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GMO bill struck down in Ottawa

A private members' bill that would have added a layer of scrutiny to genetically modified (GM) seeds sold in Canada has been struck down.

Bill C-474 would have forced the federal government to analyze the potential impact GM seeds could have on the country's export markets, before permitting the sale of these seeds in Canada. Currently, GM seeds are assessed on the potential environmental and health impacts.

The bill, introduced by New Democrat Party MP Alex Atamanenko (Southern Interior, B.C.) was defeated 178-98 in the House of Commons today.

In advance of the vote, Atamanenko said he was "always optimistic" but had already read in the Globe and Mail that the Liberals would not be on board for the final vote. In that story, Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter said that the bill lacks nuance and detail, and that a series of meetings scheduled for today, including one with Monsanto president Derek Penner, would prevent agriculture committee members from voting on the bill.

"They don't want to support my bill and yet Wayne Easter, the agriculture critic, realized there's a problem. We've got to do something," Atamanenko said.

Both the federal Liberal and NDP parties have expressed concern over the power that biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta have in the agriculture industry, and the Liberals supported the bill in previous votes.

Farmers' groups like the National Farmers' Union and Canadian Organic Growers voiced their support for the bill. Their concern is that there appears to be little control over GM seeds once they're planted. The potential for contamination of non-GM and organic crops puts these specialty markets at risk, say critics, if producers can't guarantee that their product is GM-free.

This concern was highlighted recently in the United States, where the federal department of agriculture deregulated the use of Monsanto's GM alfalfa.

"Preserving market and farmer choice and agricultural diversity are central to USDA's mission and the future of rural American livelihoods. This failure to do so will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand for U.S. organic crops," stated Christine Bushway, CEO of the Organic Trade Association.

Atamanenko introduced the bill last year, after Canada's flax industry was struck a major blow when it was shut out of European markets. Traces of a GM form of the crop was found in some shipments, in breach of the European Union's zero-tolerance policy regarding genetically modified organisms.

Both Easter and Atamanenko said they are encouraged that the bill raised this discussion in the House of Commons. It's the first time a bill dealing with genetically modified organisms has made it this far in Parliament.

"Thanks to all the opposition parties, at least we had the chance to start the process, to start the debate," said Atamanenko. "At least we had that, that's a major achievement."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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