Genetically Modified Food and Feed

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Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman highlights an important concern. As well as having responsibilities to other EU states, we have a responsibility to our international trading partners.

The majority of GM crops are grown in America, Canada, Australia and Argentina. I was told that an area twice the size of the UK grows GM crops. The Americans estimate that some £2.8 billion of their exports would be affected were there to be what they regard as unnecessarily restrictive provisions for traceability and labelling. That is of extreme concern to those countries. However, the matter is being considered in the context of the World Trade Organisation. We must be aware that the steps that we take—our consumers rightly want us to pursue them—have implications for the rest of the world. GM crops have been produced for more than a decade in some of those countries, which perhaps take a different attitude to GM production from that of member states of the European Union. We must take our steps in full recognition and contemplation of the fact that we have international obligations.

The second issue raised by the hon. Gentleman was the impact on developing countries, many of which have deep concerns over this issue. The EU has already stated—this is on record—that it does not want the provisions to act as a bar to developing countries taking a greater role in trade with the European Union. If their economies are to prosper, it is vital that they are able to participate in trade. A worry is that a system that relies on a documentary paper audit trail to make it enforceable, rather than on a chemical analysis, will make things difficult for small-scale producers in developing countries. Many of them will be small, local farmers who have come together in co-operatives to sell their goods; for them to provide a paper audit trail could be inordinately difficult. We must bear that in mind and pursue practical, enforceable and proportionate measures.

Mr. Drew: In the same vein as the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), I wonder how the measures will impact on the bio-safety protocol of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which recognises that we must regulate GMOs, but does not recognise the idea of traceability. Are we now likely to seek traceability in negotiations through the OECD?

Ms Blears: Again, it is important that our steps recognise the overarching nature of the bio-safety protocol. The Commission's proposals conform with that protocol, but it is a matter that we shall keep under review. The protocol was endorsed by the European Environment Council meeting at the end of June and provides a framework for such issues. Although the Commission's proposals seem to be in line with the overarching protocol, we shall closely scrutinise the position because we do not want the measures adopted under the proposals to go further or outwith its provisions, which will set the framework for future developments.

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Mr. Heald: We support GM labelling and a choice for consumers, but will not the perverse effect of the proposals, especially as amended by the European Parliament, be that a person who wants to buy something as GM free as possible will not be able to identify the least GM product, because almost everything will have to be labelled as being GMO derived in some way?

Ms Blears: We are trying to strike a balance whereby we provide enough material so that consumers have an informed choice about the products that they are purchasing. At the same time, we do not want to provide an incentive for people not to label their goods correctly. If goods cannot be identified by scientific analysis, there may be a temptation under the system for people not to label processed products GM that are identical to non-GM products. There may be a perception that labelling products GM makes them less commercially attractive.

If a system cannot be enforced rigorously through sampling and inspection with the full knowledge of people, there may be a temptation not to label products correctly. The whole thrust of the proposals should be to reinforce the public's confidence that products are as they are described on the label. If a perverse incentive not to label items correctly were built into the system, consumer confidence in the entire system would be undermined. We are certainly not against consumer choice. We want that, but an overly complex system that is reliant on a paper audit control may provide a framework in which there is an incentive to label products incorrectly. That would defeat the very objective that we are trying to achieve.

Alan Simpson: The European Commission and Parliament clearly took the view that consumers should have the right to know what the producers know. If producers are using genetically modified ingredients in the food process, such a procedure should be described on the labelling. Why should United Kingdom consumers not have the right to know what the producers know?

Ms Blears: There is a contradiction in the Commission's proposals, in that some of them relate to process products that are derived from GMOs. We believe that that goes too far, because such products cannot be scientifically analysed. Even the Commission's proposals did not relate to products from animals that had been fed GM feed. They did not relate to milk, eggs and meat from stock that had ingested GM feed; nor did they relate to the processing agents such as the enzymes in cheese. There was not a proposal to allow people to have GM-free foods. They could not be free of GM technology. All that they could be free of was the GM product. It is right that, when people are opposed to GM, they want completely GM-free products, process materials and the enzymes that make a GM product.

There is an inherent contradiction in the Commission's own position in that it has gone for the processed products, which is a step further than we want to go. The European Parliament clearly wants a more radical option. That brings me back to what is

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practicable, what is enforceable and what is proportionate. Looking at the cost in the regulatory impact assessment, when one goes to that very radical point where products as well as derived process materials are brought in, enforcement of these proposals becomes very costly, as does compliance with them.

Mr. Jack: I want the Minister to refresh my memory on how these proposals impact on restaurant-served meals.

The Chairman: Order. That brings us to the end of the time allotted for questions. Before I call the Minister to move her motion, I should inform the Committee that I have selected the amendment that is in the name of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry).

Dr. Ladyman: On a point of order, Mr. Hurst. As the right hon. Gentleman is not present, how can his motion stand?

The Chairman: The motion does not stand until it is so moved. Amendments are the property of the Committee. If an hon. Member chooses to move one, he or she can do so. If an hon. Member chooses not do so, it will not be moved.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union documents No. 11576/01, draft Council Regulation on genetically modified food and feed, and No. 11496/01, draft Council Regulation on the traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms and traceability of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms; and supports the Government's aim of securing practical, proportionate and enforceable legislation that also recognises the external impact, including that on developing countries.—[Ms Blears.]

5.30 pm

Mr. Heald: We have had a good question session with the Minister. Four broad areas of concern have emerged. The first is enforcement: its effectiveness, whether this is, to some extent, an invitation to fraud, and what the costs to business would be if enforcement action were to take place against the background of stringent provisions of the sort that the Commission suggests. That concern would be even greater if the European Parliament's amendments were to become part of the final outcome.

I described the European Parliament's measures as draconian. The Minister said that that might not be quite the right word, and she may be correct, but they are certainly radical—to accept her word—and they go a long way down what we would say is the wrong road of making a statement by having strong regulation, but without providing something that is verifiable or that would mean very much to the consumer.

The second area of concern addresses the role of the European food authority, and how it will work. The third concern is the thresholds, and the fourth is the effect on third countries and whether this whole process is WTO-compliant.

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I start with a general observation. These measures seem to centralise in a substantial manner the way in which we will be authorising the various GMO products, and it is unclear to me what effect this will have on the overall European balance between decisions being taken by a member state and decisions being taken centrally by European institutions. Can the Minister give us an overview as to how this stacks up against the principle of subsidiarity and the overall context of the matter? In some other recent debates in the Committee there has been a move towards a more centralised structure. We are always cautious about that—and on the last occasion the Minister was, too.

We must also take into account the background of a fast-moving scientific culture. Knowledge in this field is constantly developing, and new reports are frequently produced. The protagonists on one side of the argument say, ''The science is this,'' and those on the other side say, ''The science is that.'' The Committee that was tasked with looking into this area said that we needed a debate. Therefore, I seek reassurance from the Minister about these particular authorisations. They last for 10 years, and derogated products—products that already exist—are given a nine-year period before they must renew, and when a product is renewed it is renewed for 10 years. Those are long periods. If the science changed, and immediate concerns developed as a result of a change in the way in which science was perceived, would it be possible to suspend or modify the authorisations that had been given? If so, on what grounds would that be done?

The effect of the European Parliament's decision would be to subject 30,000 products that contain GMO-derived ingredients, and that are not restricted in any way, to labelling requirements. What would be the effect of that in terms of enforcement, given that many of the end products are analytically indistinguishable from material from non-GM sources? The scale of the change would be enormous and would go far beyond what is disclosed in the Commission proposals, and even the worst-case scenario in the report. Under the worst-case scenario, it was thought that the cost to businesses would be £1.6 billion.

The table following paragraph 3.12 of the scrutiny report shows that the cost of the Commission proposal plus the cost of covering products produced from GMOs would be £1.588 billion. Given that that is the worst-case scenario, and that the Minister says that that would not be the full cost, what will be the cost of the European Parliament proposals as amended? Are the labelling rules practical and proportionate? There are already labelling requirements in respect of ingredients and so on. Given that the rules will go that much further, will they fit in with the present labelling requirements; if so, how would that work?

Will not the consumer want to know which products have the least GM involvement? Many consumers might like products to be GM-free, but if it were not possible to get to that state of perfect grace, they would then choose a product with very little GM-involvement at all—one that contained some GM ingredient that it was not even possible to detect

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scientifically. Is not the European Parliament saying that even a product with the most minimal involvement with GMOs would have to have a label saying ''containing GM ingredients''? If that is so, would consumers be misled? When they looked at the products, all they would see would be the label saying, ''containing GM ingredients'', and even though one product might have hardly any GM involvement, and another might be almost entirely GM, there would be no way of telling the difference. Is that not against consumer choice to a considerable extent?

The Minister made the point that fraud will be a temptation if one cannot verify what has happened. We support GM labelling, but we would like it to be truly verifiable and would like to allow consumers a real choice. We believe that the proposals, as amended by the European Parliament, could mislead consumers and lead to large-scale fraud. We also think that consumers should be able to make choices with the maximum scientifically valid information available.

On enforcement problems, we would like to know what the cost will be and how many businesses will be affected, and I hope that the Minister will confirm the various points that I have raised. To what extent will the measures fall disproportionately on small business? I have asked some questions about the European food authority, but the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Whitty, said in his remarks to the Scrutiny Committee that the Government have

    ''strong reservations about the proposed approach for safety assessment, in as much as the type of scientific committee which might be involved is not specified''.

Are the Government flagging up a worry that the committee might not be genuinely scientific or that the personnel who serve on it might be wrong? What problem with the scientific committee have the Government identified?

What is the scientific justification for a threshold? Is it possible to check for 0.5 per cent. adventitious contamination at the moment? Is the science or mechanism available to check at that low level? Are the Government satisfied with the threshold approach that has been adopted?

With regard to the effect on third countries, will the unique identification codes be consistent with the OECD approach? That point was made earlier. What will be the external impact of the labelling requirements on developing countries, and has an assessment of that been conducted? What has been done to check whether the process, which could be seen as erecting barriers to developing countries, is compliant with the WTO approach? It is notable that Lord Whitty talks about the possible cost of a trade dispute. Is that because the Government believe that the measure might not be WTO compliant and that a trade dispute is likely? If so, with whom would we have the dispute, and what would its extent and cost be? If we are to have a set-to with the Americans—as we are in other areas—that could be very costly, and it could have a substantive effect on world trade and the world's prosperity. We have seen that before during trade disputes between Europe and the USA.

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The amendments in the European Parliament were tabled by non-Conservatives: the Greens and the Liberals. I understand that British Labour MEPs did not vote at all. Is the Minister satisfied with the approach of her colleagues in the European Parliament? The UK Government have put forward a very specific position, so how can Labour MEPs not back that up?

5.42 pm

 
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