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A cotton picker harvests the field on BTC farm October 19, 2003 near Clarksdale Mississippi. BTC raises 1000 acres of cotton, 80% of which is genetically modified (GM) Bt, Roundup Ready cotton.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The future of genetically modified crops in Canada is in question as Ottawa prepares to vote on whether to add a new layer of scrutiny to the approvals process.

Genetically modified seeds are currently approved if they are deemed scientifically safe for feed, human consumption and environmental release. A private member's bill scheduled for a House vote Wednesday evening would force the government to add analyses of potential harm to export markets before approving new genetically engineered seeds.

The biotech industry has lobbied heavily to have the bill quashed. Its national association, BIOTECanada, held 50 meetings last fall with federal politicians and government officials. Introduced by New Democratic Party MP Alex Atamanenko (Southern Interior, B.C), the document, titled C-474, has made it this far in the parliamentary process due to the contentiousness of genetically modified seeds.

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Debate over their use is growing in spite of the fact that conventional farmers in Canada and the United States have been producing crops from patented seeds for years - canola, soybeans, cotton and corn - attracted by their built-in resistance to herbicides, hardiness and high yields. Consumers unknowingly buy GM food products because labelling laws do not compel manufacturers to disclose GM content to consumers.

Analysts are predicting defeat of the bill, which is less than one page long and does not lay out specifics on how the market analyses would be conducted. But if the bill dies, debate over the future of GM crop regulation in Canada will continue to thrive.

The prospect of new legislation "opened everyone's eyes" to the need for government to address the use of biotechnology in Canada's food industry, said Wayne Easter, the Liberal party agriculture critic.

"There are some very serious concerns about the imbalance of power between the major corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto and the ability of producers to retain … control over the food system," he said. "This bill doesn't address any of that."

The Liberals' early support of the bill has helped keep it alive, but Mr. Easter said the bill lacks nuance and detail. His party has no plans to support it during the vote.

"If we allow a bad piece of legislation to pass, it could very much hurt our economy," he said. "On the other hand, if we don't find an approach to deal with GMOs and the absolute dominance that some major corporations have in that industry, that could also cause economic damage. We've got to find the right balance here."

Mr. Easter and his House agriculture committee colleagues are in the midst of a national investigation into the state of biotechnology in agriculture. Six of the 12 committee members are on a cross-country tour to hold hearings on the matter; a series of meetings scheduled on Wednesday, including one with Monsanto Canada president Derek Penner, will prevent members from voting on C-474.

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Those in favor of the bill, including the National Farmers' Union and the Canadian Organic Growers, argue that the spread of GM crops in Canada has not been adequately regulated. Increased use of GM crops, they worry, will not only make it more difficult for farmers with non-GM varieties to avoid cross-contamination, it will jeopardize their ability to compete in export markets that demand non-GM product.

Canadian flax farmers experienced the reality of this first-hand recently after GM seeds were discovered in the cash crop; exports were quarantined and markets were shut to Canadian producers. Markets that remain non-receptive to GM seeds include the European Union, Japan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and several African nations.

Spurring farmers' worry over the ubiquitous nature of GM crops is the fact that the Obama administration recently lifted restrictions on planting of Monsanto's GM alfalfa, which is used as animal feed and to enrich soils. Critics have charged the deregulation will compromise the entire alfalfa crop, which is pollinated by bees that can travel for miles.

Monsanto has won approval for its alfalfa in Canada, but seeds have yet to be sold. The mere prospect has panicked both organic farmers (who worry their meat and milk industries are in jeopardy) and conventional producers concerned about trade.

Judy Shaw, a spokeswoman for the biotech firm Syngenta Canada, said seed companies aren't introducing product to the market that would be harmful to farmers. "Why would we bring something to the market that our customers couldn't sell?" she asked.

She said her company does not support the bill, which would amount to more red tape for seed innovation and stall farmers' access to new products. A Monsanto spokeswoman also confirmed her company's opposition to the bill, which would introduce unfair "non-scientific criteria" to the regulatory process that could create disadvantages for Canadian farmers.

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"If this bill passed, it would really just put us a whole step back in terms of our innovation strategy around biotechnology," said David Sparling, chair of Agri-Food Innovation and Regulation at the Richard Ivey School of Business.

However, Canada does need a biotech strategy for agriculture, he said. "If we decide this is an important and useful tool, how are we going to invest in it … but still protect smaller markets? That's the balancing act."

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