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10.52 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I found that speech refreshing listening, given that the debate has been rather hysterical and polarised. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) gave a balanced and thoughtful view, and I congratulate him. This is a contentious subject and the Government recognise that people have genuine concerns about GM crops. The Prime Minister confirmed that in his recent speech on science and technology, when he said:

We have heard some interesting points tonight from my hon. Friend and I would like to respond by trying to set out—to copy my hon. Friend, in what I hope will be a balanced and evenhanded manner—the action that the Government are taking in this area. First, the release and marketing of GM crops are governed by a statutory control regime agreed by the European Union. It is detailed and rigorous, and makes it clear that protecting human health and the environment is the overriding objective of public policy. That very much reflects the Government's own thinking—I emphasise this point—that if there is any unresolved doubt about the safety of a GM crop, we will not allow it to be grown.

The Government played a leading role in negotiating a strengthened EU regime, which will come into effect in October. We have improved risk assessment procedures, as well as new provisions on public consultation and the monitoring of genetically modified organisms after they have been released.

We are implementing the EU regime openly and transparently. Information on proposed GM crop releases and the associated risk assessments is made freely available. The minutes of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment are posted on our website, as are the locations of GM crop trials. We are ready at all times to consider views or evidence on the science relating to the safety of GM crops or public concerns in general.

Further controls on the traceability and labelling of GMOs and on the approval of GM foods and animal feeds are currently under discussion in the European Union. We will continue to support controls that help to maintain safety and provide for informed consumer choice.

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I turn now to the farm-scale evaluations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops. As the House will know, the Government are sponsoring this research programme, and we have agreed with the industry that GM crops will not be commercialised in the UK before the results are considered. Commercialisation will happen only if they are found to pose no risk and cause no damage to the environment. The trials illustrate our precautionary and responsible approach to assessing the potential risks of this new technology.

I have just announced the final round of farm-scale trials to be sown this autumn. The crop concerned is oilseed rape. As with previous rounds, we have written to parish councils with a trial in their area to explain the trials' purpose, and officials from the Department will attend parish council meetings if requested. I assure the House that I have always been anxious to ensure that local people know what is happening in their area, and why it is happening. I have also written to all hon. Members to provide background on the trials.

A number of issues have been raised by hon. Members, and I shall turn to them now. Some hon. Members have complained about the distribution and selection of sites. The industry body, which is rather oddly titled the Supply Chain Initiative in Modified Agricultural Crops, identifies a pool of candidate farms. Researchers assess and select those that are suitable for participation. That is done in accordance with criteria established by the independent scientific steering committee overseeing the programme, which also approves the overall distribution of sites.

Some hon. Members are worried about the disproportionate clustering of farm-scale evaluation sites, especially in Dorset. The distribution of the trial sites has to reflect the geographic range over which the particular crop is grown and the range of different management regimes for the crop in the UK. Having several sites in one area—whether it be the south-west or Lincolnshire—does not preclude that, provided that the sites taken overall are representative of the crop in question. The scientific steering committee for the programme is content that the overall distribution of sites is in line with the aims of the farm-scale evaluation research.

I should make it clear that the purpose of the farm-scale trials is not to test the GM crop plants—a mistake that many people make—but the herbicides being used with them. To that extent, the scope of the trials is rather limited. The GM plants have already undergone a full safety evaluation as required under EU legislation. Contrary to what many people think, the trials are not about safety. ACRE said that the crops in the trials pose no greater risk to human health or the environment than their non-GM counterparts. We are allowing the trials to proceed only on that basis.

One concern about the farm-scale evaluations is their potential impact on other farmers in the vicinity. Indeed, I think that is the issue that is raised most often. The Government recognise that the transfer of GM material might affect the economic interests of conventional and organic producers, so separation distances are being applied to the trials to ensure that any GM cross- pollination is kept to a very low level. For example, the distances relating to organic crops will ensure that cross-pollination is normally below 0.5 per cent.

I am pleased to say that, to my knowledge, there has been no instance of a farm-scale trial affecting the status of a neighbouring conventional or organic crop. We are

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currently considering how GM and non-GM crops might co-exist in a commercial setting, although of course there is a huge difference between protecting conventional or organic farmers in respect of a limited number of trial sites and protecting them if full commercialisation were to take place.

The first results from the farm scale trials will be published next summer. They will tell us what impact herbicide use with GM herbicide-tolerant crops has on farmland biodiversity, relative to the impact of equivalent conventional crops. We await that information; that is the purpose of the trials. If the results show that the GM crop herbicide regimes have a negative effect on the environment, we will use that information to impose restrictions or to block the commercial release of the GM crops. I want that to be clear.

I shall take this opportunity to address some of the objections that have been raised from time to time about the GM field trials. The first relates to GM contamination and the demand made by some people that there should be zero GM contamination. However, we cannot avoid all GM cross-contamination. GM crops are widely grown in other countries—as my hon. Friend made clear—so GM traces may occur in imported material. It is also impossible to prevent cross-pollination between compatible crops and extremely difficult to test reliably for incidental GM presence at low levels. However, we realise that some people want the lowest possible GM presence and we shall bear that in mind as the policy is developed.

Another issue that has frequently been raised is liability; it has certainly been raised in the House. EU proposals for an environmental liability regime are being considered. If adopted, they will provide liability rules for GM crops, covering damage to biodiversity and serious harm to human health. We are also considering the measures that might be needed to facilitate the co-existence of GM and non-GM production, recognising of course that GM crops may affect the economic interests of non-GM farmers.

Another point that I wish to discuss—it has been raised in the media and in other ways—is the production of superweeds and the experience in Canada. Crop weeds in Canada have acquired multiple herbicide tolerance because different types of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape have been used. That is known as gene stacking, and it raises the concern that it might result in agronomic or environmental problems here. However, gene stacking cannot occur with the GM crops in line for possible use here, because they do not cross-pollinate each other. If it is proposed to release other crops that could result in gene-stacked weeds, I give the assurance that the risks will be fully evaluated before that is done.

Two years ago, the Government established the independent Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission to provide strategic advice on the social and ethical aspects of developments on this issue. That

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recognises that the issues raised by biotechnology and genetic engineering are not purely science based. The commission includes members from a range of backgrounds, including environmental and organic farming groups as well as from the biotech industry. It produced a major report last year on the farm-scale evaluation programme called "Crops on Trial"—I recommend it as reading to any hon. Member—that the Government accepted, including the recommendation for a GM public debate.

We have confirmed that we will encourage a full and informed public debate on GM issues, including GM crops. Among other things, we expect the debate to address the current state of scientific knowledge on current issues, focusing on public concerns about the potential risks to human health or the environment from GM crops and food. We are also commissioning an economic assessment of the costs and benefits of GM crops, including their effect on conventional and organic farming.

At present, we are considering detailed advice from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on how the debate should be conducted. It recommended several innovative ideas, including the use of citizens workshops to identify the issues for debate, and the production of a video film to illustrate the issues and stimulate discussion among local groups—for example, parish councils—and in specially convened focus groups. We genuinely want to stimulate public debate and we are considering all the options. There has never been a serious and thoughtful debate—it has been polarised—so we now want a much more rational and balanced debate, such as we are having tonight in the light of my hon. Friend's speech.

We want the debate to start as soon as possible and an announcement will be made once the arrangements have been finalised. The debate will ensure that the Government are fully informed of the range of people's views before decisions are taken on the possible commercialisation of GM crops. It is intended to demonstrate that we are responsive to people's concerns and are looking to maximise the opportunity for public views on all sides of the spectrum to be heard.

Contrary to what is often suggested, the Government have an open mind on what we may offer. We are clear that the potential risks have to be fully evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We have always proceeded on that basis. At the same time, however, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the potential for this technology to deliver benefits—as my hon. Friend suggested, it could be used in some circumstances in developing countries—if it is used wisely. That is an important consideration, given the considerable concerns. We believe that people should consider the issues carefully taking due account of sound science. That is what we intend to promote.

Question put and agreed to.

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