May 7, 2001

LIB

Charles Caccia

Liberal

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?

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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CA

Howard Hilstrom

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Howard Hilstrom (Selkirk—Interlake, Canadian Alliance)

Mr. Speaker, I would ask for the consent of the House to share my time with the member from Nanaimo—Alberni.

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Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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The Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. member have the consent of the House to share his time?

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Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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Some hon. members

Agreed.

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Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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CA

Howard Hilstrom

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Howard Hilstrom

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-287, which deals with mandatory labelling, as put forward by the member for Davenport, represents a personal interest of his. I sat on the environment committee that he chaired.

The member is speaking on behalf of farmers and farm organizations. The member should look at what the letters which received from the farm organizations actually state. They do not support mandatory labelling.

For quick reference, I will refer to a letter from the National Dairy Council of Canada addressed to the member for Davenport, which is also supported by corn and grain growers and other farm groups. The essence of their letter was that:

We find it difficult to appreciate the need for mandatory labelling legislation at this time. It is certainly not a food safety issue, as CFIA and Health Canada are reviewing stringently the safety of those products. We doubt it can be a nutritional or allergy issue, either.

Those are also dealt with by the people who regulate our food safety in this country.

Not only do we have to look at the arguments put forward by the member for Davenport, we also look at the arguments of other players in this issue, including the many millions of Canadians who do not want mandatory labelling. They want a voluntary labelling system that responds to their consumer demands.

I note that Bill C-287 acknowledges there is no safety risk to our food supplies. Clause 7.1(1) states:

No person shall sell or offer for sale a food that contains more than one per cent of a genetically modified food.

If we are going to allow 1%, then we are consuming it. The bill itself states that the food is safe. The argument then gets down to why would we have mandatory labelling? It is due to a response that the member feels a significant number of consumers want it. There are a significant number of consumers, people in agriculture in particular, who say that mandatory labelling is not required and let consumer demand, through the retailer and the wholesaler, make the case. The consumers of course is spending the dollar, so if the demand is there the dollar will be spent on what the consumers wants. If they are demanding mandatory labelling, they will say that they will not buy unlabelled food. That is clearly not the case.

I will not be supporting Bill C-287 because it will implement the mandatory labelling, which is not the right approach for Canada. The majority of farm organizations that I met with were not in favour of this.

I would also point out that the Royal Society of Canada expert panel concluded in its report:

The panel believes that strong government support for voluntary labels is an effective way of providing consumer input into these issues, and (the panel) encourages the Canadian regulatory agencies responsible to establish guidelines for the regulation of reliable, informative voluntary labels.

That is the essence of the argument. There is no safety issue. The response to the consumer is the important thing. I am a farmer; a cattle rancher. I respond to the consumers and give them the products they want and for which they are willing to pay. That is the same with this labelling issue. There is no reason to have mandatory labelling. It should be left up to the consumer. The Canadian Alliance policy refers to the fact that we support voluntary labelling.

Those are the comments I would like to make in this debate.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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CA

James Lunney

Canadian Alliance

Mr. James Lunney (Nanaimo—Alberni, Canadian Alliance)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to also share in this time of debate. This is a very important issue. I thank the hon. member for Davenport for bringing the matter before the House. It is a matter of concern to a lot of Canadians.

We are the party of free votes, so members may find that some of my remarks will differ a little from my colleague for Selkirk—Interlake. I would like to approach this from a health perspective since that is my primary concern and mandate on this side as deputy health critic.

I would like to begin with a few remarks about basic biology and the adult human body. We have a bunch of them in the House today. An adult human being represents about 80 trillion to 100 trillion cells. We represent a fantastic organization. If we think about it, there are 80 trillion to 100 trillion cells which are organized in about 200 different cell types in the body. They are very different. Bone cells are different from cardiac cells. Liver cells are different from nerve cells. Red blood cells are different from cartilage. Yet amazingly they are all read the same blueprint. The uniqueness that is expressed in us that makes us distinctly human is because of the blueprint, the DNA.

The genome project recently made a milestone contribution to the understanding of how our diversity and our uniqueness is expressed. It identified about 30,000 genes in a human being. The people were rather surprised because the humble fruit fly had about 13,000 genes.

The remarkable thing about the genome project was it found that as human beings we are remarkably alike, about 99.9% the same. Imagine there are about six billion people on the planet and as different as we are, genetically we are nearly the same. It is that very small difference which accounts for all the differences we attribute and make such a big deal about between us as human beings.

There is a law in science called the law of biogenesis. Basically it says that when it comes to reproduction, every kind produces its own kind: humans have humans; horses have horses; snakes make snakes; and flies make flies. It is in the blueprint that we find this tremendous variation.

By selective breeding, different traits or characteristics can be emphasized within any particular species. An example is the tremendous variation found in canine species or even in selectively bred roses. However, from the beginning of time the law of biogenesis has held true: every kind brings forth its own kind.

Historically the development of improved crop characteristics has evolved in the same way as selective procedures found in other species, such as human, canine, butterflies and roses, selecting from the gene pool within the species.

Health Canada's approach to date with genetically modified foods has been to say that food should be judged by the quality and nutritional value rather than how it was made. What makes GM foods and GMOs different is that modern biotechnology has pressed beyond the marvellous gene pool that defines each species, with the intent of inserting a gene from a different species. This is a major departure from what the world throughout the ages has known.

Are GM foods safe? What are the long term effects of GM foods on human beings and on the environment? Frankly, no one knows for sure.

I might address the argument of substantial equivalence, that is, saying that a genetic change is so small that it does not change the outcome. However, that argument is frankly not supported by an investigation done by the Royal Society, which looked into the matter at great length. It rejects the concept of substantial equivalence as precautionary for the safety of these foods.

There are many concerns raised about genetically modified foods in terms of the biological implications. When a novel gene is introduced the context is changed and the long term effects of that in regard to human illness have not been adequately studied.

To quote the Royal Society, the panel said:

As a precautionary measure, the Panel recommends that the prospect of serious risks to human health, of extensive, irremediable disruptions to the natural ecosystems, or of serious diminution of biodiversity, demand that the best scientific methods be employed to reduce the uncertainties with respect to these risks. Approval of products with these potentially serious risks should await the reduction of scientific uncertainty to minimum levels.

In conclusion, it is my view that if we intend to introduce biological changes the world has never seen, we have an obligation to ensure that best science practices—

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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The Deputy Speaker

I regret to interrupt the hon. member. When members receive consent to split their original time of 10 minutes, their time for debate becomes 5 minutes for each member. I cannot deviate from that.

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Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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BQ

Diane Bourgeois

Bloc Québécois

Ms. Diane Bourgeois (Terrebonne—Blainville, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-287, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (genetically modified food), which was introduced by the hon. member for Davenport and aims at making mandatory the labelling of all the food that is genetically modified or contains more than 1% of a genetically modified food.

For almost three years now the Bloc Quebecois has been demanding mandatory labelling of genetically modified food and food products. In November 1999, the Bloc undertook a consultation and an information tour in all the regions of Quebec. This tour was a huge success.

The Bloc also had a petition circulated that gathered close to 50,000 signatures and was tabled in the 36th parliament by the then hon. member for Louis-Hébert, the former Bloc member who, I want to remind the House, rose dozens of times in the House to demand again and again the very same thing, the labelling of GM0s. Why? Because the Bloc Quebecois feels that each and every citizen has the right to know exactly what is in his or her plate. In spite of all the efforts the Bloc made in order to get this government to listen to the concerns of the population of Canada and Quebec, the federal Liberals turned a deaf ear on the demands made by the Bloc Quebecois, which are broadly supported by the population.

The single, and minimal, action taken by the government on GMOs was to strike committees to address the question.

GMOs have been on the market for five years now, and at this time committees are looking at labelling standards. Is this a really serious approach? One might well ask.

What is more, it is already predictable that these standards will be voluntary, and there is nothing to indicate that they will be adopted by companies not currently labelling GMOs.

Perhaps this government needs to be reminded of a few facts that seem to justify its laxness in the field of GMOs, since its position, essentially, like the major food industries, is that there is no proof that GMOs are harmful to health.

This argument is correct, so far, of course, but that may be because there have been no studies on the medium and long term effects of GMOs on human and animal health, or on the flora and fauna.

I would ask this. Can a responsible government treat such risks so lightly? Of course not, particularly since we know that food products containing GMOs have been on the market for the past five years and that 42 genetically modified plants are authorized for use in Canada.

David Suzuki, a well known journalist whose background is in genetics, has already said that politicians who insist GMOs are without danger are either liars or fools.

We know that the countries of the European Union recommend caution: first, in the absence of scientific proof, a prudent approach must be taken in order to prevent potential damage by GMOs to health and the environment.

Second, preliminary studies by scientists in a number of countries indicate that certain GMOs had negative effects on rats, insects and bacteria. These studies, while not involving humans, should encourage us to further investigate their effects and to expand them to humans.

Third, it should be noted in passing that the companies claiming the GMOs they produce are risk free also oppose any sort of regulation that would make them responsible for damage caused by their genetically modified products.

If these companies refuse to assume this responsibility, if preliminary studies indicate that there are effects on certain beings, if certain countries are moving very cautiously on the issue of GMOs, is it not simple justice to give consumers freedom of choice to decide whether or not they want genetically modified foods in their plate?

By playing the game of the food industry and not requiring it to separate products containing genetically modified foods from those that do not, the government is running the risk, over the medium term, of finding itself locked out of certain foreign markets.

We will recall the remarks by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in his report, and I quote:

Genetically modified crops constituted a relatively small proportion of this amount (roughly $840 million or four percent); however, because Canada's bulk commodity handling and transportation system is not currently equipped to segregate genetically modified varieties from the non-modified varieties, all exports of those crops ($2.8 billion) could have been affected.

From this perspective, farmers could find their genetically modified crops and food products made from them banished from the export markets of Europe and Asia. Mexico and the U.S. are currently looking at mandatory labelling of GMOs, and in Canada, some of the major companies, such as McCain and Frito-Lay are no longer buying GMOs.

Food distributors or exporters could also risk losing market opportunities for food products not labelled in such a way as to indicate that they contain GMOs.

In concluding, allow me to mention that, fortunately, some members opposite are well aware of the problems to which Canada might expose itself by not clearly identifying foods containing GMOs. These members finally understood that people's freedom to choose what they eat is a basic right. So voices are being heard from within the government party itself. As proof, this bill was introduced by a member of the government party.

I know that the hon. member for Davenport has his heart set on labelling genetically modified foods and that he supported the efforts made in the past by the Bloc Quebecois in this regard. I sincerely hope that the introduction of his bill will get his party's other members and the ministers thinking about this so that the Canadian government, like several European countries, will make it mandatory to identify foods containing GMOs.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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NDP

Dick Proctor

New Democratic Party

Mr. Dick Proctor (Palliser, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this private members' hour on genetically modified organisms and the need for mandatory labelling. I congratulate the hon. member for Davenport and say at the outset that certainly this private member's bill has the full and unconditional support of the New Democratic Party caucus in the House of Commons.

In fact, at a convention in August 1999 we introduced a resolution that substantially supported what is now contained in the member's bill. It passed overwhelmingly at our national convention.

What is genetically modified food? It is the splicing of a gene from one organism into a plant or animal to confer certain traits that are not inherent. The purpose can be manyfold. It can be to increase the yield of the product, to prolong shelf life or for crop resistance such as, for example, something that perhaps would be more resistant to drought.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the work that has been done in this area, as my colleague from the Bloc Quebecois noted in her speech, by Madam Hélène Alarie, who was the member of parliament for Louis—Hébert in the last parliament and did an enormous amount of work on this, and by my colleague from Winnipeg North Centre, who also has a private member's bill on this topic.

I recall in the 36th parliament that at one point in our deliberations in the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food we were to have struck a subcommittee between the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food to deal with the whole business of genetic modification, labelling, et cetera. I still to this day do not know quite what happened, except that the then chair of the committee reported at some point that the notion of a subcommittee to look at it had fallen through. Fingers were pointed as to which caucus was responsible. I and my colleague from the Conservative Party who sits on the committee simply do not know what happened. However, I think it was an important opportunity missed and I certainly hope the government is going to learn from that lesson.

I recall that the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food did look at the question of labelling. People from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were before the committee about a year ago. I recall what I thought was a bizarre exchange at the time. Someone from the food inspection agency was asked how a product listed as organic would be dealt with by the CFIA. The answer was that the agency would look at it very carefully to determine that it was indeed an organic product and met all the criteria and guidelines.

We then asked what would happen if the CFIA were handed a product to test that may contain genetically modified food or organisms. The answer that we got back at the time was that it would not consider it at all because when it was tested one day it may contain GMO, and when it was tested the next day it would be GMO free. That flies in the face of what most Canadians want to see in terms of the labelling process.

We have not heard from government members, but I suspect that when they get up to speak they will be opposed to the bill, although for the life of me I do not understand why. We talk a lot in the House about democracy and transparency. Public opinion polls indicate that in excess of 90% of Canadians believe they should have the right to know what is in the food they are ingesting. I have difficulty understanding why the government has been dragging its heels to the extent that it has on this issue.

One of the reasons consumers are interested and concerned about this issue is that they believe genetically modified foods may contain allergenic, toxic or even carcinogenic aspects. They do not know and they darn well want the right to know.

The issue the member for Davenport is specifically concerned about in the legislation is that of labelling, whether it should be voluntary or mandatory, which he clearly demonstrated in his remarks. Consumers associations, health and environmental groups clearly want mandatory labelling. The government and, admittedly, some agricultural organizations prefer to go in a voluntary way.

With voluntary labelling, and this is part of our concern, consumers still cannot be sure the food they are buying is safe and farmers will not know if the crops they are planting will be marketable. The member for Davenport talked about the fact that Canadian canola farmers have been shut out of the European market because more than 50% of the canola produced in Canada now is genetically modified and the European Union has a ban on that.

We have had the Canadian Wheat Board and other organizations talk about the need to prohibit the commingling of products. We could very clearly have non-GMO products and products that have been genetically modified so that we can market our crops around the world, and not be shut out of markets in the way that it is happening today.

We do favour mandatory labelling. We have called on the government to take immediate steps to implement a labelling process that will make consumers aware of all genetically modified products, produce and components in processed foods.

The other matter that needs to be touched on is that there was a lot of emphasis six or eight months ago on the government telling us to wait for the Royal Society of Canada to make its report. That came down earlier this year and amounted to a scathing condemnation of the practices of the government on the question of food safety. The report says that Canadians do not know that genetically modified foods are safe because the process of approvals by the government is so flawed and problematic.

Given those concerns, we have been asking for months, as the private member's bill indicates, for a process of mandatory labelling of all genetically modified foods so that Canadians know what they are eating.

When we talked about this at committee, we had the bizarre argument that if we had to put labelling on a product that was genetically modified, we would end up with a label on an eight ounce jar that was perhaps two feet long. That would be ridiculous. I submit that in this day and age it would be relatively easy for a company that had a genetically modified product to be able to say that the product contained GM food. They could send people to their website for details on the product without increasing the size of the label in any way.

I have basically summarized the New Democratic Party's position on the bill. I congratulate the member for Davenport for introducing the bill. This is the first of three hours on the bill and other members of the New Democratic Party will be speaking in favour of the bill at subsequent opportunities.

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Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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PC

Rick Borotsik

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Rick Borotsik (Brandon—Souris, PC)

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to stand in the House today to represent the position of the Progressive Conservative Party on Bill C-287.

First, I congratulate the member for Davenport who is seen in the House as being an effective spokesperson for the environment and a very passionate advocate with respect to mandatory labelling.

The Progressive Conservative Party does say quite emphatically that it would work toward mandatory labelling and do so in a very logical and cautious way. We will initially support the legislation in order to move it into committee because there are a number of areas that need to be debated and discussed.

I sit on the agriculture committee. I must congratulate a previous member, Ms. Hélène Alarie, who was a passionate advocate of this particular topic. She put forward a private member's motion which I and my party voted against. We did not vote against it because we did not feel very strongly about mandatory labelling but because the agriculture committee was going to strike a subcommittee to discuss in detail the positives, the weaknesses and the flaws in mandatory labelling.

Many questions on mandatory labelling need to be debated and the best place for that debate would at committee where the necessary stakeholders, consumers, producers and corporations can put their positions forward on mandatory labelling.

It is refreshing to see a bill come forward from a member of the government where it is contrary to government policy and a votable item. It will be interesting to see how the government deals with this particular issue.

The bill does have a number of flaws. One of the specific flaws is that the bill calls for a very narrow definition of GM food to go into the Food and Drug Act. Canada's novel food regulations uses a very broad definition in capturing the regulatory system of anything with a novel heritable trait. This minimizes negative environmental and biodiversity impacts. Because the FDA supersedes the novel food regulations, the breadth of the products that go through the regulatory system would be narrowed to the product of one GM technology and everything else would pass into the food chain unregulated.

It is clear that most Canadians support the principle of openness and transparency within the bill. However, achieving the end results will be a very difficult task, as I am sure the member for Davenport accepts.

The Progressive Conservative Party believes that Canada's biotechnology industry, along with genetically enhanced food, has for the most part benefited our agriculture and agri-food sectors, and Canada as a whole. Biotechnology offers major opportunities to improve both our environmental integrity and improve our food quality.

The challenges that we must face in creating a solid and dynamic biotechnology industry are twofold. First, we must create a climate in which industry sectors can flourish, both here and internationally. International trade is very important.

Second, we must meet the public's concerns about their own health, environment and the safety of GMOs.

It would be unrealistic to think that we can put an end to the biotechnology advancements. We do not want that. I do not believe anyone in the House believes we should stop the advancements of biotechnology. What we can do is find ways to improve the system as it stands today and help improve consumer confidence in the foods that we eat.

During the last federal election, our party stated that it would ensure greater public involvement in the setting of policy and regulations.

We would work closely with the provinces, industry and the large number of consumer stakeholders interested in the question of biotechnology generally and GMOs in particular. We would work to create ways in which the industry's need and the public's real concerns about the health and environmental safety of genetically modified foods could be addressed and resolved.

We would commit to a law requiring the labelling of all genetically modified foodstuffs and products for human consumption. It would include a caveat that mandatory labelling could only occur in the future if done in a cost effective manner, in concert with food labelling policies of other major food processing and trading countries, and by using standards consistent with those of current Food and Drugs Act regulations and international standards. That goal could be achieved if these conditions are met.

There are few issues today that are as complex and as detailed as the issue of labelling food products derived by genetically modified means. There have been ongoing discussions on this topic for over 10 years.

One of the benefits of the biotechnology and GMOs is their multitude. They increase our competitiveness as Canadian agri-food processors and producers. They increase the yields needed to compensate for the increase in world population. They develop more sustainable agricultural practices like zero till and less pest control. In our opinion we should look forward to the benefits of biotechnology and genetically modified organisms.

However there are some issues that are still outstanding with mandatory labelling such as, as was mentioned earlier, the segregation of foodstuffs. We have some difficulty right now in our food production, segregating the food product itself, for example the grains we put into the international marketplace. We have to get that aspect under control as well.

Testing is a very important aspect of the whole issue. We have to know that testing can be done economically as well as effectively so that we know which is a genetically modified organism and which is not.

We also have to look at world standards. We have to make sure we work in concert with the rest of the world. We cannot sit in isolation, deal with mandatory labelling and put in different standards that are not accepted in the world marketplace. Our export markets are absolutely vital to the lifeblood of agriculture. Therefore we must make sure that any standard we set with labelling is a standard that is acceptable by our trading partners.

There is unfortunately no standard at this point in time. We have labelling rules that are being set by communities throughout the globe that are totally different from others. For example, the United States, our major trading partner, is currently only looking at rules for voluntary labelling and not mandatory labelling.

In the European Union all products containing 1% or more GM material must be labelled. Japan is looking at some new changes to its labelling process. It is to take effect this year and require mandatory labelling for food products and processed foods that include one or more genetically modified organism as one of the top three ingredients include. Australia and New Zealand have some very strict labelling requirements, whereas in China there are no labelling requirements at all. We must get together and try to work out a standardized world labelling system so that we can compete in a very competitive world market.

As for our position, it is clear that consumers demand to be informed and we as legislators should look at ways to make changes to cater to these demands. A substantial amount of misinformation continually comes forward with respect to genetically modified organisms and labelling. As parliamentarians we must make sure that the misinformation is backstopped by the proper and correct information. To stick our heads in the sand and not have this go forward is not the way that producers would have us look at the changes in our products and how we market those products.

I would like to see this go forward, with the condition that we do not compete with those people who are already out there doing an awful lot of work on GMOs. We should sit down and listen to all the stakeholders. We could then decide how best to put the rules and regulations into place. The proper rules should be in place that would be accepted by consumers and by the marketplace.

Finally, but certainly not least, the rules we put into place should be accepted by the food producers, those in the agricultural community, our constituents.

I look forward to perhaps debating the bill in committee. We will wait and see how far it can go.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
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LIB

Roy Cullen

Liberal

Mr. Roy Cullen (Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Finance, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am sure my colleague, the hon. member for Davenport, has the right motivation in bringing forward Bill C-287. However let us reflect for a moment.

The Government of Canada asked the Royal Society of Canada to examine how we should prepare to regulate food biotechnology in the future. The Royal Society came to the conclusion:

There are not currently sufficient reasons to adopt a system of general mandatory labelling of GM foods.

The Royal Society came to this conclusion after examining whether food biotechnology causes health or environmental risks that would warrant general mandatory labelling. The panel concluded that such risks do not exist.

That is not to say labelling of biotechnology foods should go unregulated. The Royal Society concluded that labelling should be mandatory in certain circumstances, such as when the food could cause allergic reaction or where the modified food has a different nutrient profile than the original.

These conditions for mandatory labelling, recommended by the independent experts, match the rules Health Canada already has in place. If a genetically modified food is potentially allergenic it absolutely must be labelled. If a food's nutrient profile is significantly changed it absolutely must be labelled.

In short, both the Royal Society and Health Canada agree that if there are health or safety reasons to label biotechnology foods then labelling will continue to be mandatory.

This takes us to the next question, the question of voluntary labelling. Here again it is useful to refer to what the Royal Society panel of experts concluded in its report to the government. The report reads:

The Panel believes that strong government support for voluntary labels is an effective way of providing consumer input into these issues, and (the Panel) encourages the Canadian regulatory agencies responsible to establish guidelines for the regulation of reliable, informative voluntary labels.

What the Royal Society is calling for is already well underway. The Canadian General Standards Board has a comprehensive process in place to develop a national labelling standard for foods from biotechnology. This is an excellent approach to the biotechnology food labelling issue. By working together the stakeholders will develop a national labelling standard that will meet the needs of consumers and be workable.

The European Union rushed to put labelling regulations in place. It was among the first in the world to have a mandatory regime in place. However the result of rushing has not been positive. Few products are actually labelled because the scheme is not practical.

The virtue of the Canadian General Standards Board process now underway is that the participants intend to come up with a practical approach. A dialogue is taking place among all the players so that everyone clearly understands what is practical and what will meet the needs of consumers.

One final issue needs to be addressed. Public opinion polls are telling us that the vast majority of Canadians want mandatory labelling rules for foods from biotechnology. We have an obligation to consider the views of our electorate. At the same time, however, the people most intimately involved in the labelling debate are coming to a different conclusion.

We have a split between informed opinion and opinion as measured by opinion polls. Canadians are concerned and they have a right to be concerned. When people become more knowledgeable or engaged in an issue they often change their minds. I submit that we need to listen to informed views. We need to listen to Canadians. We should let the Canadian General Standards Board complete its work. We should not pre-empt informed debate on this topic. We should not quash the work they are attempting to conclude.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
Permalink
?

The Deputy Speaker

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Food And Drugs Act
Permalink
LIB

Anne McLellan

Liberal

Hon. Anne McLellan (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Lib.)

moved that Bill S-4, a first act to harmonize federal law with the civil law of the province of Quebec and to amend certain acts in order to ensure that each language version takes into account the common law and the civil law, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
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LIB

Joe Jordan

Liberal

Mr. Joe Jordan (Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, there have been discussions among the parties and I believe you would find unanimous consent that Bill S-4 be considered at all stages today, that is, second reading, committee of the whole, report stage and third reading.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
Permalink
?

The Deputy Speaker

Is that agreed?

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
Permalink
?

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
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LIB

Anne McLellan

Liberal

Hon. Anne McLellan

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill S-4, the federal law—civil law harmonization act, No. 1. I will start by providing some of the historical and legal context of bijuralism in Canada, which is at the heart of the bill.

Canada is a bilingual and bijural country. Common law and civil law traditions have been co-existing since 1774. In practice, in the area of private law, the civil law is used in the province of Quebec and the common law, in the other provinces and territories.

The Constitutional Act of 1867, which divided legislative powers between parliament and provincial legislatures, did not change the situation.

By giving the provinces jurisdiction over property and civil rights the Constitution Act enabled provinces to pass legislation in key areas governing legal relationships between individuals. Some examples include the rules governing family, estates, property, contracts, liability and prescriptions.

When federal legislation uses or refers to principles and concepts found in provincial or territorial private law, it interacts with the two legal traditions that co-exist in the country. This interaction occurs in both the English and French versions of federal legislation. However in many cases over the years federal legislation has not succeeded in giving civil law the same resonance as common law.

The new Quebec civil code came into force in 1994. This code deeply changed the civil law of Quebec. In the fall of 1997, at the symposium on harmonization of federal legislation with the civil law of Quebec and Canadian bijuralism, in Montreal, I officially launched a lengthy process that led to Bill S-4.

Bill S-4 is the first in a series of bills intended to harmonize all federal legislation with the civil law of the province of Quebec. This is an enormous task and one that will have significant practical implications for lawyers and notaries that practise law in Quebec. It has received widespread support from all stakeholders.

The objectives of harmonization of federal legislation with the civil law of Quebec are to ensure that federal legislation is fully consistent with the new civil law concepts and institutions, that federal legislation employs correct and precise terminology, and that amendments to federal legislation take into account French common law terminology.

Let me be clear that Bill S-4 does not create substantive rights or enshrine any new individual or collective rights.

Bill S-4 is aimed at ensuring that all Canadians have access to federal laws that respect the legal tradition of the province or territory where they live: the civil law in Quebec and the common law in the rest of the country.

Thus, while federal law may apply a single principle nationally, for example, the liability of the crown in tort, it will do so in a manner respectful of the common law and civil law traditions in each province or territory. There is therefore co-existence between uniformization and harmonization of federal statutes.

Federal laws are uniform in the sense that they apply a single rule throughout Canada. They are also harmonized in that federal statutes, in relation to matters of property and civil rights, respect the particularities of the civil law or common law as it applies in a given jurisdiction.

Bill S-4 reflects the principles and concepts of both our great legal traditions. In some small way I hope we are providing further roots for the civil law system in our country, acknowledging that it stands on an equal footing with the common law system in federal legislation.

Given the innovative character of the harmonization program, the preamble puts the bill into context and explains the importance of the initiative. The preamble recognizes the bijural character of Canada in two ways. First, it recognizes that Quebec is the only province in Canada that has a civil law system and that the bill represents a concrete effort to reflect civil law principles and concepts in federal legislation where it is relevant to do so.

Second, the preamble fully acknowledges the common law as the other half of Canadian bijuralism.

Our bijural tradition gives Canada an advantage internationally. It enables us to better understand the legal systems of countries with a common law or civil law tradition, and it facilitates communication with them.

In the age of globalization of trade, our harmonization program is timely. This provides Canada with an enormous advantage in terms of what we bring to the table, of crossing the lines and bringing people together to not only work in French and English but to have a degree of confidence and assurance with both common law and civil law principles.

We are fortunate, as a country, that two of the great legal systems in the world are represented here and that more and more people can easily work or give advice in one system or the other. This is true not only here, but also in our work at the international level.

The harmonization program is a totally unique and innovative initiative that does not exist in any of the countries that share a dual legal tradition with Canada. It is tangible evidence of the government's commitment to our two great legal traditions and to achieving full equality between them.

Bill S-4 will concretely acknowledge the existence of the two great legal systems of our nation in a manner not done before in Canada or anywhere in the world. The bill will ensure that federal statutes equally take into account, in both official languages, each of the traditions that make up the legal fabric of our nation. It will also allow Canada to play a leading role in an increasingly globalized world.

I thank all who have contributed to and supported this immensely challenging project.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. colleagues for their support for this groundbreaking legislation.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
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CA

Vic Toews

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Vic Toews (Provencher, Canadian Alliance)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in today's debate on Bill S-4, an act to harmonize federal law with the civil law of the province of Quebec and to amend certain acts in order to ensure that each language version takes into account the common law and the civil law.

I will keep my remarks very brief. As we know, Quebec has its own civil system of law based on the French model, whereas the other nine provinces have a legal system based on English common law. The bill is a reflection of a work plan established by the federal government to ensure that the federal law which applies in all 10 provinces has the same vocabulary as the Quebec code and that the federal law takes into account both law traditions.

In reviewing the federal law some laws were found still in force by virtue of having been adopted by the pre-confederation parliament but made only applicable in lower Canada. In Bill S-4 the statutes are being repealed or amended to reflect the current situation.

In any case the bill enacts necessary amendments. I have no issues with either the intent or the substance of the bill. I therefore support the immediate passage of the bill through the House.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
Permalink
BQ

Michel Bellehumeur

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Michel Bellehumeur (Berthier—Montcalm, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I will be brief. I had not intended to rise at this time since we object neither to the form nor to the substance of the bill but, a comment by the Minister of Justice almost forced me to do so because I have to take at least five minutes to set some things straight.

During her speech, the Minister of Justice said that the legislation proves that the government wants to take into account the particularities of the two legal systems we have in this country. That might be true inasmuch as they are using the vocabularies of both the civil code and the common law in order to please everyone, but it is not the case in all jurisdictions of the justice department.

I believe the minister had a good opportunity with the Young Offenders Act to show that both legal systems can cohabit in this wide and beautiful Canada but she failed. In that particular case, she simply imposed her views on something of such importance as the Young Offenders Act.

I have no problem with Bill S-4. However, as far as the remarks by the minister to the effect that with this legislation her government, and her in particular, are taking into account the interests of Quebec and the other provinces, I think that is a half truth and I wanted to make that clear.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
Permalink
NDP

Bill Blaikie

New Democratic Party

Mr. Bill Blaikie (Winnipeg—Transcona, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, this debate promises to be probably one of the shortest second reading debates in history.

I do not have much more to add to the extensive contributions of my colleagues from the Alliance and the Bloc in the debate on Bill S-4. We all know the merits of the bill. I do not want to assume anything on behalf of the Progressive Conservative Party, but all of us assume its speedy passage. Having listened to the Minister of Justice and having familiarized myself with the legislation it seems to me that the sooner we accomplish this, the better.

Topic:   Government Orders
Subtopic:   Federal Law—Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1
Permalink

May 7, 2001