Mrs. Suzanne Tremblay (Rimouski—Mitis, BQ)
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on Motion No. 230, introduced by my colleague from Louis-Hébert.
For the benefit of those following this important debate, I will reread the motion as introduced:
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.
The federal government has a duty, as far as food is concerned, to inform and protect the public. The public has concerns about genetically modified organisms, which in the rest of my speech I will call GMOs, and the federal government therefore has a duty to inform and protect the public. The government cannot continue to wash its hands of what is happening, like Pontius Pilate.
It would be too easy to once again bow to the pressures and lobbies of the multinationals and not to worry about the worries, questions and concerns of a public which does not know whom to trust and is desperately calling upon its government to protect it from the feared invader.
The public is asking itself a number of questions, for instance: why are plants and foods being genetically modified? To whose advantage is it? What is in it for the consumer? What effects do GMOs have on health and on the environment? What effects will they have on agriculture, on the economy, on trade? What are the social consequences of the introduction of GMOs?
I cannot address all of these questions in the time allotted to me. Let us be clear, therefore. Right now, GMOs offer consumers no advantage. They offer only uncertainties.
Consumers are entitled to exercise an enlightened choice in purchasing their food. To be able to do so, they need proper labelling so they have access to a wide variety of products without fear that they may contain elements that might cause them concern about their health.
Eating habits have significantly changed in recent years. In addition, everyone should have the information necessary to buy their food in accordance with their culture, that is their lifestyle or eating habits: foods that are organic, fat free or not genetically modified.
A number of polls conducted since 1994 reveal between 80% and 95% of the public strongly support labelling GMOs. More recent polls in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada have revealed that people would be prepared to pay a little more for food that is not genetically modified or would prefer food slightly less beautiful or fresh, but not genetically modified.
Members of the different parties have tabled petitions in the House from all over the country calling for the labelling of GMOs. The Bloc alone has collected to date 43,000 signatures calling for a bill on the compulsory labelling of GMOs. The minister of agriculture has himself received petitions from several thousand individuals and many letters asking him to make GMO labelling mandatory.
How can the government, which is getting ready to call an election to ask voters to renew its mandate, turn such a deaf ear to these requests, which are increasingly specific, justified and numerous? How can the government continue to ignore the public and to thumb its nose at it regarding the GMO issue?
The accurate and thorough labelling of food products would allow us to identify GMOs and to withdraw them from the market, should problems occur.
From a commercial point of view, the monitoring of GMOs could allow agricultural producers to maintain access to export markets by meeting the national standards in effect in many European and Asian countries.
I want to say a word on the need for research on the long term effects of GMOs, including in the areas of health and the environment.
It is the federal government's responsibility to ensure food quality and safety. The government cannot ignore this responsibility and must, to fully assume it, conduct studies on the long term effects of GMOs on health and the environment.
So far, preliminary studies on GMOs have shown that these products have harmful effects on rats, butterflies and bacteria. Of course, these results do not allow us to conclude that GMOs necessarily pose a threat to human beings. However, these results mean that the government should go further in its research, particularly in the area of foods for human consumption.
The use of genes from various species in foods generates concerns about food allergies. There is a possibility that the resistance to antibiotics found in certain GMOs may spread to other forms of life in nature.
Genetically modified seeds can pollinate plants in neighbouring fields simply because of the wind, insects and animals.
The transmission of resistance to herbicides and insecticides could create super weeds or super insects, which would invade the fields and take the place of rare or more vulnerable species.
The presence of GMOs in an environment where neighbouring farms are operated by organic farmers could contaminate their fields and cause them to lose their certification.
Do members realize the kind of dilemma the public servant who, in the course of an evaluation, discovers that the products were contaminated by GMOs will be facing? Will he keep quiet or will he withdraw the organic farm's certification?
Obviously, with regard to GMOs, there are too many questions and not enough answers. Workers in Quebec and Canada pay enough taxes each year for the government to take their concerns seriously and to put in the required funding for research so we can learn more on the subject.
Dr. Clark said that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The scientific community is divided on the effects of the introduction of genetically modified plants into environment.
For many researchers, the scientific debate boils down to a lack of concrete evidence and sufficient data that prevents us from stating that GMOs are harmless. For others, the debate is about methodologies, scientific assertions and the objectivity of the criteria and parameters used by companies and governments to measure the impact of genetically modified plants.
All this to say that an incorrect assumption will produce a false result, and this result is being used to increase acceptance of new GMOs.
The questions are serious, but the answers are long in coming. The future of agriculture, the environment, health problems and biodiversity are the main factors that we as parliamentarians must consider as we face the intrusion of GMOs into our lives.
In conclusion, the motion before us this morning, which is in its second hour, is intended to get members thinking. It favours a preventive approach or a moratorium on GMOs, as long as procedures are not transparent and understood by the general public, and as long as labelling is not compulsory, so that consumers can make their own decisions about what they eat.
Despite all the uncertainty regarding GMOs and the absence of scientific studies with respect to their long-term effects, and despite the clear desire of the public for mandatory labelling of GMOs, the federal government is sticking to a policy of voluntary labelling, leaving the decision up to companies. The stand it is taking internationally is primarily trade-oriented, and does not take sufficient account of issues of health, agriculture and environmental protection.
The federal government should review its position or it will pay the price in the next election.
Subtopic: Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods