Hon. Charles Caccia (Davenport, Lib.)
moved that Bill C-287, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (genetically modified food), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, the bill is in favour of mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods in Canada, and for, understandably, good reasons.
First, let me say that the debate today is timely. Just last week Ottawa hosted a meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission's Committee on Food Labelling.
Last month Canada signed a biosafety protocol to regulate the trade on living modified organisms.
Finally, the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and others are developing or implementing legislation requiring mandatory labelling on genetically modified foods.
Against this background, the issue of labelling genetically modified foods requires urgent attention because Canada's domestic labelling policy has implications for people, for international trade and for Canada's compliance with international agreements.
Let me explain. Members of the House, either through media or from letters, have been made aware of growing concerns over the pervasive presence of genetically modified foods in the food chain. There is definitely a lack of public confidence due in good part to having been kept in the dark, beginning with the fact that the public does not know which foods are genetically modified and which are not.
What is the purpose of the bill? Members of the House have probably receive all sorts arguments against the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. I urge hon. members to keep in mind that this is not a complex, scientific nor technical issue. It simply comes down to the fundamental right of people to know. Canadians want to know what is in their food. It is as basic as that.
Is a mandatory labelling system feasible? Let me describe the key features of C-287 with respect to feasibility and reliability of a mandatory labelling system for GM foods.
What are genetically modified foods? There is confusion surrounding which foods should be labelled. Should foods that are the result of traditional breeding be labelled? The answer is, no. The confusion arises from the fact that genetically modified foods in Canada fall under the broad definition of novel foods in the Food and Drugs Act.
By contrast, international agreements are clear on that issue. As a result, members will find in Bill C-287 that genetically modified food is defined in accordance with the Cartagena protocol on biosafety. This protocol has been signed by Canada. Consequently, the labelling would apply only to food or food ingredients that contain genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology. Nothing more, nothing less.
Having clearly defined GM foods, the bill aims at ensuring that the genetic history of a food or food ingredient be recorded and traced through all stages of production, distribution, manufacture, packaging and sale. This is the only way to ensure the integrity of the documentation trail, to provide accurate labelling and prevent incorrectly labelled material from reaching the consumer. The result of the documentation trail is that no person can sell genetically modified foods unless it is labelled “This food is genetically modified”. Foods that have not been genetically modified do not need to bear this label.
This proposed system does not prevent a vendor from voluntarily applying a label describing the food as genetically modified free, if that is the case.
Why mandatory labelling? Opponents to mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods often refer to the process set up by the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors under the auspices of the Canadian General Standard Board. They form the committee called, and I quote, “The Committee on the voluntary labelling of foods obtained or not obtained through genetic engineering”.
Regrettably, there has never been a consultation through this committee on whether to proceed with a mandatory or a voluntary labelling system for genetically modified foods. The committee on voluntary labelling was struck to work only on a voluntary standard for labelling on genetically modified food. I submit that such a voluntary system offers no guarantee that all foods containing genetically modified material will be labelled.
Under a voluntary labelling system, some foods may be labelled and others may not be. This would be confusing and deceptive to consumers who want to know what they eat. Separation and tracking of genetically modified foods in our food system, as proposed in the bill, are essential features to providing consumers with accurate information. This accuracy cannot be achieved with a voluntary system.
Moreover, a voluntary labelling system cannot offer any guarantee of the genetic integrity of experts to our trading partners.
The committee on voluntary labelling is currently contemplating a voluntary labelling system with four different labels: genetically engineered, genetically modified, non-genetically modified and non-genetically engineered. This is utterly confusing to say the least.
Bill C-287 would put in place a simple mandatory label stating “this food is genetically modified”, or “this food contains an ingredient that is genetically modified”.
The committee on voluntary labelling has had eight meetings since November 1999. It may be meeting for a long time before it can reach consensus on a standard for voluntary labelling. In the meantime, Canadian consumers and trading partners are kept waiting and will continue not to be informed about the content of the food.
Let me also mention this very important fact about voluntary labelling. It is already possible under the Food and Drugs Act to identify biotechnology products under certain conditions. In fact, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states “Consumer choice can already be accommodated through Canadian legislation via voluntary labelling companies”. Yet, although it is currently permitted under the law, food companies have not seen the necessity to label their products containing genetically modified ingredients. Hence the need for a mandatory labelling system requiring companies to inform Canadians.
I have a final note on the voluntary labelling committee. I believe industry sponsored, closed processes are inappropriate for dealing with an issue as important as food safety and the right to know what we eat. Such debate belongs here, in parliament, and this is one of the reasons for bringing Bill C-287 before the House.
I want to say a few words about the advantages of tracing genetically modified food and of labelling. A mandatory labelling system would make available crucially needed information. It would indicate where genetically modified foods can be found in the food chain, something we are not sure of at this moment. Scientists and medical professionals have frequently made that request. Let me quote from a statement last year by the British Medical Association:
Genetically modified foodstuffs should be segregated at source, to enable identification and traceability of genetically modified products. This is important as there are considerable doubts about the behaviour of GMOS once they are released into the environment, and this will also facilitate monitoring in the interests of public health. It is unacceptable that at present some GM and non-GM products are mixed at source, and are not adequately labelled.
This is quite a firm statement by a medical source.
The current Canadian policy is to limit labelling where there are proven health or safety concerns. However, how can potential long term health effects that may arise from the consumption of genetically modified foods be proven a priori in advance?
In Bill C-287 at least we address this question by mandating the Minister of Health to use information provided by the labelling system and conduct research into the possible long term effects of the consumption of genetically modified food on health. This approach is consistent with the precautionary principle, which Canada adhered to in 1992 at the Rio convention.
I have a few words now about the loss of export markets. Hon. members are being told it is not feasible, too costly and not in Canada's interest to label genetically modified foods. This is not the case. Mandatory labelling is necessary for trade and economic reasons. Our farmers and agribusiness have already incurred costs as the result of the loss of export markets. Without a reliable system for separating genetically modified crops from non-genetically modified crops, we continue to lose export markets in countries that have banned genetically modified foods or require the labelling of genetically modified foods.
We can no longer export canola to Europe. We will soon not be able to export soya to Japan. The Canadian Wheat Board is pleading with the Canadian regulatory agency not to approve genetically modified wheat for fear of losing export markets. As a major agricultural producer and exporter of crops such as wheat, canola, corn and soya beans, Canada relies on their European market for export of agrifood products. Canada cannot continue to lose markets because of an obsolete policy which is increasingly out of sync with the rest of the world.
About the feasibility of separating GM crops and private sector initiatives in response to consumers' demands, this can be said. There is the argument that it is not feasible to separate GM crops from non-GM crops. There are many initiatives by the private sector to the contrary. For example, Casco Inc., a milling industry, announced in spring 1999 that in order to retain its European customers it would no longer be buying varieties of genetically modified corn.
In September 1999 the agribusiness company Archer Daniels Midland asked corn and soya bean suppliers to keep their genetically modified crops separate. Then Commercial Alcohols Inc., Nacan, A.E. Stanley, McCain, Gerber baby foods and Seagram have joined the ranks of food processing companies that will not use genetically modified foods.
Similarly, members of the Prairie Oat Growers Association issued a news release stating that they do not favour the commercialization of any genetically modified oats until there is a clear market signal in consumer acceptance to do so.
As members can see, the private sector is already responding to consumer demand by separating genetically modified crops from non-genetically modified crops so as to continue to supply to expanding markets.
I submit that it is time for Canada to establish a system for separating genetically modified crops from non-genetically modified crops and go for a mandatory labelling system in keeping with market demands.
I have a few words about farmers and genetically modified crops. Some will tell hon. members that genetically modified crops benefit farmers and are necessary for their survival. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the National Farmers Union adopted a new policy in December of last year which called for a moratorium on the production, importation, distribution and sale of genetically modified food.
In the policy, the farmers union speaks of markets in Europe, Japan and elsewhere that are closing and domestic markets that are being likewise threatened. It states that closing markets and falling prices threaten to overwhelm any small, short term economic benefit genetically modified crops or livestock may offer. The farmers union makes the very important point that the proliferation of some genetically modified crops has effectively deprived many organic farmers of the option to grow those crops. The National Farmers Union also states that:
Food products which contain genetically modified ingredients must be subject to clear, consistent, mandatory labelling.
Do we need more evidence? Is it not abundantly clear that the uncertainty surrounding genetically modified crops and the lack of public acceptance, the trend in foreign markets and domestic markets are real concerns?
To conclude, it seems to me the necessity of mandatory labelling is evident. We cannot wear blinkers and pretend this is strictly an issue of our domestic regulatory system because it is not. The rest of the world has recognized the need for mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods and is moving ahead. Canada will be left behind.
I would like to reiterate the fact that mandatory labelling is a response to a basic right and that is that Canadians want to know what they eat. Mandatory labelling is in Canada's economic interest. Mandatory labelling corresponds to Canada's international commitments. Mandatory labelling is relevant to human health.
Opponents of labelling say there are already too many genetically modified foods on our store shelves to make labelling meaningful, that the horse is out of the barn and that it is too late to fix the stable door. These arguments are weak. The fact is that having invested so much in the diffusion of this technology we have an obligation, a clear interest and a responsibility to label. Moreover, mandatory labelling would actually increase the public's acceptance of this technology. It would remove the suspicion that there is something to hide. It would reduce the public's distrust in this technology.
Finally, without mandatory labelling we would deny Canadians the fundamental right to know how the food they eat has been produced and to make an informed choice. It that not the essence of democracy?
Subtopic: Food And Drugs Act