Genetically Modified Food and Feed

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Mr. Jack: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Younger-Ross: No, I want to make progress.

The subject of GM seems to be the pet of hon. Member for South Thanet—it ought to be better trained. There are many reasons why people will not buy GM produce. They may think that there is a health risk—I do not necessarily believe that it represents

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much of a health risk. People will not buy meat because they do not like the killing of animals and some people will not buy GM produce because they do not want the risk of its impact on the environment. They might be worried about the impact on biodiversity. On new produce and its impact, there is a big difference between the plains of the American mid-west and the valleys and coombs of Devon.

The public have every right to be sceptical. They have been misled too many times in the past. It is only right and proper that politicians in Europe and in this House should be cautious and consider the matter in detail so that they can give the public true choice. Choice is about variety. One of my concerns about GM produce is that it will eventually lead to a lack of variety because dominant varieties, such as one type of tomato, will emerge. I like different types of tomato, and I like my food. I like to eat different things. I do not want to find that only one tasteless brand of tomato is available in the supermarket, because of the cost of production and the way in which products are marketed.

Mr. Jack: I may have said during the debate that I support GM. However, I have also supported the work of people who produce crops through integrated crop management and organic production. As a keen allotmenteer, I take a keen interest in a variety of production methods. I want diversity too, but I am prepared to support new technology—just not at the expense of everything else.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification. I hope that he accepts that some of the concerns that people have about GM may be well founded. However, I apologise if I have misrepresented him.

Dr. Ladyman: Can the hon. Gentleman explain what the method of achieving a varietal change in a species has to do with the ecological impact of that variety when it is planted? The ecological impact of a variety of crop is to do with the properties of that crop, not whether it has been produced by old-fashioned, plant-breeding techniques or by modern GM techniques.

Richard Younger-Ross: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but old-fashioned husbandry techniques change things gradually. New techology does not. It makes changes in leaps and bounds. It is right and proper for people to be concerned about that. We have not got to the bottom of it, but there were leaps and bounds in how we render meat and the BSE crisis may have been the result, although that still has to be proven. Action taken in leaps and bounds produces results that we do not necessarily want.

Let us return to the main substance of the debate to which the Minister will be responding. Concern has been expressed about the proposals. Although we on the Liberal-Democrat Benches support them in general, some questions must be asked. Labelling is particularly important. It is no good having only two

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labels, one saying that the product ''contains GM'' and one that says ''GM-free''. There should be more variety. Producers should be encouraged to say whether products are 10 per cent. GM, 20 per cent. GM or whatever, so that the public understand the quantity and the nature of the GM produce that is in the product. Labels must be clear and concise. These days, we almost need a PhD in science or nutrition to read labels. I become confused when working out what products contain, as I am sure do most other hon. Members. Therefore, GM-free should mean GM-free. If there are any residues, they should be as small as possible. Thus, I hope that the matter of 1 per cent. or 0.5 per cent. will remain open, so that the percentage can be reduced to the finest, not the fattest, point of a pin.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that ''organic'' means purely organic, or should that description also carry some warning because of cross-pollination?

Richard Younger-Ross: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Labels should show the correct description. If products cannot be guaranteed to be 100 per cent. organic, that should be specified on the label. I am not in favour of misrepresentation. It makes the public cynical about what is being presented to them. We must be open and honest, not slightly misleading.

Dr. Murrison: The hon. Gentleman is saying not that products should be labelled ''GM-free'' or ''GM-possibly'' or ''definitely-GM'', but that we should be saying 19, 29 or 30 per cent. GM. How on earth can that be enforced? He represents a constituency that is not dissimilar to mine. How will he sell such an idea to farmers' markets and women's institute markets? It would put them out of business.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman misses my point. I am suggesting that percentages would be better for the public. I am not saying that such legislation should be enforced. A label that states that the food contains GM products would be adequate. If we only end up with two products and one is GM free and the other contains a majority of GM products, the public will be confused about what they are eating. I want to encourage manufacturers and producers to put more information on to product labels. The public have shown much interest in such labelling.

I am worried that with European legislation comes a paper chase and enforcement throughout the EU. Time and again, legislation is introduced and implemented more strictly in the UK than elsewhere. I welcome the fact that a central unit will control such matters. It should help to ensure that enforcement and labelling are the same throughout the EU. I ask the Minister to consider that, as well as the paper chase, and the amount of paperwork that is required.

On adding to the work load of farmers, DEFRA already produces forms that are far too complex and exacting for small family businesses to complete, and if they get something minutely wrong, they are penalised

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much more severely than is reasonable. I hope that this paperwork will be implemented in such a way as to avoid that problem.

We must also consider the cost to farmers and the way in which the documentation comes in. I am particularly concerned that small farmers will have to face the costs of testing. The Minister indicated that that would be the case. I ask her to look at that again, to find out whether there are ways of dealing with the problem.

I am particularly concerned about the impact on small farmers in the third world, to which the Minister referred. I would hate to think that a mechanism that should protect those producers might put them out of business because they cannot pay for the testing costs and the documentation. I want the Minister to ask the EU to consider how to deal with that.

6.25 pm

Ms Blears: I will do my best to respond to the wide variety of questions that have been raised. In the four weeks that I have held this post I have been on a fairly steep learning curve, especially in relation to the science that is involved. I have enjoyed this debate, and some of the issues that have been raised have led me to want to find out more about the practicalities of what this means for communities, as well as to tackle the purely administrative process with which we are dealing. Therefore, I look forward to appearing in front of the Committee again, when I will perhaps have a little more background knowledge.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire raised a general point about the balance of decision-making power. We recently discussed the herbal medicines directive. We debated the difference between a centralised approval procedure and one that is based in member states, and how to get the right balance in the relationship between them. Although this directive's proposal is for the European food safety agency to have a role, it will not be an exclusive role: it will draw on the skills, talents and experience of the member states, which have been built up over the years by their scientific committees. The decision about authorisation will also remain with member states; it will be for them to decide whether authorisation should be granted for use across the EU, although that decision will be made on the basis of qualified majority voting. Therefore, once again, there will be a coming together, and a balance of power in decision-making between the central organisation and the different scientific committees that operate at present in member states. However, I acknowledge that this directive proposes to take that approval process closer to the centre.

Several hon. members mentioned the way the science is developing: if the science changes, is there provision to withdraw, suspend or revoke authorisation? I can reassure them that the answer is, ''Yes, there is.'' If new information calls into question a safety assessment, a product could be withdrawn. That is an important safeguard for consumers.

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Reference has been made to enforcement, the possibility of fraud, and the costs of enforcement. As I explained, four options were set out in the RIA, with the approximate costs—and it must be said that they are very approximate costs—with regard to the effect on business. We set out the costs of segregation of crops and traceability. As I understand it, the European Parliament has voted for the Commission proposals, together with a reduction in the threshold to 0.5 per cent., and it has not supported the extension of the threshold into the non-EU approved 14 crops that are waiting to go through the process. Therefore, it has chosen option C—or the third option—for which the figure is about £720 million, together with the enforcement costs that were identified by my hon. Friend Lord Whitty of about £6 million for inspection and sampling. However, enforcement costs could clearly be greater than that, although how high they would be would depend on what action needs to be taken.

Several hon. Members mentioned the view that is taken of these matters by the World Trade Organisation and third countries. I understand that the Commission has notified the WTO of its proposal. The proposal has attracted comments from several countries and the Commission is responding to them. It is too early to discuss proceedings in the WTO, particularly as the proposals are not yet in force, but we are working hard to ensure that the final rules will be proportionate and that we shall not face proceedings in the WTO on restrictions.

Hon. Members asked whether science is capable of reducing the threshold from 1 per cent. to the proposed 0.5 per cent. level. I understand that at present the threshold throughout Europe is 1 per cent. No country goes below that level. Existing detection methods can enforce that threshold, but they cannot reliably measure at 0.5 per cent. That measurement might be possible for some products in certain circumstances, but not necessarily for the whole range of products.

 
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