; developing and implementing an alternative and appropriate food safety regulatory regime for small farm-gate operations; analyzing the impact of our trade agreements with other countries on our farmers; requiring federal government institutions to use local sources for their food supplies and encouraging other levels of government to do the same.
A third and final rubric was to “Establish a sustainable agricultural sector for future generations”, including by providing greater skill training, mentorship programs and other incentives to encourage young farmers to take up farming and to support current farmers; and facilitating the availability of arable land for people committed to farming; and finally, enacting a heritage breed act to preserve our heritage seeds and breeds as well as our biodiversity.
I think that final recommendation does touch on what we are talking about this evening in terms of the use of genetically engineered seeds across Canada and the promotion of heritage seeds, which keep us in the ballpark of what many Canadians hope is possible with our food production.
Specifically, the bill we are debating tonight is Bill C-474, An Act respecting the Seeds Regulations (analysis of potential harm). This bill calls for an amendment to the seeds regulations,
to require that an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.
Right now in Canada genetically engineered seeds are approved for commercial release here without any assessment of the impacts on our export markets. The only criterion currently considered is the safety of those products.
What the bill would do, very simply, is to call for a change to the regulations attached to the act that would require than an analysis also be done of the effect of the use of these genetically engineered seeds on Canada's export market.
It is a pretty straightforward bill. There is not much to it. It is very direct and very, very simple and straightforward. There is already a mechanism for analyzing what the impact of genetically engineered seed will be in Canada, and this just adds another piece to that analytical policy, and a very important one.
Why is it so important? We have seen, we have had a great example of, the problems that can be associated with the use of genetically engineered seed, a cautionary tale, if you will, from the rough experience of Canadian farmers related to the use of an illegal genetically engineered flax seed called the Triffid, which contaminated Canadian flax exports. That was back last year when a lot of this was happening. The GE Triffid flax was not approved for human consumption or environmental release outside of Canada and the U.S.
Last September, companies in European countries began removing products from their shelves and distribution lines, and Canadian shipments of flax to Europe were quarantined. Europe represents a significant part of the Canadian flax market. About 60% of Canadian flax exports went to Europe, and by the end of last year 35 countries that had recorded contaminated flax from Canada closed their markets to Canadian flax exports.
That is a huge problem. A significant market for Canadian farmers has been closed because of the fact these genetically engineered flax seeds somehow got into the product. This has caused chaos for that particular product.
The reality is that it is farmers who are bearing the brunt of the cost of that problem. In addition to the cost of market uncertainty with the collapse of the flax market related to this and lower prices, farmers are paying for the testing and cleanup of their farms. Farmers are now also being asked to forego using their farm-saved seed and to take on the extra cost of growing certified flax seed in 2010 for export to Europe.
Even though this was not a problem created by Canadian farmers, it has certainly fallen back on their shoulders to deal with the problem, now that it exists. Yet if we had done our due diligence, if a provision like the one that is in Bill C-474 had been in place, the kind of the analysis that would look at what the effect of a problem related to genetically engineered seed would be on Canadian producers or Canadian farmers, it would have been identified and hopefully would have led to the avoidance of this particular problem.
One of the other side issues related to the bill is the short shrift that it was given in the agriculture committee. Unfortunately, there were games going on, it is fair to say, at that committee when it came to dealing appropriately with this piece of legislation. Out of the blue there was a move to get it off the agenda of the committee. In fact, one morning a committee meeting was cancelled, even though witnesses had been flown in by the committee across Canada to testify on this particular bill. The Canadian Wheat Board, the National Farmers Union and the scientist Rene Van Acker were scheduled to appear at a meeting that was abruptly cancelled just minutes before it was due to start.
The committee had paid to bring these people to Ottawa to testify before the committee. It is certainly not a great use of committee resources and the resources of Parliament when that kind of abrupt action is taken to prevent witnesses from speaking on this very important issue. Certainly the Canadian Wheat Board and the National Farmers Union have a clear interest and clear experience with this kind of issue and should have been able to present their case on the bill to the committee.
What happened as a result of that? There were some folks at the committee from the parties that prevented this committee meeting from going ahead who felt guilty about it. What did they do? They announced another study. That is always a great fallback position, not to deal with the specific problem before us but instead suggest a larger study. In fact, members of the committee are engaging in that study now, when they could have been dealing with a very specific measure that would have assisted the situation and made a clear recommendation on how to deal with the question of genetically engineered seed. Now instead we are doing this broader study, which seems to be pushed somewhat toward the side of the industry and not to the needs of producers, as this bill is designed.
I am glad the member brought this forward. I hope that members will support it. It is a very important piece of legislation for Canadian farmers and Canadian consumers.