Biotechnology study victim of partisan politics

Committee’s work ends | Work, travel time, costs all for naught after the Commons committee work shelved

A five-week House of Commons agriculture committee study of biotechnology that consumed 10 meetings and more than $36,000 plus salaries last year was quietly shelved by Conservatives unhappy with its direction.

It was a victim of the partisanship that can sometimes derail Parliament Hill.

Dozens of witnesses including scientists, farmers and anti-GMO lobbyists had testified over 10 meetings.

The committee travelled to the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Guelph for elaborate tours and briefings by scientists.

But by March 24, 2011, with election fever in the air, hearings had descended into partisan farce.

It was the last pre-election meeting on the issue and when MPs returned to Parliament Hill last September, opposition MPs say they asked at a private committee planning committee to hold several more meetings so the hearing could be complete and a report written with recommendations.

The new Conservative majority on the committee vetoed the idea.

The hearings ended and while the transcripts remain public, no report was written and the days of work, travel, staff costs and witness time was sidelined.

It began well as a bipartisan effort proposed jointly by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Randy Hoback and Ontario Liberal Frank Valeriote. It ended in stalemate and partisanship.

Now, both sides point the finger at the other.

Valeriote says it was killed because of Conservative reluctance to see the debate over genetically modified foods become prominent.

“This is not being pursued because the government doesn’t have the will to do it, to even debate possible restrictions on introducing new GM products,” said the Guelph Liberal.

“They would prefer to let it go largely unregulated and unbridled. It is a shame because I thought we had good information and could have proposed ways to see the two sides find some bridges.”

New Democrat agriculture critic Malcolm Allen also blamed the Conservatives.

“Somebody decided we didn’t need to finish this,” he said in an interview. “Would I be in favour of having the biotech study completed? Of course I would. All that time and money and witness expertise has been cast aside.”

For his part, Hoback says he also wanted to see the study completed and he suggested it did not go ahead because the NDP was reluctant to pick up where the committee had left off because it had new members on committee as the official opposition who had no experience on the file.

“I just find it disappointing because a couple more meetings would have let us get some resolutions and head to a report,” he said. “But that evidence is there and hopefully we can pull it forward in other ways.”

With conflicting versions, the story of who voted against resurrecting the study and why remains hidden in the minutes of the closed autumn committee planning meeting.

But as hearings ended in acrimony last year, Conservative MPs clearly thought the hearings were being hijacked by GM concerns.

There had been evidence about the potential for biotech processes and products, the need for more support to translate discovery into products, the need for rules on low-level presence of GM material in export shipments and the need for both sides to work together.

Instead, the last several meetings were derailed by an opposition insistence that MPs vote on a Liberal motion calling for a moratorium on introducing GM alfalfa and a Conservative filibuster to block the non-binding vote that the opposition would have won.

Tempers were brittle with name-calling and accusation in the pre-election mood.

“I’m sick of childishness on both sides,” Conservative chair Larry Miller growled March 24 during what would turn out to be the last meeting on the topic.

As witnesses from the canola industry and Grain Growers of Canada sat listening at the witness table, it got nasty.

When Miller’s translation service was not working and he asked Bloc Québécois France Bonsant to start her statement again, she snarled that it is supposed to be a bilingual country.

Miller protested that he wished he could speak French.

“Stop wishing and start learning,” she snapped. “I learned English, Mr. Miller.”

And so it ended.

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