Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Division No. 300
[10.30 pm


Bailey, Adrian
Barron, Rt Hon Kevin
Beggs, Roy
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benton, Joe
Berry, Roger
Brooke, Mrs Annette L
Burnham, Andy
Calton, Mrs Patsy
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Carmichael, Alistair
Chaytor, David
Chidgey, David
Connarty, Michael
Cotter, Brian
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Curtis–Thomas, Mrs Claire
Dalyell, Tam
Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Davidson, Ian
Dismore, Andrew
Donaldson, Jeffrey M
Donohoe, Brian H
Doughty, Sue
Dowd, Jim
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Field, Rt Hon Frank (Birkenhead)
Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
George, Andrew (St Ives)
Gidley, Sandra
Gilroy, Linda
Green, Matthew (Ludlow)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harris, Dr Evan (Oxford W)
Harvey, Nick
Hendrick, Mark
Hermon, Lady
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Hume, John
Jenkins, Brian
Jones, Kevan (N Durham)
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak)
Kemp, Fraser
Kidney, David
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Lamb, Norman
Laws, David
Laxton, Bob
Leigh, Edward
Luke, Iain
McFall, John
McNamara, Kevin
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Meale, Alan
Merron, Gillian
Mudie, George
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Murrison, Dr Andrew
Naysmith, Dr Doug
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Hara, Edward
Picking, Anne
Pike, Peter
Pollard, Kerry
Pope, Greg
Pound, Stephen
Prosser, Gwyn
Pugh, Dr John
Quinn, Lawrie
Reid, Alan (Argyll & Bute)
Rendel, David
Ruane, Chris
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Salter, Martin
Sanders, Adrian
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Soley, Clive
Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Stunell, Andrew
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Thomas, Gareth (Harrow W)
Thurso, John
Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Tyler, Paul
Vis, Dr Rudi
Ward, Claire
Watson, Tom
Watts, David
Webb, Steve
Willis, Phil
Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and
Mr. George Howarth.


Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Banks, Tony
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Chope, Christopher
Drew, David
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hendrick, Mark
Hope, Phil
Iddon, Dr Brian
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Lloyd, Tony
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Olner, Bill
Pickthall, Colin
Rapson, Syd
Sheridan, Jim
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Skinner, Dennis
Spink, Bob
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Wareing, Robert N

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Andrew Miller and
Stephen Hesford.

Question accordingly agreed to.

9 Jul 2002 : Column 859

Bill read a Second time, and committed.

9 Jul 2002 : Column 860

Genetically Modified Crops

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

10.40 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I would like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of genetically modified crops. As the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Prime Minister have said recently, it is time for a rational and national debate around this subject and it is essential that that debate be informed by sound science and economics.

For some time now, the tenor of public debate around the issue of GM crops has been of too high a pitch. That has led to a considerable degree of misperception in the public mind as regards levels of risk and potential benefit. That is not to say that people are wrong to be concerned about the health implications of a new food technology such as GM. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will confirm tonight that DEFRA's highest priority is to protect human health and the environment.

Nor would I suggest that pressure groups of one kind or another are wrong to flag up what they perceive as potential problem areas; quite the reverse. Indeed, in preparing for this debate, I received an excellent brief from Greenpeace, for which I have great respect, even though it knows that I do not agree with the general thrust of its argument on the GM issue. It is essential that all sides of the GM argument are heard and that organisations such as Greenpeace play a key role in this matter.

Most people would agree, however, that the best basis for debate is a foundation of reliable and generally agreed facts. Indeed, unless anything can be taken as axiomatic by all parties to a debate, the debate cannot really exist at all. Rather, the activity that ensues will simply represent a clash of world views yielding a similar effect to the playing of two CDs loudly at the same time.

It is of course possible to come to a set of axioms in a number of ways; perhaps through reason or scientific observation, or perhaps even as a matter of faith. Yet however it is done, there is a need for all parties to obey the rules of the game—otherwise, there can be no game.

It is especially worrying that a common means of laying down the parameters or assumptions contained within the debate—that is to say, empirical observation and broad scientific method—has played such a small part in the debate around GM to date. It is clear to me, for example, that the Food Standards Agency is unequivocal in regarding GM crops of the type presently being grown as part of the farm scale evaluations as safe for people to eat. The view has been arrived at through rigorously applied scientific method. It has also been arrived at in other countries. By the time of the beginning of the European moratorium on GM food production in 1998, 70 million acres had been cultivated in all sorts of trials without any substantive predicted or unpredicted hazard being discovered.

Key elements of research have been published in peer-reviewed journals and the scientific orthodoxy is that GM crops such as those being trialled at present are safe. Of course scientists will usually regard any orthodoxy as contingent and there will always be those who propose counter-arguments, but that is part of scientific method itself; indeed, it is part of life itself.

9 Jul 2002 : Column 861

It seems to me that some interest groups have heretofore set about disrupting scientifically informed debate, rather than actually participating in it. For example, the farm scale evaluations presently under way, which will be completed next year, have been subject on occasion to official representatives of non-governmental organisations, dressed in wacky masks and white dungarees, using their size 10—and indeed size five—wellington boots to tramp down the trial crops. Participants in such activities doubtless claim that the evaluations' underpinning framework and assumptions are technically wrong. However, the greater impression conveyed by such people is that they wish to bypass scientific debate, and to use media spectaculars to distort public perception of risk. I am afraid that, at times, some interest groups have seemed more intent on spreading fear than on engaging in scientific debate. That has been a pity, to say the least.

To begin redressing the consequence of interest groups' spinning and the sometimes one-sided media reportage, I want to emphasise some of the potentially great benefits of GM technology. GM crops offer the possibility of greatly increased crop yields, less waste and the use of fewer resources. That has fairly obvious environmental benefits, but it could offer entirely realistic scope for massive indigenous production in the developing world. Perhaps as many as 400 million people worldwide suffer from vitamin A deficiency, more often than not as a consequence of inadequate diet. Many such people are children, who will develop other health problems as a result. In theory, at least, GM could help dramatically through the development of a new type of rice, for example, which could deliver the daily level of required vitamins. Dr. Ingo Potrykus, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, has pioneered the genetic modification of rice using daffodils and a bacterium called erwinia uredovora. Dr. Dean Dellapena, of the university of Nevada, has produced an oilseed plant with high levels of vitamin E, which helps the immune system to fight disease. That is particularly relevant to those who suffer from poverty in the developing world.

There is little dispute about the benefits that GM, if safe, could deliver for developing countries. It is perhaps for that reason that the interest groups that have so far dominated public discourse have tended to avoid this area. Instead, we have heard much about Frankenstein foods, and little to suggest that cross-pollination has been a natural and everyday reality in farming through the ages. We have heard little to remind us that the animals that non-vegetarians eat every day are the result of extensive cross-breeding through the ages. Nor has much been said of the fact that, to grow food conventionally in volume, we must kill competing vegetation, which involves using chemicals in great volume, too. We have also heard little to remind us of the "killer bees" phenomenon, whereby African and European bees were cross-bred conventionally to provide a higher honey yield. Instead, a highly aggressive species was produced that, according to some, has killed 1,000 people throughout the world.

Indeed, a feature of the discourse to date is that, when apparent scientific evidence emerges that seems to back the case of the relevant interest groups, they have trumpeted it from the rooftops. One example is the now invalidated work of Dr. Arpád Pusztai. I say "invalidated", rather than anything stronger, because it is essential that the unorthodox be given a full hearing;

9 Jul 2002 : Column 862

otherwise, we would never experience the step-change advance of some of our greatest scientific triumphs. Equally, however, new evidence has to be evaluated in a balanced and peer-reviewed way, and put properly into context. Ironically, in so far as Dr. Pusztai challenged GM orthodoxy and failed, he helped to strengthen it.

Last night, I debated this issue with Lord Melchett on the excellent programme entitled "Despatch Box". I understand that it may be under threat, and for the sake of intelligent political debate I hope that it is not. Lord Melchett is a world leader in anti-GM theory and practice, and much more besides. He is a leader in the field of organic produce and, by the way, is a former Labour Minister and a thoroughly charming man. Yet I could not help noticing that he selectively quoted parts of scientific research. Given that he famously trampled a field of GM crops that were under scientific test, I found that a little odd. In a way, his approach is reflected across the interest groups, which can reasonably be categorised—and are often self-categorised—as anti-GM.

I suspect that, in truth, many anti-GM interests recognise that they are on a sticky wicket on the science front, and that that is why they often seem to avoid balanced debate on the evidence. I hope that such debate will ensue during, and following, the scientific and economic studies announced recently by the Secretary of State, about which the Minister may wish to say something.

I also have an inkling that the objections of many anti-GM interests are in truth economic rather than that scientific in origin, but that the economic objections are less sexy and perhaps less sellable than the pseudo- scientific ones. A paper by Julian Morris of the Institute of Economic Affairs refers to a paper by the Centre for International Environmental Law in Washington DC, which puts two interesting arguments. They are exemplary arguments of their type. It is suggested that the profits of GM will not be shared with the people of developing countries. In essence, the benefit from GM technology will primarily accrue to mainly American multinationals, and that is given as a reason for objecting to it. The CIEL paper also suggested that GM technology could reduce food security in the developing world because

To take the latter point first, the anti-GM lobby may have raised an issue of importance. I do not agree with the IEA paper which rejects that point out of hand, because I have seen at first hand how countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo can have great natural resources but people are simply too afraid to farm the land. GM crops would not solve that problem directly. It could only be solved by countries such as ours giving countries such as theirs assistance with security by means of regional security forces and so forth. Perhaps through the New Partnership for Africa's Development—NEPAD—we will arrive at that point.

It is the former argument about who benefits economically that forms the bulwark of the anti-GM philosophy, but it remains obscure to most of the public, hidden behind nonsense about Frankenstein foods and other stunts. At one level, the argument may be refuted by appealing to the logic of global markets and arguing the case that liberal and democratic economies and

9 Jul 2002 : Column 863

countries will provide much of the solution to the problem of national underdevelopment in the developing world. Perhaps it is reasonable that that is not enough for the anti-GM lobby, since it has—it sometimes seems—a world view that is antipathetic to economic globalisation. That is its right, but although globalisation does not produce uniformly perfect outcomes, it is broadly a force for good. I disagree with the anti-GM lobby on that point, but I do not intend to press that case tonight.

My objective tonight has been to highlight the fact that until now public discourse on the vastly important subject of genetic modification has been dangerously slanted. It is now time, in the months leading up to what may be a Government decision in 2004 on the future of GM crop production in this country, for the interest groups in the UK and in Europe to participate in a full and open debate, potentially to the great benefit of us all.

Next Section

IndexHome Page