Conservative and Liberal MPs voted Feb. 9 to defeat NDP Ag Critic Alex Atamanenko’s bill to require a marketing acceptance test in the process of approving new genetically engineered crops.
But the issue of the future of GE crops, animals and fish isn’t going away. The Commons agriculture committee is in the midst of hearings on biotechnology development in Canada and might keep at the topic into March or even April, says chairman Larry Miller.
Now that Roundup Ready alfalfa has received the green light south of the border, farm groups are expecting Monsanto to try to develop some interest in the crop in Canada. Western alfalfa growers have already voiced their opposition and no other groups have spoken in favour of it. In the background lurks GE wheat, although no company has come forward with an application to have their variety considered by Health Canada regulators.
GE salmon is likely to be on the political menu first. AquaBounty is seeking United States approval to market a GE salmon it developed in Canada. It will likely seek Canadian registration once the U.S. decides.
Atamanenko had mounted a furious last-minute lobbying campaign backed by several anti-GE groups to try to convince the Liberals to join the Bloc Quebecois in supporting his bill.
But most Liberals lined up with the Conservatives or stayed away from the vote Feb. 9 and the bill, at report stage from the Commons agriculture committee, was defeated 178 to 98. Even if it had got through the Commons, it would have faced defeat in the Conservativecontrolled Senate.
The Commons agriculture committee study was motivated in part by MPs who thought while there was some merit to Atamanenko’s concerns about market acceptance, he was going about it a woolly headed way. The issue is bound to be discussed further when the committee prepares its report for Parliament in the spring.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the defeat of Atamanenko’s bill “is good news for farmers. It is critical that our system remain based firmly in science not in politics. Farmers are best positioned to make decisions on what is best for their business, which is why industry must continue to work with producers to evaluate any new products.”
Most farm groups opposed Atamanenko’s bill because it would have introduced a nonscientific factor into Health Canada’s scientific process for judging whether a genetically modified crop is safe for humans to consume and to be grown in the open.
Developers of GE crops said Atamanenko’s bill would force them out of Canada because the purely subjective nature of its provision for determining whether a GE crop would be acceptable to export customers.
Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, which is opposed to all GE developments, said the biotech industry lobbied hard to defeat the bill. “Surely our government should know what a GE crop will mean to farmers before it’s introduced? MPs should consider why the industry is so scared of us knowing the potential harm to export markets.”
Maureen Bostock of the National Farmers Union, which supported Atamanenko, said the threat from Roundup Ready alfalfa shows “it’s time farmers had a say in the future of GE crops and animals.”
A five-hour debate on Atamanenko’s bill in the Commons the day before the vote added some more volume to the issue, but no new arguments.
Atamanenko’s bill would have required “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.” Crop developers and farm groups feared the provision would discourage the introduction of new GE varieties. GE corn, soybeans and canola are widely grown in Canada.
The agriculture committee held extensive hearings on the subject of approving GE wheat in the early 2000s and the Commons has defeated several private members’ bills over the years to restrict GE crops.