Genetically Modified Food and Feed

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Mr. Drew: I am delighted to take part in the debate. I have enormous respect and regard for my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and for the right hon. Member for Fylde, who is a fellow member of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee. They are kindred spirits, and I shall make common cause with them on the reassessment of nuclear power, which is long overdue in this country. However, when they are wrong, as they are in this case—100 per cent. wrong—I shall say so and make no apology for doing so.

To some extent, they demonstrate the classic case of producing evidence without knowing the questions. It is a fundamental mistake to pretend that the public are wrong in this area and that it will all come right in the light of day with a little more scientific explanation and a little more persuasion on behalf of a wonderful industry that has got it all right and knows exactly what will be good for us. That will not happen. For one reason or another, the public have made up their mind on the issue.

I looked forward to the debate. It is a great pity that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon is not here, because by putting down the amendment, which we cannot discuss because he has not moved it, he has drawn attention to the excellent report that we have

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produced. In so doing, he also highlights the need for a proper debate before we draw a conclusion. Both my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and the right hon. Member for Fylde have drawn that conclusion but do not want to have a debate.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman has misdirected himself. He cannot discuss the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, but he can raise it himself.

Mr. Drew: Thank you for drawing that to my attention, Mr. Hurst. I do not want to spend long on the amendment, but it is useful that that point has been made, because the report said that we must at least try to go through the process of having a consensual debate. It will be difficult because the opposing forces are entrenched, but that does not mean that everybody is entrenched. One may be able to draw from that debate some facts that need to be highlighted to establish clarity on the issue, which is why today's debate is so important.

I am not sure whether I fully understand the Government's stance, nor what the Commission has been saying; I only know what I have read about the European Parliament's subsequent action. In many respects, I welcome what it did because it further hardened the approach to the matter, but it has not gone far enough. I believe, perhaps naively, that there is such a thing as a GM-free product, and the public are looking for such products. Today's press release from the Food Standards Agency poured scorn on many of the labels that the public are expected to read and understand, and says that labels should be much clearer. We could achieve that by stating that food is GM free, rather than trying to limit or graduate genetically modified products. As the right hon. Member for Fylde alluded to, that is like arguing about how many angels can dance on the point of a pin. We should both mean and do what we say.

The simple fact is that I disagree with the Minister. At the moment, there is no shortage of food in the world; the problem is the control of its supply. The debate is being used as an opportunity to redraw the basis of the power that lies behind the production of food, which will not help the third world. Unlike many hon. Members, I have talked to producers from Brazil and India who feel that they are being forced to take the GM road regardless of whether they think that it is right. If they do not take that road, they are shut out of markets. Whatever one's views about the scientific merit of the process, let us not fool ourselves that anything other than economic power lies behind the debate.

I was trying to tease the Minister about being able to define one door and one key, but I would put the matter more bluntly than that. To my mind, one large American boot is being put into the door on the basis that the United States wants to kick it open. The debate is about opening up the WTO to allow GMOs to be made fully available.

Mr. Jack: I am truly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he recall the evidence that Marks and Spencer gave to our inquiry into GMOs, in which

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it pointed out that it was procuring a supply of non-GM product from Brazil? In supplying that sector of the market, Marks and Spencer provided an opportunity to the country about which he has spoken.

Mr. Drew: I well remember that evidence. The question is how much longer Brazil can remain GM free. One question that is never answered concerns the degree to which cross-contamination will occur. My only reason for supporting farm-scale trials—I shall not pre-empt the evidence, because that would be unscientific and lack objectivity—is that all that I have seen and heard suggests that the one challenge that can never be answered is the likelihood of cross-contamination. That is why I return to the basic, na—ve point of view that if a product is GM free I know what it is and consumers know what it is, but it cannot be made so, given the way in which we are redefining agricultural production. That is why our debate is so basic and fundamental.

Dr. Ladyman: It is a pleasure to have a real debate with my hon. Friend. Perhaps he can answer two questions. First, how does a varietal change brought about by genetic modification differ from a varietal change brought about by traditional cross-breeding techniques? Secondly, what evidence does he have that the economic pressures on the third world to take plants and crops bred in the developed world by old techniques are any different from the economic pressures being put on them today?

Mr. Drew: I shall answer the second question first. The answer is: only from what people tell me and by engaging in debate. There seems to be a difference because of the centralisation of the biotech industry, which is fundamentally different from the whole history of plant breeding and has inevitably grown more concentrated. Anyone who watched the series of programmes about the biotech industry on BBC2 on Sundays recently saw how the industry tried to corner scientific knowledge by employing the best brains and marketing its products so effectively that it took out all competition and opposition. That was the only way in which it could make good its huge investment. I am suspicious of that. I may be wrong and the people involved may be altruistic, but the all evidence that has come to my attention suggests that that is not so.

On my hon. Friend's first question, I shall not try, as a non-scientist, to outwit his greater knowledge. All I shall say is that, again, the evidence that I have seen suggests that the fundamental difference is that it is very difficult to reverse the movement of genetic modification and the basic ways in which we are defining plants, in terms not just of their final product but of the processes. That is why consumers are worried about the scientific justification and the economic power behind it.

All I am arguing is that we should have the debate. What is wrong with that? It will not be easy. I have been horrified, as have other speakers in this debate, at some of the extreme comments from both sides of the argument. They do not help the debate, but we must have the debate and take it forward—we have spoken

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rather theoretically today. Whatever the Government do, let alone the Commission with its accountability to the European Parliament, we must stand up to those forces and ensure that the debate takes place before coming to any conclusions. The public will be even more angry and certain that they do not want genetic modification is if they believe that the debate will never be held and that genetic modification will be allowed to enter the food chain regardless of their right to say no. That is all that consumers can do. It has been suggested that some consumers might want to say yes, but if they want to say no and eat non-GM food, they should have that right. People are worried about the manipulation with which scientific processes are going ahead and, more seriously, the way in which the debate is being almost pushed aside. We shall rue the day if we get this wrong. If we are not open and transparent to consumers, they will feel that decisions have been taken away from them, which will have all sorts of repercussions.

I cannot understand why we do not introduce product liability legislation first. I would be much happier were that to happen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) said, it should be clear that the-polluter-pays principle will be exacted; clear product liability legislation would have to be in place for that, so that if the industry gets it wrong it can be held back from more extreme positions.

We always seem to be playing catch up. A door is always being pushed open against us, whether it be the threat of the WTO or the threat to countries in the third world, which have been told that they must have GM seeds or nothing else will be supplied. Product liability legislation is therefore crucial, and I hope that the Minister will comment on that specifically. We have many reasons to listen to consumers and have a debate. We may then reach a different view--although I, for one, am not sure that that will ever happen.

6.16 pm

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made some excellent and pertinent points. I take a slightly different view however from the hon. Member for South Thanet.

I am always concerned when people say, ''I am a GM supporter''. It cuts short any argument or debate—they have already announced that they think that GM is a good thing. I would not say that I am a GM supporter or a GM detractor. A new product must be considered and evaluated. It is wrong to assume that because it is new it will automatically be beneficial. It is particularly wrong to brand anyone who raises concerns and asks questions as anti-science.

 
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