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1 May 2001 : Column 200WH

GM Crop Trial (Low Burnham)

12.30 pm

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the genetically modified crop trial in Low Burnham, in my constituency. I want to address two aspects: first, the specific problems at Low Burnham and secondly, the general handling of GM crop trials in future.

I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is here to listen to the debate and to answer for the Government. I am grateful for the welcome help that his private office gave me when I needed to raise residents' concerns about the matter with his Department.

So far as approvals are concerned, the matter relates back to directives that were agreed in 1990 and came into effect in 1993. Ministers can be held to account for many things, but not for what happened before they were in power. Nevertheless, government involves dealing with the here and now, and the Minister needs to address the real issues affecting Low Burnham.

Low Burnham is situated in an area of north Lincolnshire called the Isle of Axholme, which is reclaimed land--now some of the country's best agricultural land. It lies in the parish of Haxey, between Haxey and Epworth, and is a very small village with an agricultural tradition. The trial came to my attention when I received correspondence from the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and from Aventis. I quickly sent that out to the local parish councils and to the local National Farmers Union to make them aware of the situation and to ask for their comments.

An interesting feature of this part of the Isle of Axholme is that it is an area of strip farming, which is no longer widely practised in the UK, and is often described as a mediaeval method of farming. The fields in Low Burnham and nearby areas are open, and many people own small strips that border on to each other. There are, therefore, concerns that the field location chosen is an inappropriate place for a GM crop trial.

In addition, the field where the trial will be is adjacent to the village and next to the greenway, a disused railway line that is now a popular rural walk with much blossom and wildlife. People are obviously concerned about that. An organic farm is in close proximity and there is bee-keeping in the area. The location hits all the buttons of intense concern that have been pressed by GM crop trials in the past few years.

It is to the Government's credit that, some time ago, they tried to introduce a voluntary code of practice for the companies concerned to ensure that trials were more open and that people had greater access to information about them. However, that has not been the case in respect of Low Burnham. First, information was not sent out to the relevant parish council. I understand from the comments made by representatives of the DETR who came to a recent open meeting that information was sent out, but to the wrong place. That part of the code of practice failed to work.

Secondly, the published grid reference was wrong. Although it was in the locality, it was the wrong field. That led to some concern, not least for the farmer who owns the field at the published grid reference.

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Thirdly, the farmer did not consult local landowners. That led to frustration and annoyance among villagers and landowners. So the three safeguards that the Government had built in to help such situations all failed in respect of that trial.

There is little information or awareness of what happened at the start of the trial, and that has led to great suspicion. People take the view that they cannot have confidence in the regime and protocol of the trial if basic safeguards fail at the outset.

I have been asking questions of the DETR and Aventis on the issues that local residents have raised with me. I have sent the answers out to villagers, parish councillors and anybody else who asked for information. It has been a useful exercise that has given people a great deal of information, but I am concerned that it was down to myself and my constituency staff to send out information that should have been offered more willingly by those involved in the trial.

Local residents have formed a group to campaign on the issue and they have been diligent in that respect. It would be wrong to try to name everyone involved, but it would be equally wrong not to mention people such as Dr. Goodwin, who lives in the village and has done a great deal of work, Jilly Moore, Linda Patel and Councillor Jean Turner from Epworth town council. They have worked tirelessly in trying to access information about the trial and in talking to other groups across the country that have similar concerns.

Their actions resulted in a public meeting on 23 April, when Graham Davis from the DETR addressed residents and we went through the issues. Although little could be said about what went wrong, there was nevertheless a great feeling of dissatisfaction by the end of the meeting. For instance, the fact that information was sent out to the wrong parish council was acknowledged as a mistake that could not be put right. Similarly, the grid reference will be corrected, but apart from that, nothing will be done.

The Department thought that there had been consultation, which did not surprise me because both the DETR and Aventis had previously given me the same information. I spoke to the farmer on two separate occasions, and he told me up front that he had not managed to speak to the landowners concerned. That is not surprising in light of my earlier point about it being an area of strip farming. There are 10, 11 or maybe more landowners adjoining the field because of the method of farming used in this part of the world. The farmer involved in the trial told me that he was unable to contact the landowners because he did not know who they were. In short, the consultation failed completely.

There was great concern among the villagers present at last week's meeting that the voluntary code of practice, which failed in Low Burnham, did not matter because the trial went ahead regardless of it. I hope that the Minister will be able to address that point.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): May I tell my hon. Friend that there was no consultation in respect of a similar trial in my constituency? The first that anybody knew of it was the posting of the sites on the DETR website. Does he agree that it is necessary to

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press the Minister to replace the failed voluntary consultation process with a statutory form of consultation?

Mr. Cawsey : I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is regrettable that these matters came to light only when grid references were published. I hope that the grid references were correct in her case, which would put it one step ahead of the trial in my constituency. However, she is right about the need for a statutory approach.

Other issues, which were not addressed, came up during the public meeting. One was contamination. The Government and Aventis said that there would be no more than 1 per cent. contamination, but people were still concerned by what they meant. In particular, a villager from Low Burnham said that he suffered from bad allergic reactions. How do we know that 1 per cent. contamination would not lead to allergy sufferers having problems? There was no answer to that point and, without wanting to be critical, it is a question that needs to be answered. The person available at the meeting could not answer it, so perhaps the Minister will ensure that we get an answer.

On liability, there are real concerns that the only means of redress is through the civil court, which, in theory, is open to anybody--providing that they can afford it. As we all know, the civil court is therefore open to few people. There ought to be some sort of statutory liability order on such matters. I know that the Minister answered a parliamentary question on that point earlier in the year, when he said that he wanted to consider the issue. Hopefully he will be able to say more today.

A further concern is the scientific validity of the trial because no baseline data was collected. The trial was designed to examine the effect on wildlife when a herbicide interacts with a GM crop. Local people are concerned that if one does not examine the wildlife before the trial, it will be difficult to identify any difference. One answer that has been given is that the trial will be in two halves of the same field: a genetically modified crop will be grown in one half and a standard crop in the other, and the two halves will then be compared. In an area such as the Isle of Axholme, that creates a problem in relation to good old strip farming. There is no guarantee that what are now two halves of the same field will have been farmed in the same way over the years--they may have been farmed in different strips with different crops and pesticide regimes. Even now, before a single genetically modified organism has been put into the soil, it is likely that an analysis of the two halves of the field would produce completely different results. If no baseline data capture is taken at the start of the trial, how on earth can any meaningful result be obtained?

The trial will not seek to consider key species such as earthworms, soil fungi and bacteria, and I have been told that funding to look at the impact of GMOs on bird life in the area has been withdrawn, so that work will not go ahead.

Separation distances are another worry, especially to people who keep bees. The DETR has told me that the separation distance for the trial is 50 m. That may be extremely optimistic from the point of view of ensuring confidence in the trial.

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What can the Minister say or do for us? I could make several suggestions, but I shall try to be brief. First, I should like him to give me a personal assurance that he will investigate the Low Burnham trial and the mistakes that were made, especially in relation to the lack of information that was sent out, the incorrect grid reference and the fact that his Department and Aventis were content to accept that consultation had taken place merely because the farmer had told them so, although in fact that was not the case. My constituents would welcome such an assurance.

Secondly, given the nature of the area and the fact that 10 or 11 landowners farm on the border of the field, cannot the Minister, even at this stage, try to persuade the company that this is a highly inappropriate location for a GM trial and that it should pull the plug on it? I say in all candour to the Minister that if he is unable to do something, the code of practice will effectively be dead in the water. If, after all the concerns that have been raised about issues such as strip farming, the trial goes ahead anyway, how can there be any public confidence in the code of practice in future?

Thirdly, will the Minister tell us more about the statutory compensation scheme, in which I know that he is interested?

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) that we need a statutory approval system to give local authorities, parish and town councils, local residents and farmers a legal input into a site application and the right for their views to be taken into consideration. I say that not only because it would be an extension of democracy--something in which I am always interested--but because often local people can provide the best local knowledge about the appropriateness of a site. I do not mean to underplay the ability or role of civil servants in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but I and others from Low Burnham who spoke to some of them received the impression that they did not even understand what strip farming was, or even that it still existed. And why should they? After all, they do not work at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We need a system that would involve local people and allow them a say.

I do not blame the Minister for 1990 directives, but I look to him to introduce a more rigorous procedure generally and specifically to investigate the concerns of the village of Low Burnham and, for that matter, the whole of the isle of Axholme. If he can establish proper procedures and put matters on a more statutory footing for the future, he will have done a real service not just to my constituents, but to everyone in the United Kingdom.

12.45 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher ): I very much welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). They were made in sober tones, conveyed a forthright message and require a response. There is no question but that mistakes were made at Low Burnham and we need to learn from the experience. He referred to nearby organic farms and bee-keeping, and to the unusual agronomic condition of strip farming--which, as he made clear, was not properly taken into account. Those are all valid points.

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I agree about the importance of informing the public and farmers--especially organic farmers--of the whereabouts of the farm-scale evaluation sites in time to allow genuine discussion and negotiation. I am committed to openness and transparency in that regard and to informing the public fully about the evaluations and what they entail. My hon. Friend has clearly shown that that did not happen in the case about which he is concerned. I apologise on behalf of the Department. It should have happened but did not.

The Government have asked the farming and biotechnology industry group, SCIMAC, to impress on farmers participating in the evaluations that they should inform local organic farmers and neighbours as soon as possible of their intention to grow a genetically modified crop. I noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) said about trials and the failure to apply the principle that I have outlined. I am very concerned about that and should like to consider how we can improve matters.

To assist the process, we have announced that, this year, the locations of evaluation sites should be announced much earlier. I have asked that that be done six weeks before sowing, thereby allowing my Department and others to do more work in informing local people about sites near to them. In this and other cases, officials in my Department have written to provide information to all parish, community, district and county councils in whose area an evaluation is sited. My officials have offered to attend meetings with parish councils to explain the evaluations.

Mrs. Lawrence : My right hon. Friend said that he has asked for local people to be informed six weeks prior to evaluations. However, is there any potential for objections to be made in that time and for people to find ways of preventing the trials?

Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend puts her finger on a sensitive point. Although the 92/20 directive includes notification and consultation requirements, EU legislation makes no provision for public consent. Information, discussion and consultation are certainly expected and required, but current legislation makes no statutory provision for agreement. I continue to believe that that is a serious problem.

The statutory requirements for notification are that, at least 15 days before planting, the company--in this case, Aventis--is required to inform the Department about its intention to plant a particular crop at a particular site; and that, no more than five days after that, and at least 10 days before planting, it should advertise the fact in the relevant local newspaper so that others in the area will know about it. That is not sufficient time, which is why I want the requirements to be changed.

In the Aventis case, officials wrote on 28 February to parishes and other councils where oilseed rape and beet were to be grown, and on 3 April to those where maize sites were planned. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole has described what happened, and I do not dispute what he said. Indeed, I agree that mistakes were made. It was not a good or representative example of the public being informed about how evaluations were intended to work. Elsewhere, however, the procedure has generally worked as expected.

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On 28 February, following telephone advice from the local authority about the relevant parish, officials wrote to Epworth parish council about the oilseed rape site near Low Burnham. We were later informed that the site, despite being close to Low Burnham, was actually in the nearby parish of Haxey. We therefore wrote to Haxey parish council, with copies of all the information that had been sent to Epworth, and offered the participation of officials in any public meeting that the council might call.

Subsequently, we were informed by SCIMAC that the final figure of the six-figure grid reference that it had supplied for the site was incorrect. I emphasise that it was extremely unfortunate--I could use another word--that the two errors occurred at the same site, and I apologise for the confusion that the matter has caused local residents. However, I am told that local farmers and the public were fully aware of the identity of the farmer who was hosting the evaluation and of its true location.

In this year's spring sowing round, we have detected a similar error in only one of the other 84 sites. We suspect that the grid reference supplied for that site may be incorrect, and we are investigating the information supplied as quickly as we can. My Department told SCIMAC that it must re-advertise the site in the local paper to correct the confusion. I agree that it is after the event, but it is the right thing to do in the circumstances. My Department and English Nature have checked that the risk assessment for the correct field remains valid, and we are satisfied that it is. We have also updated our website to include the correct location details.

In the majority of cases this spring, the arrangements for notifying local people have worked rather better. Although I do not intend to diminish my acceptance that things went badly wrong and the situation was unacceptable, I believe that neighbouring farmers and local parishes have been informed about the evaluations in reasonably good time, and certainly in better time than in previous years. Indeed, I understand from SCIMAC that, some weeks ago--although I know that a different view is being put forward by the other side; one never knows exactly where the truth lies--the farmers hosting the site at Haxey spoke to their neighbours about their intention to grow GM crops and contacted the only organic grower in the area.

I am told that the farmers elected to host a GM oilseed rape crop evaluation because none of their neighbours usually grow that crop, whereas they do grow beet.

Mr. Cawsey : Just to clarify the point on what consultation took place, the farmer--I have spoken to him directly and am fairly confident of this--spoke to some of the landowners, but he did not speak to all of them because he did not know the identity of all of them. He could not contact those whom he did not know. When he did speak to landowners, he did so on a reactive basis, in response to questions about whether he was conducting a GM trial. It was only when people

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started to raise concerns with him that "consultation" took place. It is not in dispute that several landowners were not consulted.

Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend gives an account that probably reconciles those two slightly divergent views. I accept that there was some communication, but that it may have been reactive rather then proactive, and probably was not comprehensive.

As part of the public information campaign for the evaluations, my officials, as my hon. Friend said, attended meetings with local farmers and the public in a number of areas. That included a meeting at Haxey, on 23 April, with local farmers and my hon. Friend. I understand the concerns and the irritation expressed at that meeting, and the wish to see information about the evaluations corrected and made available as soon as possible. I am also aware that some adjoining farmers have stated that they were not consulted. My officials are pursuing that point with SCIMAC.

The conclusion is that we have a voluntary system that generally works properly, but has not worked in a significant number of cases. We should certainly consider the request made by both my hon. Friends, that the system should have some statutory back-up. As the Low Burnham site shows, it can sometimes be difficult to ensure that everyone who needs to know about a site is told, and in good time. The voluntary agreement generally works well, but it undoubtedly works less well in some cases.

We need a fresh approach, and I should like to see improved notification and consultation processes for future rounds of the evaluations. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, my preference is for a statutory system of notification to ensure that all those who need to know about the sites are informed, including organic growers, bee-keepers and non-GM farmers. I have also insisted that, before the next round of evaluations begins in the autumn, each site should have a specific risk assessment carried out on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole made a number of general points on the trials. He also spoke about the issue of statutory consultation and my point on the need for greater assurance of public consent. We are considering the statutory liability provision. There is also an EU provision on liability across the whole environmental spectrum. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to consider that provision specifically with respect to GM in this country, and we are doing so.

Like my hon. Friend, I remain concerned about whether people understand what 1 per cent. GM contamination really means. It should be made clear that it means that adjoining crops may be contaminated by GM at a rate of up to 1 per cent. There is also the question of whether there are health impacts for those who have particular allergies. I cannot speak about that, but it is an issue.

The issue of fields split into halves, one of which has been strip farmed, is a significant one, and we probably did not take it sufficiently into account. However, I shall raise with the scientific steering committee the issue of whether it invalidates the results in this case. I may write to my hon. Friend when I have done that.

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The number of fields--although it is 84 or 85 this year--is not sufficient for us to be able to draw statistically valid conclusions about the effect of GM on the number of birds. However, we are considering using bird food as a proxy to try to measure that effect.

The separation distance in this case is 50 m, which is intended to deliver no more than 1 per cent. contamination. However, I am well aware that that is a very contentious issue. I t is also important to encourage dialogue between farming groups at national level. My Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have already discussed with industry bodies how we can do more to inform organic farmers and bee-keepers in farm-scale evaluation areas about the location of sites that might affect them. I shall ask my officials to arrange further meetings with the respective industry groups, both SCIMAC and organic and conventional farmers, to establish whether we can do more together in future to ensure that all their members who could be affected are informed of farm-scale evaluations near them in good time, and I repeat, at least six weeks before sowing.

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