Genetically Modified Food and Feed

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Ms Blears: I am not aware of how these proposals will impact on the appeal process. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the ability to trace the way in which new seeds are developed. I can undertake to find out what the effect will be on that process and to provide him with that information.

I wish to correct my answer to the question of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). I understand that in regulation 2001/0180 a product is the GMO itself that is placed on the market.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I wish to make a small but important point. The Minister mentioned a regulatory impact assessment, but we are again faced with the possibility that RIAs might have a

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disproportionate effect on smaller businesses. I am thinking particularly of things such as farmers' markets, which might find it difficult to prove to an enforcement agency the provenance of their products. Can the Minister give me any reassurance for that sector—for smaller producers, and in particular for farmers' markets?

Ms Blears: Obtaining food from farmers' markets is an important and increasingly popular choice with consumers. Those markets are an increasingly important sector.

The documents refer to small and medium-sized enterprises in relation to the proposals. Traceability may be difficult with farmers' markets, but if there is a short and readily verifiable supply chain some might argue that traceability is easier. One of the selling points of farmers' markets is that produce is locally sourced and available from verifiable herds, which is part of its attraction to consumers. Equally, a case can be made that in farmers' markets suppliers operate on a small scale and have neither the ability to undertake paper audit trails nor systems such as computer databases in place. An argument can probably be made on both sides in relation to farmers' markets. Many imports from developing countries originate from conglomerates of small-scale, locally based suppliers, who would find it difficult to comply with audit trails.

Mr. Drew: The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently produced a report on genetically modified organisms. We took evidence for that report from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, which made it clear that it was committed to holding an open, transparent debate on GMOs. I seek assurance that whatever decision is taken by the EU, the four points on the continuum that the Minister mentioned will be part of the debate. In other words, I want to be sure that we are not ruling anything in or out. For the debate to be meaningful, it has to encompass all positions to make people feel that it is worthwhile participating. Will the Minister comment on that?

Ms Blears: I have not had an opportunity to read the whole Select Committee report, but I have had a chance to look at its conclusions on the launch of the public debate. It urges an open-minded, transparent, rigorous debate to examine the scientific evidence, and highlights

    ''the need to rebuild public confidence in science as an instrument of public policy''.

That issue should be looked at with reference to rigorously assessed evidence. We need to engage the public in those issues, which are sometimes complex. The language used can exclude people and it will be important in the wide-ranging debate, which has been universally welcomed, that we try to explain the issues in a way that relates to people's lives.

Food, feed and seeds are clearly fundamental to people's sense of well-being and confidence. I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that those measures are separate from the debate because we are making decisions and taking a view on the proposals. Clearly,

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we ought to discuss all those issues in an open-minded, transparent, rigorous way that considers the evidence and the science. Crucially, we need to engage the public as much as we possibly can. Due to its technical nature, the subject can sometimes be unduly exclusive of the public, who are obviously the most important partners in the process.

Mr. Heald: The new procedures will be centred on the European food authority, but it is not clear which scientific committee will be involved in making the safety assessment. Can the Minister tell us which committee it will be?

Ms Blears: At the moment in this country we have two separate committees: the novel foods committee looks at novel foods containing new protein or new DNA, which includes a wider range of foods than just GMOs; the animal feeds committee considers issues relating to animals. It is proposed that a European scientific committee should study those matters, but its exact composition has yet to be determined. A committee will eventually look into that whole area on a European level. In future, the authorisations will not only be for GM food but for GM feed. The phrase used in the regulatory impact assessment is the

    ''one door-one key principle'',

which means that the same issues will be considered for products that could be used for both food and feeds. There will be a European scientific committee, but I understand that its exact composition has not yet been determined. Importantly, the European food safety authority will work with member states on scientific committees, which will still have a role, particularly for non-GM novel foods that come on to the market but do not necessarily fall into this category. We hope that the EFSA operates in a similar way to the Food Standards Agency in this country and is as transparent, inclusive and open with the public as it possibly can be.

Alan Simpson: I am pleased that the Minister wants the debate to be based on sound science and I welcome the observations about the need to connect the scientific scrutiny to the framework being adopted by international organisations. I have a question about the unique codes that the European Parliament and the European Union are discussing. As I understand it, such codes will be based on a much more precise notion of genetic categorisation, which will require identification of a gene in a gene sequence. That will be extremely useful to the scientific debate and to the scrutiny and traceability agenda.

As I understand it, the location of a gene in the gene sequence cannot be identified for any GM crop that at present has approval or is under trial. It will require a new leap into the science of scrutiny. What will happen with the GM crops that have approval or are under trial for which information about unique coding cannot yet be provided?

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Ms Blears: My understanding is that that is a future development. I am not aware of what effect development of the unique codes will have on the crops that have been approved. At present, 14 crops are waiting for approval, which has been blocked. An important proposal before the Committee is to ensure that we move the process forward while providing a proper safety assessment of each of those crops. I understand that crops that have already been approved will be resubmitted for approval when the unique codes are developed. Therefore, there will be a further opportunity to examine them.

An important part of the proposals is the attempt—we do not yet know how successful it will be—to restart the process. The Government want proper safety assessments and proper checks and balances, but they do not want the blockage in the system that has prevented crops from being taken forward for consideration since 1998.

Mr. Jack: I understand that it is possible to achieve genetic modification of a plant by what would be described as normal plant-breeding techniques, as opposed to man-made intervention. If one of two crops had been genetically modified but was the same as the other, which had had been modified by normal plant breeding techniques—in other words, they were genetically indistinguishable—would the plant-breeding technique outcome be covered by the directive, and how would one tell the difference between the two?

Ms Blears: The right hon. Gentleman has a much more extensive background in and knowledge of the science behind genetic modification of plants than I have. I am not aware that normal plant breeding techniques can produce a product or material that is identical to a genetically modified organism. It may well be the case; I am simply not aware of it. Therefore, it would be dangerous for me to hazard any opinion on whether the product of natural hybridisation would be covered. I am aware, as a keen gardener, that it is possible for natural hybridisation to produce new varieties; otherwise we would not have some of the wonderful plants that we have today. However, I do not know whether a naturally crossed variety would be genetically the same as a genetically modified organism. I shall find out a little more about the science and, if that is so, discover whether the proposals would apply.

The important point that I have been trying to draw out for hon. Members is that when labelling requirements relate to products that are scientifically indistinguishable from GM products, it is difficult for the enforcement authority to carry out sampling checks and inspections and to discover whether the claims for a product are verifiable. The important issue is consumer confidence. It is all very well setting up a complex system of labelling and traceability, but consumer confidence will be at risk without enforcement and compliance. That is an important key point. I shall certainly find out more about the science for the right hon. Gentleman.

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Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend ruled out the labelling of processed material that is analytically indistinguishable from material derived from a GM source on the grounds of practicality and enforcement, but not on principle. Why will she not rule it out on principle also, given that if it is analytically indistinguishable, what difference does it make?

Ms Blears: It is a matter of trying to obtain the right balance. As with most of these proposals, I am rapidly discovering that the balance is between pure science, public perception, consumer confidence, and people wanting as much information as possible to enable them to make informed choices. That must be balanced against practicality, enforceability, proportionate measures and common sense. I would not want to rule something out as a matter of principle, because it is right for a regulatory authority to try to strike the right balance. People hold strong views on these issues, which is why the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee called for a wide-ranging public debate. Some people hold very strong views. The Select Committee also called for a scientific base to inform that debate and to engage the public. It would be inappropriate for the Government as a regulatory authority at this point to take an ''in principle'' view. We are seeking to accommodate the wishes of those who genuinely do not want any contact with GM technology, whether products, organisms or processes, by having a ''GM-free'' label. To enable the vast majority to rely on labelling when products contain more than 1 per cent. GM products, they are labelled ''GM'' and consumers have sufficient information to make a decision.

 
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