Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-18. The official opposition supported it at second reading but will be opposing it at third reading. I will explain why in the next few minutes.
Bill C-18 amends certain agricultural and agri-food laws. Bill C-18, so that people understand, is part of a top-priority, major debate for the ones who will follow, to paraphrase a film titled For Those Who Will Follow, which is well known in my region. This is a debate about patenting life forms. It is a great thing when it is done well. Patents can acknowledge the efforts put into research and the associated costs. They can provide a return on investment for people who have invested in research. That is as true for agriculture as it is for other industries. Patents can make the corresponding knowledge available to everyone.
The advantage of a patent—if it is done properly, if it is not sold for a fortune and if a fake patent is not invented with fake benefits—is that once someone has invested in that knowledge, in the results, and the patent is made public, a great number of people can benefit from it.
However, because we are talking about things we can eat, the very stuff of life, companies that already have many patents on gene sequences, microorganisms and GMOs should not be allowed to patent the genes of varieties developed by groups of farmers over decades. In some cases, we are talking about species that took hundreds or even thousands of years to develop. We absolutely have to protect that while acknowledging that, in some cases, patenting can be a good thing to do if it is done properly and regulated properly.
Probably the most disturbing case, which happened not long ago in Canada and has a bearing on this discussion about patenting living things, involved a farmer called Mr. Schmeiser. Monsanto took him to court for violating a patent. The company discovered that some Roundup Ready was growing in one of Mr. Schmeiser's canola fields even though he swore he had not planted any. A trial court judge sided with Monsanto in the case even though nobody was able to prove how the contamination happened or why Monsanto's products ended up in the farmer's field. Mr. Schmeiser even proved that he had never used Roundup. If Monsanto seeds grew in his field, he did not benefit from it. You have to know how Monsanto products work to take advantage of them because you have to apply Roundup to kill everything else so you can reap the benefits. The farmer proved that he never reaped that benefit. He probably never intended to benefit from the seeds and violate Monsanto's rights, but he was convicted as though he had committed a crime.
The NDP therefore believes that a balanced approach is essential when it comes to the protection of plant breeders’ rights—consider Mr. Schmeiser. Bill C-18 does not meet that objective. As a result, the NDP will oppose this bill at third reading.
In the comments that follow, you will hear the word “breeder”. I want to make sure that those who are kind enough to watch us on CPAC understand what a breeder is. A breeder is the organization that produced, by voluntary selection or genetic manipulation, a plant that is sufficiently stable, homogeneous and distinct from other varieties of the same species to be considered a new variety. If an organization can demonstrate that it succeeded in obtaining such a variety by genetic manipulation or crossbreeding, in many cases, then it should be given the rights associated with the years of research and investments.
As I was saying at the beginning of my speech, we tried to support the bill at second reading in the hopes that the governing party would act in good faith and allow us to amend aspects of the bill that we and many associations are very concerned about. The NDP proposed 16 amendments so that the rules would be fairer for both the breeders, who have the rights to these new varieties, and farmers.
All of our amendments, without exception, were rejected by the Conservative members of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. No improvements were made, even though the witnesses essentially agreed with the NDP that the bill needed to be improved.
Here is one example. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture is calling for protections for producers from claims of patent infringement with respect to natural or accidental spreading of patented plant genetic material. This is very similar to the case of Mr. Schmeiser. The NDP therefore proposed an amendment that would have required the intent to infringe on patent protection to be proven, which would have made it possible to distinguish between deliberate patent infringement and the accidental spreading of a patented plant genetic material.
This amendment was rejected, even though it was based on the testimony of witnesses and on the case of a Canadian farmer who had a very difficult time for reasons that, in my opinion, did not make sense. Unfortunately, we will have to vote against the bill at third reading, despite the goodwill of my colleagues on the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Worse still, in a similar vein, there are no provisions in Bill C-18 to ensure that legal fees do not impede farmers’ defence in such cases. Imagine if a large biotechnology company were to accidentally spread some seeds. In my region, there was a huge issue with spinach that was possibly genetically modified. Some producers of non-GMO spinach in the region wonder what they will do if such an accident does happen and how they can prove it and defend themselves against the company.
It there is any bad faith on the part of a big multinational like Monsanto, for example, how is a small producer supposed to defend himself if, from the outset, the law does not provide sufficient defence? He could go to court and try to defend himself by saying that he did not deliberately contaminate his field with a patented plant from his neighbour's field, but how much would that cost him? He would not be able to prove that in court if there is no regulatory framework to provide him with minimal protections, which is what we wanted. This could drag on in court forever, and small producers are certainly not going to be the ones to come out ahead in a process like that.
The amendment was proposed, but it was not included in the bill. Like many other amendments, it was rejected by the Conservative majority. Furthermore, the NDP is concerned about the powers being granted to the minister, including the power in the regulations to unconditionally exempt rights and privileges, not of those who obtain the patent, but once again of farmers, on a case by case basis. To sum up why the NDP does not support Bill C-18 at third reading, the bill does not explicitly protect farmers and it puts too much discretionary power in the minister's hands. We oppose this bill.
The bill includes some things that not everyone agrees on, but at least they make sense. However, it also includes many new exclusive rights for plant breeders: reproduction, conditioning, sale, export or import, and stocking for the purpose of exercising other exclusive rights. This is all meant to give rights to plant breeders.
What is more, it also gives farmers what it calls “privileges” and not rights. It is odd to think that after Bill C-18, someone who is growing a natural variety, developed over hundreds of years literally by his ancestors, will no longer really have the right to grow that variety. However, there would be some sort of tolerance or privilege to allow him to do so. In our opinion, this should be called a right. Ethically, this should even be a right that would trump the rights of patent-holding growers who aggressively come after those people who farm our centuries-old heritage products.
In closing, I want to address other amendments suggested by the NDP that were rejected as well. For example, we wanted to protect farmers from abusive litigation. Other members have talked about that. We wanted to ensure that farmers are consulted on the implementation of the bill and the subsequent changes to the rules and regulations.
Since this could have a serious impact on the industry, we wanted to ensure that Bill C-18 would be reviewed regularly and that people in the agricultural sector would always be included in those reviews. This too was rejected. We wanted to prohibit the cascade of royalties, as my colleagues were saying, to ensure that contracts would prevent harmful royalties from being added at every processing stage. This is not settled either.
Finally, I want people to understand that we are against this bill at third reading because it was impossible to improve a bill that should have been improved out of respect for our Canadian farmers.