Seeds Regulation Act

Mrs. Carol Hughes (Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON):

Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I stand to speak to Bill C-474, an act respecting the seeds regulations, which was tabled by my colleague from British Columbia Southern Interior.

I am glad to be speaking to the bill tonight. I have a number of constituents who are very interested in this debate and the larger issue of genetically engineered crops. It is an issue that is emotionally charged and informed by a great many other debates in which we find ourselves currently engaged.

When we think of genetically engineered seeds, we cannot merely look at this through a single lens. It is an issue that touches a great many aspects of our lives. There are implications for agriculture, both big producers and smaller traditional farms, especially our organic farms, for the environment, the economy, our health and, as we see in the legislation itself, international trade. This is a list that is meant to be more of an example and is by no means exhaustive.

Bill C-474 is good legislation that sets out to amend the seeds regulation to require that analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted. That is to say, we should ensure there is a market for a product before we ask our producers to start growing it. This is a position that makes a great deal of sense from a purely economic point of view.

I imagine it makes sense to many Canadian flax producers who will see the good that will come from the bill. They learned the hard way that not all of our trading partners are as uncritical of genetically engineered food as the Conservative government is. These producers were caught in the middle of a trade dispute when an illegally modified flax seed contaminated our exports and shut down 35 foreign markets for their produce in 2009. The after effects were costly as producers saw the price drop and are now subject to an onerous testing process. It is costing the federal government as it is spending $1.9 million to help with testing and to repair the trading relationship with Europe.

Where it does not make sense is in the boardrooms of companies like Monsanto. They would like to control more and more of our production. They want to make seeds that dovetail with their pesticides and herbicides and sell the complete package to the farmers. It is a model that works well in a vacuum, but does not take into account the wishes of consumers and, more important, the wishes of other countries, many of whom are less than keen to see genetically engineered crops that take the place of the tried and true varieties.

For the producers, the risks are far greater than they are for the big agri-corps. One bad year can take a long time to recover from. That reality is also part of the problem in that it makes products like Roundup so attractive. The company can then come in with seeds that will work best with their pesticides. The end result is a good harvest that cuts into future harvests a little each time. This happens because these herbicides are indiscriminate. They kill beneficial organisms as well as the weeds they seek to eliminate from a field. After time, the soil is less fertile and the dependency on chemicals becomes greater.

Organic farmers know this. They operate on older principles that those dictated by corporation that seek efficiency over short periods at the expense of the long-term soil health.

I have seen the terrible effects of indiscriminate herbicides in my own constituency in the North Shore Forest, which has been repeatedly sprayed with glysophate in order to have no competition for the softwood growing there. It is eerie to go into these stands. It reminds me of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in that there is no obvious life in these forests except the trees. Birds and bees are not heard there. In our heart of hearts, we know that it is wrong and that we cannot be doing ourselves any favours with this type of production.

We would also be remiss to get into a debate about GE crops without questioning residual effects that go beyond markets and crop yields. These are the effects of specialty seeds and factory farming. Monoculture does not protect the overall environment, like the story I just related about the North Shore Forest in Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing.

According to Dr. Reese Halter's book The Incomparable Honeybee, it is the effects of agricultural chemicals and pesticides combined with a reduction in the variety of food sources available that are at the heart of the problem we have with bees worldwide. He claims that our bees are feeling stresses from so many fronts at once that they are in danger of becoming extinct. Some varieties around the globe already have.
One does not have to be a farmer to understand that bees are a keystone species in our environment. They are directly responsible for every third bite on one's plate and indirectly for even more. The fact that we hear very little about the way our native bees and honeybees are disappearing speaks volumes about our misguided priorities. It would be a shame if they were to go quietly while we argued about the economy or whether we should support pro sport franchises. That would be a travesty.

Another travesty persists. It is 2011 and, sadly, people still go hungry in this world. All of our efforts to date have not been able to address this. Some go hungry as a result of political decisions, but this is not the case for all. As the world's population increases, the challenge to feed them becomes greater and some of the work done in terms genetic engineering is meant to address that. I have constituents who would tell us today that this is misplaced and hopeful thinking that views problems and solutions in a vacuum and that we do ourselves long-term harm by pursuing these kinds of remedies.

They would tell us that the solution lies in the varieties we already have, that the food we have grown for thousands of years is obviously good enough to feed ourselves and that we should not pursue genetic modifications that serve the corporate model of farming. Instead, we should return to the model of the responsive and responsible family farm. We should stop building houses on prime farmland and grow more of our food closer to where it will be consumed, that we should pay attention to the way we treat our planet and our population as priorities and then determine the needs of our corporations afterward.

When we have these kinds of debates and raise real concerns, we are told to have faith in the market and the players within it. We are told that technology will advance to help us out. It reminds me of the climate change debate. It is a blind faith in market forces to be able to respond to the crisis they have created in the first place that strikes me as more than hopeful.

We have learned with flax seed that not everyone in the world shares this uncritical view of technological fixes. We have seen how genes can be introduced that can change existing strains of the same species. We have seen how GE crops, such as BT cotton in India, can stop producing the desired results and we are left with a sense that technology probably cannot do a better job than the way the earth has evolved to do in the first place.

We teach our children early in their education that we are part of complex food webs, but when we have these debates, we look at so much in isolation that it seems most adults have forgotten those early important lessons.

This bill aims to put the brakes on some of the corporate-driven agricultural policy we have adopted in the last few decades. It asks us to do our homework ahead of time instead of after the fact. I can see no reason to be opposed to it and believe it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we should be doing.