Bill C-474 is sure stirring up a lot a fuss for being only 42 words long.
The bill states in its entirety: “The governor-in-council shall, within 60 days after this act comes into force, amend the Seeds Regulations to require that an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.”
Brought forward by NDP MP Alex Atamanenko and opposed by the minority Harper government, the bill received second reading after a recorded vote of 153 to 134 in the House of Commons April 15. It now goes to the Commons agriculture committee for review and public and industry comment.
In order to become law, it must be approved after a third reading in the House of Commons, followed by a trip through the Senate.
But the fact that it made it this far has industry groups such as CropLife Canada, the Canadian Seed Trade Association, Canadian Canola Growers Association
and Grain Growers of Canada worried.
CropLife Canada president Lorne Hepworth said the bill would put highly subjective and non-scientific criteria into the regulations governing innovation plant biotechnologies. “Moving away from science-based regulation leaves our exports vulnerable to frivolous trade challenges and limits our ability to adopt valuable innovations for all Canadians.”
It says if C-474 becomes law, companies will withdraw from agricultural research.
Many farm groups oppose the bill for that reason.
“Any further advancement of this bill, which introduces subjective considerations into the regulatory approval process for new GM seeds, will put agricultural innovation and the livelihood of Canadian farmers at risk,” said Ed Schafer, president of the Canadian Canola Growers Association.
He added that if the regulatory approach in this bill had existed 30 years ago, “Canada’s canola industry, the healthy oil derived from it, and the $14 billion in economic activity that the industry generates would likely not exist today.”
Richard Phillips, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada, said his organization was disappointed the bill passed, but welcomes “the opportunity to appear before the committee and present clear facts on GE crops. We’re confident that when the committee understands the issues, it will reverse the decision.”
The bill’s brevity has given the critics licence to fill in the blanks with their own interpretation, according to Atamanenko.
“I know the biotech industry and agribusiness have a lot of clout and they’re using that right now to scare farmers,” Atamanenko said in an interview. “We can’t let them get away with that. It’s not right.”
Atamanenko denied claims by the Grain Growers of Canada that the NDP is ideologically opposed to GM crops. He said the bill’s only intent is to ensure farmers’ export markets aren’t destroyed. A cost-benefit analysis of markets is science based, “if you count math as a science,” he noted.
“I use (GM) canola,” Atamanenko said. “In other words, I’m not crusading against GMOs here. What I’m trying to do is look at the whole economic impact so they don’t have the same situation with our flax farmers. And specifically for alfalfa and wheat producers.”
C-474 won’t affect future releases of GM canola, corn or soybeans because markets already accept them, he said.
He pointed to the ongoing market harm the Canadian flax industry is suffering due to CDC Triffid, the genetically modified variety that was discovered in shipments to the European Union, which has not approved GM flax.
However, the flax industry is staying out of this one. Neither the Manitoba Flax Growers Association or the Flax Council of Canada has taken a position.
Although the sector is suffering market harm due to CDC Triffid, it’s not clear that this kind of legislation would have made any difference. Breeder seed contamination could have happened before Triffid was approved for release, noted Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) vice-president Rob Brunel.
KAP supports science-based research and it supports market access. “But we’re not supporting the bill,” Brunel said. While he agrees all the innovation in the world is of little use if farmers can’t sell their crops, he’s worried “a bill like that could become very open-ended.”
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture shares some of KAP’s concerns, but in a release last month called for the bill to go to committee where the concerns could be addressed.
“If market assessments can prevent the future closure of our export markets and reduce the risk farmers face, it is clear that this important dialogue needs to happen,” said CFA president Laurent Pellerin.
The National Farmers Union president Terry Boehm said the vote was “a major step in trying to protect farmers and the Canadian economy from the economic disaster that GE crops can create.”
He said the bill wouldn’t impair innovation. “Instead, it will make innovators conscious that their work needs to benefit a broad cross-section of society, not just the company selling the product. This is only logical for a healthy society and economy.”
GM wheat is the elephant in the room, according to Jim Lintott, chair of the Manitoba Forage Council. “The (GM) companies don’t want a law on the books that would effectively shut them out of that,” he said from his farm near Dugald.
“We’re in full support of the bill because it brings in an option of going to a economic analysis.”
Legislation such as C-474 could prevent Monsanto from commercializing Roundup Ready alfalfa because its release will destroy Canada’s markets in the EU, Lintott said.
Some fear the law could be used to try and shut down the introduction of all GM crops, but it’s up to MPs to word the law so that doesn’t happen, Lintott said.
The Canadian Wheat Board, which led the fight in the early 2000s against the introduction of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready wheat, supports the bill’s intent, said spokesman John Lyons.
For his part, Atamanenko said the pressure GM companies have applied to stop debate shows how much power they have.
“Those guys… aren’t accountable to anybody but their shareholders and that’s the difference,” he said, adding MPs are responsible to electors. “It’s not an industry-bashing bill. It’s not a research-stifling bill. We’re not going into some decade of Dark Ages. I don’t want to see a repeat of what happened to flax.” [email protected]