A n NDP bill that industry officials say could cripple the development of new genetically engineered crops in Canada has gained an extra bit of parliamentary life but seems destined to flame out early next year.
The NDP caucus used parliamentary rules in early December to force almost a full day of debate, probably in February or March, on Farm Critic Alex Atamanenko’s proposal to require a market acceptance and economic harm test as part of the process for approving new GE crop varieties. Most farm groups as well as the biotech industry oppose the motion while environment groups support it.
Liberal Farm Critic Wayne Easter says his party will join the Conservatives to vote against the bill, which would ensure its demise even though the Bloc Quebecois supports it.
But Easter criticized the government’s rush to shut down discussion on the bill at the agriculture committee. Some Prairie farmers are very concerned that the introduction of GE wheat or alfalfa would affect exports and the committee should have spent more time listening to them, he said.
In the end, the Liberals opposed Atamanenko’s bill because it didn’t “provide an articulate and recognizable and objective process” for analyzing what impact a new modified variety might have on exports, Easter said.
During the few sessions the committee held on the bill, farm groups questioned how the market impact analysis could be “conducted in a fair and impartial way, precisely who would conduct the analysis and what kind of input stakeholders would have in determining the parameters of that analysis.”
The current approval process for GE crops provides for a scientific evaluation of their safety for consumers and the environment, but the market test would introduce a lot of subjective factors, said Easter.
“That could undermine our key science-based system we have at the moment and could have major implications on the advent of new products into the
marketplace, on farmers’ economic potential and certainly on our biotech research industry,” he said. “There are just too many unanswered questions” about the bill.
Still, genetic engineering is a controversial issue that deserves serious debate, he said. In the Chretien era, the agriculture committee commissioned the Royal Society of Canada to study the issue of GE wheat. It concluded there was no evidence that GE foods are unsafe but food products should have labels that indicate if they contain GE ingredients.
Atamanenko argued the market acceptance test is needed to counter the power of large multinationals in the seed business. The federal government has allowed publicly funded agriculture research to dry up in favour “of a very small number of corporations, most of them pesticide corporations outside of Canada,” he said.
Flax producers saw the EU market close when trace amounts of an unapproved GE variety were found in shipments. If that happened in wheat sales, the result would be devastating, Atamanenko said.
He also blasted the Conservatives for blocking extended hearings on his bill and denying farmers an opportunity to tell MPs about their concerns over GE varieties.
Pierre Lemieux, the parliamentary secretary for agriculture, said Atamanenko’s bill would end decisions on GE crops being based on scientific factors.
“It could also potentially devastate research and development within the agricultural sector, whereby research and development firms choose to invest their capital in countries where technology can flourish, not be threatened by a bill such as this one.”
Atamanenko’s bill had sowed uncertainty among farmers and the research community, he said.
– LIBERAL FARM CRITIC WAYNE EASTER