Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

3.5 p.m.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, I wish to add my thanks and congratulations to those of other noble Lords to the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, on the thorough way in which he has steered the committee throughout the inquiry, to the Clerk, Mr. Jake Vaughan, on his excellent support of the committee and to the specialist adviser, Dr. Julian Kinderlerer, who was able to give so much of his time and expertise in this complex and fast-moving field of biotechnology. I declare an interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire.

I should first like to say how encouraged I am that the committee undertook the inquiry. The committee took the risk that events could overtake or make the report redundant on this highly contentious issue. However, it has proved to be an extremely timely report, as media reports have highlighted the issue as the latest food scare story.

Apart from the inevitable cries from pressure groups, the report has generally been well received as a balanced, stabilising voice in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear engendered by pressure groups. Many of the committee's recommendations have not only been accepted but implemented already.

In this regard, I am particularly pleased that only last Friday the Government answered the call for a more strategic committee to examine more general issues and to co-ordinate and plan policy, by setting up two new bodies; namely, the Commission on Human Genetics and the Commission on Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology. It is also particularly pleasing that the Government have agreed with the report and have resisted calls for a blanket moratorium on the development of the technology through the use of large-scale farm trials. It is only through realistic and rigorous trials that an accurate assessment of risks can be undertaken.

"Genetically modified crops are potentially beneficial to the environment and to human wellbeing". "Genetically modified crops are potentially harmful to man and nature, the manufacturers are only in it for the money and their products should be banned". Which view will prove to be correct? No one can say emphatically that GM crops are wholly safe or dangerously unsafe. As a comment to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I would say that nothing can be proven safe; tomorrow's dynamics may be different. What we are concerned with is the management of risk.

However, the public relations battle is swinging firmly in favour of the "antis" who can manipulate the lack of official information to their advantage. Farmers are stuck in the middle. They look across the Atlantic at the rapidly increasing acreages of GM crops and wonder how they can compete in a freer world trade

27 May 1999 : Column 1099

environment if they are not allowed to grow crops that can be more economically produced. The big agri-businesses need farmers to make land available for trials of GM crops, but farmers will be reluctant to come forward knowing that as soon as crop trials are under way they will be targeted by vandals intent on destroying the sites and that the courts may well--as occurred last March--rule that trespass and damage are a legitimate means of protest. Nor do farmers want to grow crops which the public perceive to be a threat. Farmers are acutely aware through experiences already gained on the issues of hormones and BSE that public confidence is vital to sustain the industry. All the fears and questions raised on environmental issues, terminal genes, cross-species transfers and economic and patent matters must be addressed.

Another factor further unsettles farmers. Ministers and government officials appear to be running scared of GM issues. The Government should be setting up the framework for debate and rule-making, not taking sides through forced statements whenever GM crops hit the headlines. A re-think to their approach is vital. It may be that biotechnology will benefit mankind. Equally, we could live to regret staking the future on an untested technology. The Government's duty is to ensure that we make the right decision and that requires judgment and leadership. The announcements and assurances on the safety of GM foods and crops have all the resonance of the BSE disaster.

What does biotechnology bring to agriculture? Quite simply, the breeding of new crop varieties with enhanced value. Once they have identified the new gene, breeders have a more targeted technology that will incorporate the desired, and only the desired, trait into the genetic make-up of the relevant organism. Furthermore, this desired trait need not be restricted to organisms of the same species. Varieties can be created that otherwise would be effectively impossible. It is this last point that makes the technology so exhilarating and also so dangerous but perhaps also separates biotechnology from the continuum of breeding technology. It offers a strategic leap for agriculture. As with all technologies, it does not make any intrinsic value judgment; it is how one utilises the technology that is decisive. The technology can benefit all types of farming in all corners of the world and can have a dramatic effect in developing countries. Biotechnology does not make any statement concerning the intensity of agricultural production or the tendency to monoculture.

It was interesting that during this inquiry all the criticisms of modern agriculture were loaded onto biotechnology, whereas perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it is the management within farming systems, not the systems themselves, that produces the negative aspects of modern agriculture. It is unfortunate that the system of agriculture which potentially will have the most to gain from biotechnology--the organic sector--should reject it so vigorously. This is all the more perplexing in that organic farming from its early days was a method of production that made no statement on genetics and worked with the same material available throughout

27 May 1999 : Column 1100

agriculture. Yet, clearly, there could be some tremendous gains regarding pest and disease-resistant varieties that avoided the use of sprays.

It is unfortunate that the Soil Association, an organic certifying body of the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) should do such a disservice and utilise the distorting media tactics of the pressure groups as it tries to stop the technology's development. Bearing in mind the Soil Association's hostility to the technology, can the Minister comment on the call for a six-mile corridor between GM and organic crops?

From the farmer's viewpoint another major issue is the impact on his customers--the consumer--of labelling. The success or failure of the technology must ultimately be left to consumer choice. Given public anxiety it is bizarre that an adequate and robust system of labelling has not been addressed and implemented throughout Europe. For this to be effective, segregation must be implemented throughout the food chain. With the benefits of lessons learnt from the BSE debacle, the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) is to be congratulated on its initiative not only to guarantee segregation and clear labelling, but also on the introduction of an agricultural code of practice which it must continue to develop.

The Government agree with the Select Committee's recommendation that only products where the transgene or its products are detectable should be labelled. Can the Minister bring the House up to date on discussions with the European Commission on whether a list of products that do not require labelling is ready to be published? The Government are to be congratulated on the introduction of regulations on the labelling of GM soya and maize that apply to foodstuffs in shops, restaurants, cafes, bakers and delicatessens. However, there does not seem to be a threshold. Can the Minister update the House on the deliberations on implementation of the threshold level? Can the Minister confirm what I understand from other noble Lords: that processors and producers will be liable to prosecution should products become contaminated with a minute amount of GM soya or maize in a continuous processing system?

Farmers look to Government to set the framework of informed debate. The initiatives announced last Friday should begin to clarify the debate and must be implemented immediately. Consumers will look to new advisory bodies to co-ordinate recent developments. They also require an independent source of information regarding GM food and will look beyond the specific approval committees. That role should fall under the remit of the proposed food standards agency. That was a vital element in the Labour Party manifesto prior to the last election. Can the Minister give the House any indication when implementation of that proposal is likely?

Genetic modification in agriculture covers many issues. I have limited my remarks to the impact at the farm gate. There is anxiety about the decline in the diversity and abundance of wildlife within and surrounding farmland as farmers have adapted techniques to drive down the unit cost of production.

27 May 1999 : Column 1101

The introduction of GM technologies must not contribute further to these declines. If farming is to continue to respond to the challenge of world competition without subsidies, which would indicate a continuing emphasis on efficiency, we must look to introduce GM crops in a more integrated approach with an emphasis on positive management for wildlife and diversity. There is no reason why the two should not work in conjunction.

It is imperative that the monitoring system takes into account any potential harms from a GM crop compared with the management system and compared with the harm caused by existing agricultural practice. It is vital that aspects which result from genetic modification are not confused with management practices. What wildlife is expected from farms and how is it best achieved?

The debate on genetic modification will have been timely if it focuses attention on the problems arising from the intensification of agriculture. The technology must be allowed to proceed, with due care as regards its implementation. I commend the committee's report to the House.

3.16 p.m.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer although no genetically modified plants so far as I know grow on my farm. Having spent a good deal of the past 35 years in this building as a member of various Select Committees, this was the first time since I joined your Lordships' House two years' ago that I have sat through an entire inquiry. I found it the most rewarding and fascinating experience. I, too, wish to pay a warm tribute to my noble friend Lord Reay for the way in which he steered the committee over that time. It has been admirable.

Perhaps I may make a point which I have not heard expressed in the debate. I refer to the new science of genetic modification. We must realise that so far we are only just scratching the surface of what can and will happen around the world over the decades that lie ahead. Virtually nothing has been done so far in genetic modification of animals, but that will all come. This is only the beginning of the start, if I may so put it. There are huge possibilities in the future.

Some noble Lords including my noble friend Lord Wade made the point that genetic modification is an extension of what the classical plant and animal breeders did in the past. I hate to argue with my noble friend but I do not agree. I agree rather more with the right reverend Prelate. We have here a totally new form of breeding of plants and animals. Perhaps I may cite a short extract from the magazine, New Scientist. It said that genetic modification is not an extension of classical breeding. You can cross a donkey and a horse and get a mule. But you cannot cross a donkey with an oak tree. With GM technology you can cross all the biological boundaries. That is an important matter. However, because of that I despair of the way in which some individuals and companies have tried to explain to the public what is involved with genetic modification.

27 May 1999 : Column 1102

The noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, made this point. In the past Monsanto has demonstrated that it is not good at public relations. It is only one of the several culprits in this field. It is a tragedy that the case for genetic modification has not been put over very much better.

In consequence, during the past year or two we have had a field day of silly journalism; ridiculous stories about "Frankenstein foods". It is so easy for smart journalists to exploit the inability of science, acknowledged several times in the debate, and to say about a food or a medicine, "This one is 100 per cent safe". You just cannot do that; it is the nature of science. Mankind has always lived with the risks involved in such developments.

However, knowing our press in this country, I believe resignedly that it is too much to ask of them not to let the evidence hinder a good scare story. That is the tragedy. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, made the point that the new science of genetic modification is moving at an unbelievably fast rate. It seems yonks ago since the Select Committee's report was published and a good deal has changed since then.

I have no difficulty whatever in endorsing the Select Committee's conclusion that on the evidence it heard there are huge benefits to agriculture, industry, consumers and the environment through the careful exploitation of this new science. On the evidence I have heard, I have no difficulty in eating foods which the regulators in this country have passed as being safe. Having said that, and acknowledging the great expertise and caution which bodies such as ACRE and other regulators have used, I am clear in my mind that I am not satisfied with the current structure of regulation to deal with the developments which we have before us and others which will come in a great torrent in the years ahead.

I was one of those members of the Select Committee who was immediately taken with the proposal of the Royal Society that there should be an overarching regulatory body to investigate the whole subject and consider carefully the risks and hazards which clearly lie within it. I was pleased that the Select Committee endorsed a recommendation similar to that of the Royal Society's.

Last week, the Government told us in their Statement that they are proposing two similar commissions to do much the same thing. I shall not argue with that; one or two committees is neither here nor there. But the Government have picked up the point that it is necessary to have better regulation of the introduction of these new forms of plant and animal life into the environment and into our food chain.

I strongly endorse what the Royal Society proposes and what the Government are doing because the evidence produced since genetically modified organisms were introduced into the food chain and the environment indicates that we have had too many near misses or near accidents. I wish to quote a few of them which cause me concern.

I begin with the extraordinary story of the genetically modified salmon. I shall not go into detail because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who has

27 May 1999 : Column 1103

written most interesting articles on the subject, will do that. All I say is that the Scottish Office allowed those developments to be pursued in Scotland after they had been refused in North America. I find that an astonishing decision which, frankly, should never have happened. I hope that your Lordships will hear more of that from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in a few moments.

We also had a near accident, as I describe it, over genetically modified Bt maize which made this new form of maize poisonous to its major pest, the European corn borer. Perhaps I may elaborate. Around the time of the approval of Bt maize for use in the European Union, research by Swiss scientists was released suggesting that lacewing insects were killed when fed on the larvae of corn borers which had died after eating Bt maize. The research was criticised at the time because it later became apparent that the lacewing would not in practice gain access to the larva of the corn borer as it was physically inside the maize and the insect could not get at it. However, it seems to me that that research was something of a false alarm. But, at the same time, one is forced to wonder whether the regulators should not have spotted the possible dangers earlier on because Bt maize was being grown around Europe in particular at that time.

Lately, we have had other scares. A number of your Lordships have spoken about the effects of genetically modified pollen on butterflies. That was not spotted earlier, and I suggest that it should have been. The noble Lord, Lord Reay, referred to the problem of superweeds. That is another problem which has caused a certain amount of disquiet.

There will be hiccups as GM science develops. There are, and always have been, risks when new techniques are introduced into our lives and the environment. There will particularly be risks in the sheer mechanics of genetic modification. When we inject a new gene into a cell, we can never be absolutely certain which gene has been injected. We are also not absolutely sure of the effect that injection has had on the adjoining genes to the one that we are seeking to replace. That, again, means there is uncertainty in this new science. That is why we need to be so much more vigilant in future.

Like others, I congratulate the Government on refusing to be panicked by the scare stories with which we have been beset. I particularly welcome the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, last week to the Select Committee for its report. I feel just as confident about that report as I did when we finalised it at the turn of the year.

Undoubtedly, we have a situation where there is a good deal more concern about GM products in Europe compared with the United States. I return to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I believe that he is absolutely right in saying that there are here the seeds of a major trade dispute with the United States in the future. As many of your Lordships may know, I am involved with the British-American Parliamentary Group. As long ago as last November we held a meeting in London with a large group of United States congressmen. I tried to explain to them the genuine

27 May 1999 : Column 1104

concern in Europe over the implications of introducing GM products. They must not feel that we in Europe are using this concern as a reason to erect trade barriers. We are not. There is clear anxiety here which, strangely, is not found in the United States.

I conclude by saying that I hope the Government will use every opportunity to try to make clear to the United States that we are generally confident about GM products, but our anxieties about the risks and the hazards are real. The US should be understanding about that and not rush to arms as they have done in the past with regard to things like bananas and other products which have caused misunderstandings about trade between Europe and the United States.

3.31 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I, too, begin by declaring an interest in this area, though an academic rather than a financial one. For the past 15 years I have, wearing my academic hat, been tracking and writing about the development of biotechnology as a new technology. It is against that background that I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and his committee on a thorough and sensible report on this much-hyped subject.

The report endorses the precautionary principle which has underpinned the British approach to regulation and the approach adopted by the European Union under British guidance ever since we first began experiments in this area in the 1970s. In those days we were dealing with what was known as "contained use"; in other words, laboratory experiments which at that time had to be conducted in sealed rooms reached through a series of decontamination chambers. But it was rapidly apparent that that degree of caution in relation to this new science of test tube experiments in cloning was unnecessary. Even to this day laboratories which undertake genetic engineering are required to notify their local health and safety authorities that they are undertaking these experiments and to observe a strict code of conduct.

These experiments are now commonplace, both in academic and pharmaceutical company laboratories. They have helped to produce a new generation of biopharmaceutical drugs and vaccines which are beginning to come into the market place. They have been readily accepted because of their obvious utility. I have yet to hear somebody reject a new drug because it has been genetically engineered, yet many of the new drugs being launched at present, and that are very effective, are derived from this source.

The problem with genetically engineering plants for agriculture is that at some point we have to move from test tube experiments, beyond the laboratory and out into the environment. The question that then arises is not whether the plant will survive and exhibit the traits expected, but whether the transgenic characteristics of the plant will cross-pollinate with other wild species leading, perhaps, to uncontrollable and unexpected developments in the natural environment. That is why field experiments have been careful to cut off the flower

27 May 1999 : Column 1105

heads before they seed, and also to curtain off the experiments from other crops. To date, that is the point we have reached with experiments in this area.

There have been no commercial plantings in this country of genetically modified crops, and we are still two to three years away from being able to do so. We still need to see whether large-scale plantings have any adverse effects on the crop itself or, which is more likely, on the environment. As the report sensibly remarks, unless we carry out such field trials, we cannot tell whether they will have adverse effects.

In this regard, I should like to join others in saying that it is most unfortunate that those companies which are pioneering these new techniques are pushing hardest in the herbicide-resistant crops in the Round-up Ready maize and wheat crops. Given the wealth of wildlife in the British countryside and our awareness of the degree to which we have already lost birds and wild flowers to herbicides, pesticides and other intensive farming techniques, it seems to me that we need this new type of product, which still requires intensive doses of broad spectrum glyphosate herbicides, like a hole in the head.

There are three issues in the report in particular that I should like to raise. The first was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling; namely, the lack of symmetry between developments in the US and those in Europe. As the report makes clear, there is now a very considerable gap between the regulatory processes in the US and in Europe in relation to GMOs. This arises because, again, as the report makes clear, the US procedures look only to the protection of agriculture and not to the protection of the environment. As a result, we now find ourselves in a position where we are importing considerable quantities of genetically manipulated maize and soya, which are entering the food chain as animal feed and as ingredients in many manufactured foodstuffs, such as cakes and biscuits.

However, as we discovered with beef hormones, we cannot just say to the US, "Sorry, we prefer not to eat these products", or that we would prefer to offer people the choice of being able to eat them if they want to and, therefore, we require separate labelling of them. For the WTO, we have to be able to prove that they are scientifically a hazard to the health of ourselves or our animals, which they are probably not. But we cannot yet be 100 per cent sure of this and the majority of the population do not wish to take that risk at present.

At this point I have to say that I was somewhat disturbed, when studying the testing that took place on the Round-up Ready soya beans, to discover that the toxicity testing involved had been conducted on plants that had not themselves been treated with Round-up. As we know that this particular herbicide changes the chemical composition of the plant, surely we would wish to be quite clear that what we are being offered is not toxic in itself. However, to refuse to import such products on those grounds, or even to ask for them to be shipped separately and labelled, would be judged as an unfair barrier to trade under the present WTO rules. Moreover, as with bananas and with beef hormones, if the EU takes this line, we shall find ourselves locked in a trade war with the US.

27 May 1999 : Column 1106

I know that I am not the only person in your Lordships' House who feels that, as things stand at present, the WTO position is too strongly pro-trade and pro-US. Countries should be able to decide for themselves what levels of risk they are willing to accept and not have these decisions imposed upon them by a trade organisation which does not have, nor aspires to have, the confidence with which to judge the wider matters of the environment. The WTO system needs to be reversed--the burden of proof should lie on the producer countries to provide the strong scientific evidence that their products are not harmful rather than vice versa, as is the case at present.

Moreover, it is also important that the WTO system is not allowed to ride roughshod over other agreements, such as the 1992 convention on biodiversity, negotiated post-Rio, under the aegis of which a biosafety protocol dealing with the issue of the international movement of GMOs had been negotiated. The US is not a signatory to the convention. It is significant that, like the US, the WTO does not observe the agreements negotiated under the convention. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will, in the context of the millennium round of the WTO, be seeking to amend the WTO rules to ensure that they respect multilateral environmental agreements.

The second issue which I wish to raise is what I call the seed corn issue; namely, the farmers' right to retain seed for replanting. As paragraph 86 of the report makes clear, this is not seen as a problem by the American Soy Bean Association, which is used to using hybrid seed varieties and buying fresh seed each year. Even so, I can assure your Lordships that where the seed is not hybrid but is genetically modified, Monsanto for one is insistent that at the farm there is strict segregation of the GM product from other species so that it can ensure that none of the maize is retained as seed corn by the farmers that use it. This makes all the US claims about not being able to segregate at source somewhat disingenuous.

However, the issue that really concerns me here is the impact of these developments on third world countries. This issue has been raised by a number of other speakers in this debate. As the report makes clear, if used properly there are benefits to be gained by the third world from this new technology, but not, I suggest, from the route of hybrid seeds and the collection of royalties. As the third world charities are making clear, their problems are not so much a lack of food production as a lack of competent distribution systems. We must be careful not to destroy that which they have. When we see the havoc wrought on the British countryside by the monoculture regime of the CAP, we must think carefully about what kind of regime we want to export.

Finally, I wish to raise an issue closer to home. The report which we are debating today--with which we largely concur--suggests a continuation of trials subject to tight risk assessment analyses, and then, if we go forward with commercial release, continued monitoring and assessment. As I have made clear, this precautionary approach is one with which I am very much in agreement. However, I am worried about whether MAFF and the other institutions in this country have

27 May 1999 : Column 1107

the capabilities to undertake these tasks. I bring to your Lordships' attention a statement that Professor Beringer made which is mentioned in a recent report of a Select Committee in the other place on the scientific advisory system in relation to GM foods. Your Lordships will remember that Professor Beringer is the chairman of the ACRE (the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment). He told the committee that,

    "nine people ... have to deal with all the work to do with releases in this country, all the interactions with Europe and all the international work and it is just not enough. It has not been enough for nearly three years now ... People are working extraordinarily long hours; they are terribly over-taxed".

This report, and the Government's response to it, add considerably to the requirements for proper risk assessment and proper monitoring procedures. Yet simultaneously we have run down our scientific Civil Service and cut back on R&D. Total MAFF expenditure on science, engineering and technology--the so-called SET expenditure--fell between 1986-87 and 1998-99 by 45 per cent. Its research budget fell by 28 per cent. Yet reliable press reports now indicate that the MAFF R&D budget is to be cut by another £13 million over the next three years.

It is all very well setting up new committees and asking for improved risk assessments and continued monitoring, but that is useless if we do not have the numbers or competence of staff to fulfil these requirements. I hope that we can get an assurance from the Minister today that the Government will staff these positions adequately, and that in doing so they will not contravene the requirements of the working time directive, and also that at a time when MAFF should be expanding rather than cutting back on its research budget, we shall see an increase, not a cut, in its R&D budget when the new Forward Look projections are published next month.

3.43 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, we are discussing a highly important subject. I was pleased to sit on the committee which considered the issue in such great depth. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has already "blown my cover", I should declare an interest as the chairman of English Nature, the Government's wildlife adviser. I shall not talk at all about the food safety issues of GM foods or the ethical issues. However, I shall talk about the potential impacts on wildlife--I stress the word "potential"--of growing GM crops. I shall finish by saying a little about the issue of public concern.

In committee and in talking about GM crops, I had considerable difficulty with semantics. We hear much about "could" and "might"--GM crops "could" do this and "might" do that--and about the potential risks and potential benefits they might deliver. The noble Lords, Lord Gisborough and Lord Wade of Chorlton, talked about there being no evidence of environmental risks. Equally, there is no evidence of environmental benefits. The reason there is no evidence is because comparatively little research has been done.

Perhaps I may speak briefly about the environmental background against which the debate is taking place. We are talking about a 30-year period over which we have

27 May 1999 : Column 1108

seen declines of as much as 70 per cent in common farmland birds. The skylark is down by 75 per cent; the song thrush by 66 per cent. Those birds were once extremely common in the countryside. It is only a signal of the decline in biodiversity elsewhere; in farmed landscape, in plants and in insects. That is the kind of background against which the technology is being introduced.

We are now beginning to see some of the research put in place that will eliminate potential environmental risks and potential environmental benefits. I shall not go into detail about the potential environmental risks. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, gave an excellent account of the very good work being done by the Game Conservancy to enumerate from its long experience what could be the risks that arise from the inappropriate use of this technology. I shall simply enumerate the classes of risks that could occur. There is the dreaded superweed and the issue of genetic creep into other plants that could create herbicide-resistant weeds; there is the issue of competition, the creation of more vigorous strains of plants that could out-compete native plants; there is the issue I designate as the "pineapples on top of the Cairngorms" whereby new strains of plants with improved resistance to cold, drought or poor soil are created that could grow in areas where previously crops would not grow.

The noble Earl gave us the benefit of his conservancy experience when he talked about perhaps the most important issue of cleaner and cleaner fields--the potential for the technology to create fields that are virtually weed and insect free. Alas, one man's weed and one man's pest is wildlife's valuable food. Were that to happen, crop fields could potentially become biodiversity free. I stress that we are talking about the potential impact. Remarkably little scientific research has been carried out. I am pleased that the field and farm scale trials will be going ahead over the next few years.

Perhaps I may mention another issue of semantics, the dreaded word "moratorium". It is unhelpful to call for a moratorium in the commercial exploitation of these crops. There should be adequate field and farm scale trials, properly controlled and properly monitored, to assess the impact of these crops on the environment before full commercial release is permitted. The trials should continue for as long as is necessary to gather the scientific evidence and to allow thereafter a suitable assessment of that evidence. That does not only need to be done for the crops the subject of the current field and farm scale trials but for all successive new crops which emerge as the technology develops, as it undoubtedly will. A call for a moratorium is an unhelpful generalisation.

One other element that the field and farm scale trials need to illuminate with proper scientific evidence is management of the crops, not simply their design and genetic modification. Much of the impact of genetic technology in crop production will come from the way in which real-life farmers manage those crops, and the field scale trials need to illuminate that.

The SCIMAC--supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops--voluntary code of practice, which was recently issued, aims to lay down some guidelines

27 May 1999 : Column 1109

for farmers in the management of these crops during the field and farm scale trials. I believe that the code is flawed in two ways. It does not in real terms address sufficient management provisions to ensure that biodiversity will not be affected by the crops. It may be sufficient for the current very small-scale field trials, but as the trial process becomes bigger over the next two or three years I do not believe the SCIMAC code will be adequate.

Moreover, in the longer term, when we are talking about average farmers on average farms not subject to trial provisions, there needs to be something stronger than a voluntary code if the management conditions about pesticides, rotations and the availability of sacrificial strips for wildlife, a whole variety of management conditions, are to be properly taken care of.

The history of agriculture, alas, in regard to voluntary codes of practice is not good in terms of either the knowledge of farmers about the codes or compliance with them. We learnt from bitter experience that we had to introduce statutory regulations for the management of pesticides in the farm environment. In many cases genetically modified crops are the equivalent of such substances, except that here the substances are engineered in rather than applied after. Therefore, the regulatory framework that we can happily work with for pesticides should be introduced for genetically modified crops.

I am very encouraged that the Government are beginning to recognise that there are genuine potential risks for the environment from the use of genetically modified crops and that we need to bottom out the research, taking account of not only the direct effects on biodiversity but the secondary, cumulative effects. The extension of the role of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment in this respect and the addition to it of a wider range of expertise in biodiversity are very much to be welcomed. That is a sign that this is being recognised as a real issue, a point endorsed by Professor Sir Robert May, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, very recently. Let us get the science of the potential risks sorted out rather than continue to talk about what might happen.

Equally, we have to do that for the potential benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, talked about the possibility of genetically modified crops meaning less use of herbicides and pesticides. One thing we need to get clear about pesticides and herbicides and their impact on biodiversity is that it is not simply a question of volume; it is also a question of impact. The use of broad spectrum herbicides on the growing crop during the growing season has a greater impact on biodiversity than the use of selective herbicides and pesticides outside the growing season, particularly in the case of herbicides. We need now to have real research on the biodiversity impact in order to be able to understand the impact of these crops used in practice, in the field, with real applications of herbicides and pesticides, to understand exactly how we could develop for the future crops that had real wildlife benefits.

It is disappointing that absolutely no work is being undertaken, either by the Government or by the crop companies themselves, to engineer crops specifically in

27 May 1999 : Column 1110

order to bring positive wildlife benefits. There are no official or company research programmes directed to developing crops which will have clear environmental and biodiversity benefits rather than simply agricultural benefits.

The work in the United States which is often quoted in this respect is not applicable here. We have heard that the United States agriculture system is very different from ours. A very small proportion of the land surface there is under agricultural production, and most of the wildlife and biodiversity is in separate very large-scale areas set aside particularly for wildlife, in the form of national parks and so on.

In this country agriculture and wildlife have to co-exist. Seventy-five per cent of our land surface is under some form of agricultural production, so land for agriculture is land for wildlife. We cannot segregate the two. When the Minister responds, I would ask him to dwell a little on how measures could be introduced to encourage crop companies to develop work on crops which might bring positive environmental benefits.

A second area of potential benefit from GM crops is increased yields. As these crops have higher yields, one could therefore say that less land would be under agricultural production and more land would be available for biodiversity. That is a potential benefit but it does not necessarily follow and certainly has not done so over the past 30 years. Our experience with increasing agricultural intensification has been that more land rather than less land has been brought into agricultural production. I ask the Minister to consider a scheme whereby farmers growing GM crops which have higher yields in an intensive fashion are asked, and perhaps are required, to provide land out of intensive production to enable the wildlife populations which may not survive within the crops to survive adjacent to the crops.

I want to conclude on three issues which to some extent follow on from the question of how we can get proper scientific evidence about the potential risks and benefits of these technologies. The first concerns organic production. For a variety of reasons we are seeing in this country a huge increase in the public's wish to buy organic foods, yet considerable concerns are being raised by the organic movement about the possibility of continuing organic production if contamination from GM crops occurs. Greater and greater separation distances are proposed as a result of pollen spread. If we are genuinely talking about organic farmers not being able to survive GM-free without six-mile separation zones, we are talking about the end of organic production in this country. I would ask the Minister to be more positive than the Government were in their response to the committee's report. They said:

    "The Government is concerned that the introduction of GM crops into agriculture should not compromise organic production. It has therefore urged the proponents of growing GM crops here in the United Kingdom to address the issue of the interface with other crops, including organic crops, through specifying separation distances and consultation with neighbouring farms where appropriate". In view of the public's growing wish to be able to choose to buy organic foods, that is a rather flabby reply.

27 May 1999 : Column 1111

One of the issues that is raised whenever this subject is discussed is whether we are turning our guns on the right issues. It is asserted that non-GM intensive agriculture already impacts on biodiversity; and so if GM crops have the same effect, why are we criticising GM crops? I wish to make two points on that assertion. First, GM crops have greater potential for even cleaner insect and weed free crops as a result of broad spectrum herbicides applied within the growing season.

More importantly, we must learn the lessons of history. It would be bizarre if we had 30 years of experience of the impact of intensive farming on biodiversity but we chose simply to say, "Alas, if new technologies are arising, we will continue to allow those impacts to happen rather than learn from the experience of history." I am not saying that we want to stop GM crops as a result of this history. I simply believe that we have to learn from the scientific evidence as to the real risks and how they can be mitigated and have more application to how science can produce real benefits.

I conclude with some comments about public confidence and concern. In a letter dated 4th May, Sir Robert May wrote to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about his "tentative taxonomy of worries." His tentative taxonomy of worries consisted first of food safety; secondly, of the issue of genes leaking out; and, thirdly, of the acceleration of agricultural intensification. Sir Robert says that he is most concerned about that third issue.

Public concerns are often about all three of those issues in a rather non-specific way; all in a rather hot-house atmosphere that is highly charged as a result of BSE and other food scares. The Government must not deal with this public concern simply as a public affairs issue, thinking that if only the pressure groups and the media would not go on about these issues, everything would quieten down and go away. A long-term systematic effort will be needed to rebuild public confidence. One way of doing that would be to take on board the concerns expressed by experts about the impact on wildlife, and to address them systematically and thoroughly through a process of risk assessment and proper research. That is the only way that a proper scientific basis of public confidence in GM technology can be re-established.

4.3 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, this is the first time I have had the pleasure of speaking after the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I thank her for her kind remarks about organic farming which have forestalled much of what I had to say.

If genetic modification of plants providing our staple diet can be proved to provide a sustainable environment we shall have gained a remarkable power to reverse the state of all things natural at the will of scientists. The benefits are clearly presented in the admirably concise report of the committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Reay. I join in the congratulations that he and his committee have received and make particular mention of my noble friend's forthright and clear opening speech.

27 May 1999 : Column 1112

The benefits, which extend beyond agriculture, to medicine, vaccines and possibly to fossil fuel replacements are not to be ignored but are not relevant to this debate. For myself, I am not particularly concerned with the impact on food, which has become a scare issue. However, I am concerned about the environment. Its importance to society overrides all other benefits.

There are problems of contamination of neighbouring fields by drifting pollen and natural fertilisation by bees and butterflies which can have a 5 per cent. chance of successful pollination at a range of 4 kilometres. That is somewhat less than the six miles called for by the Soil Association, although no doubt I shall be called to account for mentioning it.

My noble friend Lord Reay suggested that 6 miles was a wrecking demand. Perhaps it is, but it also indicates the concern felt by those who farm organically. It represents a serious concern for the Soil Association and all organic or extensive farmers. The question is: how can such systems be provided with a ring fence in our small and crowded island? The field trials may no doubt provide an answer in due course.

Nature does not react immediately but slowly and inexorably, and we do not know what rogue and volunteer weeds will have established themselves in a generation's time, or whether we will be able to control them. Much mention has been made of scare stories. This is not a scare story, but merely a call for a look at the precautionary principle. Indeed, as for concern, the general public can well wonder when it is realised that Cornell University has issued a report justifying these very fears.

The current process is self-admittedly called a shotgun approach, indicating that an unknown number of gene packages end up in unknown destinations in the genome of the plant. Such a random system precludes any determination of the possible side effects. It appears that the scientists are all satisfied with what I consider to be a rather dangerous state of affairs. We have the greatest scientists in the world in this country. Professor Beringer has been mentioned. He is, beyond dispute. But the scientific community has not been all that successful in the past 30 or 40 years. Mention has already been made of DDT. What about aldrin, deldrin, organophospates, not to mention the pharmaceutical problems arising now with the antibiotic resistance? Scientists are part of our whole system but they are not always right; one has to be extremely careful.

Nevertheless, scientists can be extremely accurate in incorporating a terminator gene which will prevent the seed from reproducing. That is ironically called protecting their intellectual property rights. It may be intellectual but I am fairly sure that it is immoral. Selling non-reproducible seeds to the third world farmer is a despicable trick. Meanwhile, the shotgun gene can come from anywhere in the living world--plant, animal or microbe. It can cross the biological boundary. In that case, we have dangerous mutations, as already shown with deformed fish and mice and many other mishaps, including the news in today's press of accelerated growth of the cloned sheep, Dolly.

27 May 1999 : Column 1113

The problem is international. We now know that 70 million acres will be planted with GM crops in the American continent next year which, incidentally, is nearly three times the total agricultural land in the United Kingdom. There will be enormous benefits from increased yields, lower pesticide crops and easier harvesting. It will be possible to throw fertiliser onto the fields immediately afterwards and repeat the process ad infinitum. It is all magic. Hey presto. Suddenly, we have discovered how to beat nature and its inhabitants for ever. I do not believe it.

The catch is in the monoculture system, the use of fertiliser and pesticides and the condition of the soil. It is a precept of organic farming that monoculture agriculture and a sustainable biodiversity are mutually exclusive. We know that modern intensive farming methods require chemicals that have a reduced effect over a period of years so that ever-stronger and more unpleasant concoctions have to be produced by the agri-chemical industry to overcome the flagging effects of last year's products. With the monoculture system in particular, the need for increased supplementary chemicals is typical and cumulative. The degradation of the soil will demand ever-more powerful chemicals. The effect on the environment will be equally cumulative.

The report of my noble friend Lord Reay is sanguine about the effects for organic farmers. I look forward to the next report of his committee which has recently examined organic farming. As I indicated, organic farmers are very concerned about the issue.

As many noble Lords have said, the problem is international. It is unlikely that the World Trade Organisation will allow the EU to ban imports for long and our own farmers must be straining at the leash to take part in that bonanza. My fear is that as we have a relatively enclosed, indeed dense, environmental area in this country, there can be serious disruption of other farming methods. We do not have the wide open spaces of the American continent and it may be that that will be a deciding factor in the final argument. Genetic modification is a scientific juggernaut, developed by chemical giants to increase their hold on farming communities which have become evermore industrialised over the past 40 years. It does not seem possible to stop it unless there is international action, which is unlikely in view of the stranglehold that the US can develop over the world's cereal market or crop, which must be the next and immediate target.

This is a vexed question. My noble friend's report has clarified the issue remarkably well. However, as noble Lords will accept, I remain only slightly less alarmed.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Moran: My Lords, I was glad to be able to take part in this interesting and challenging inquiry. I, too, should like to pay tribute to our chairman, our specialist adviser and our Clerks for the valuable way in which they guided our considerations.

I agreed with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said about the handling of this question in Europe. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wade, I was appalled by our meeting with Commission representatives in

27 May 1999 : Column 1114

Brussels. The noble Lord described the meeting as disappointing. I would describe it as truly dreadful. It was sobering to think that the people to whom we were talking decide agricultural policy throughout Europe.

Our report was criticised as putting too much emphasis on the potential benefits of GM technology. But we have already seen the great benefits of genetic modification in the production of medicines, notably insulin for diabetes. We did spell out and emphasise the risks and the need for caution. On the very first page of the report we said that,

    "there are serious potential hazards and risks which must be addressed by proper regulation". We joined with the Royal Society in recommending a stronger regulatory body. The Government have now established two commissions and I welcome that.

The report covers the health questions fully on pages 32 to 34. I was persuaded that GM foods are not in themselves harmful, although I am glad that we agreed to call for the swift phasing out of antibiotic resistance marker genes. This month we have received the authoritative report on the health aspect by Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert May.

In relation to the environment there are real problems. I fully agree with the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on those questions. I would only add that we need to consider the effect of new hybrids arising from genetically modified crops, which can cross with wild plants and may in due course reduce biodiversity among wild plants. That would be a serious matter.

The best summary that I have seen of the environmental problems is in the discussion paper produced by Dr. Parrish and other members of the Biotechnology Safety Unit of the DETR for the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment. Its title is, The Commercial use of Genetically Modified Crops in the United Kingdom: the Potential Wider Impact on Farmland Wildlife. I commend it to the House. It is an admirable report. It makes it clear that any possibly risks from GM crops are on top of the enormous damage to farmland wildlife that has already been done by the intensification of agriculture. As the Government are committed under the UK biodiversity action plan to preserve numbers of farmland birds, plants and insects, it is important that that question should be addressed.

I have a real concern about the fact that this technology is industry-led and that so much of the research is conducted by commercial companies which are primarily interested in profits. I was very concerned when I read that the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge had been bought by Monsanto. We deal with that matter in a very gingerly way in paragraph 85 of the report.

Like other noble Lords, I am worried about the so-called "terminator technology". I note that no less an authority than Sir Ghillean Prance, who is director at Kew, stated in a recent article that,

    "Fortunately, because of much protest, the use of terminator technology has been delayed and hopefully will never be applied". I very much hope that he is right.

27 May 1999 : Column 1115

I wish to raise one question in the debate: transgenic fish, specifically transgenic salmon. I must declare an interest as the Chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association and Vice-President of the Atlantic Salmon Trust. I have given the Minister detailed and comprehensive notice of what I plan to say and I hope he will be able to give me a full and reassuring reply. He has kindly sent me a letter, which I received this morning and for which I am grateful. In it I am glad that he says that the Government take my concerns on the matter very seriously. However, it does not address some of the key matters I have raised.

Nearly all our report is on plants, but one of our recommendations in paragraph 156 on page 44 is on fish, about which some of us had serious worries. It is short and I will read it to your Lordships

    "Fish are being modified for rapid growth and cold tolerance and further modifications are in development. Once released, it would be impossible to recapture a fish or to control its breeding (unless sterile). Fish do not respect national boundaries and we would be very concerned if sea or river releases were to take place here or abroad. We strongly recommend that there be an international agreement prohibiting such actions. Any trials or commercialisation must be in containment and not released into the sea or freshwater network". We were concerned about the experiments on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll, about which the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, spoke earlier. They are described on page 356 of our evidence volume. As he said, we were particularly concerned about the fact that it appeared that this experiment, which has now been discontinued, was not apparently allowed in North America, but was nevertheless being carried out in Scotland.

This is all about the technology which has been developed by an American company called A/F Protein Incorporated. The company is putting into salmon two genes. One is an anti-freeze gene derived from the winter flounder which will allow salmon to survive in icy waters much further north than they already do, so that they can be bred in sea cages far north of Passamaquoddy Bay, which is at the moment the farthest they can go northward. The other is a growth promoter gene derived from the chinook, one of the Pacific race of salmon, joined with a promoter from the ocean pout. It causes them to grow throughout the year, whereas normally wild salmon do not grow in the winter months. Therefore they grow far more rapidly, up to 50 times the speed of ordinary salmon, and they grow to a monstrous size.

I was worried that the Government did not respond specifically to our recommendation, particularly as I had expressed to MAFF beforehand the hope that they would do so. I would now like to ask the Minister this: do the Government agree with our recommendation? If not, why not? If so, what are they doing to bring about an international agreement prohibiting releases to the environment? Such an agreement is urgently needed.

Soon after we produced our report, there appeared a press report on 10th March to the effect that A/F Protein were producing about 100,000 transgenic salmon which they propose to sell within two years to salmon farmers all over the world. On 18th March I wrote to MAFF

27 May 1999 : Column 1116

saying that if the press report was accurate--and I urged MAFF to check it--then I thought the matter should be referred to the Government's Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review Group which is now sitting under the chairmanship of Professor Lynda Warren. I thought that they should institute urgent talks with the United States and Canadian authorities to determine what actions are necessary to ensure that there is no risk of the escape of non-sterile transgenic salmon to the open seas.

Can the Minister say whether the press report is accurate? If so, have the Government asked the review group to consider the whole question? Have they had talks, as I have proposed, with the United States and Canadian authorities? If so, what are the results? If they have not had such talks I very much hope that they will initiate them without delay. I do not believe that it is adequate to leave it to ICES to consider the problem. That body is concerned with releases, which I do not believe are planned at present. I am concerned about escapes, not releases.

Essentially, I have two worries: first, the likely public response to the sale of genetically modified salmon. The consequences of a scare for the fish farming industry in Scotland could be calamitous. I hope that the Minister is in touch with his noble friend Lord Sewel on this matter. Secondly, I am concerned about the possibility, indeed the probability, if commercial exploitation of transgenic salmon is followed up, of escapes into the wild. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) considered this matter in 1996 and said:

    "If such salmon are used in existing cage technologies they will inevitably escape to the wild and there are good reasons to believe that the inserted genes, which may be from other species, will be transmitted to the wild stocks. There are great concerns about the effects of transgenic salmon which pose a completely new and significant risk to the conservation and management of the wild stocks, and which scientists believe could destabilise aquatic ecosystems. The UK Government's independent panel on sustainable development has stated that the next major environmental or health disaster is likely to be caused by genetically modified organisms".

I ask the Minister to urge his department to take this problem more seriously and to keep this House and bodies like the Salmon and Trout Association and the Atlantic Salmon Trust fully informed of developments and of its thinking.

4.22 p.m.

The Earl of Haddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak in the gap. I should like to add to the tribute already paid to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and his committee for producing this report on genetically modified crops and tabling this debate today.

I am a farmer and keen naturalist. I have recently asked the Government a variety of Questions on genetically modified crops, in particular on the control of genetically modified material escaping from trial plots of oilseed rape. My concern arises because there are many wild plants in the environment of the same brassica family as oilseed rape. It is very easy for GM pollen to cross-pollinate with these plants and imbue

27 May 1999 : Column 1117

them with the same properties to be found in genetically modified crops, for example resistance to pests and such like.

However, there is another concern: damage to bees. Last year it was believed that the intestines of bees had been affected by genetically modified material, in particular from trial plots of oilseed rape. I have not received a clear Answer on the point, but I believe that research continues. I should be grateful if the Minister could provide an update on that matter. One of the Questions that I have tabled is concerned with the gap between a genetically modified trial plot and plants in the natural environment and other non-modified crops. The reply I received was that there was a sufficient gap of, I believe, 10 feet between those crops. A bee has a range of some five miles. A 10-foot gap is not sufficient.

I am a beekeeper. Another concern is that apiarists who attempt to sell honey as an organic item have now to discover whether there are trial plots in their area. If there are, they can no longer sell their produce as a purely organic item. I heard recently of a farmer who had to dump some quantity of his honey because he cannot now sell it.

However, there are many benefits to be derived from the genetic modification of crops. I am not out to knock this brilliant scientific progress. There is benefit to be derived from obtaining the nitrogen fixing gene from clover or maize and crossing it into wheat and barley, thus negating the need to spread large quantities of nitrogen on the fields, most of which finds its way into watercourses. That would clean up many of our river systems and be of great benefit to the trout and insects which live therein.

I promised that I would speak for only two minutes. I thank noble Lords for listening.

4.27 p.m.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, this has been a fascinating and informative debate. I greatly enjoyed listening to so many speakers. I rather suspect that listening today will prove more profitable than talking. However, today is the first opportunity I have had to speak in your Lordships' House since attempting to transform myself into a democratically modified being. Unfortunately I failed but, if I read paragraph 12 of the report correctly, I have to keep trying.

I congratulate the committee on an authoritative and well-balanced report and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, on bringing it before the House. Fifty per cent of the speakers today are members of the committee. I believe that virtually every member of the committee has spoken. Far from being repetitive, each one has been more informative than the previous speaker.

It is a timely debate. It is not often that the publication of a report coincides with a major issue bubbling into public attention with its concomitant press attention. Therefore this debate is most useful. The subject is a major issue which is almost a metaphor for our time. We have all the ingredients: the promise of great benefits; unknown technology about which the public are somewhat frightened; and the tension of

27 May 1999 : Column 1118

scientific development versus environmental matters. We have the challenges to morality and ethics. We have profitability, public disquiet and consequent media attention. The way in which we resolve that will be a model for many problems which will be put before us as legislators in the years to come.

There has been much comment about the role of the press as regards GMOs. I find it unhelpful when the tabloid press use wild language to describe a difficult issue. However, it is dangerous to swat aside the press and the press comment because, after all, it is the expression of the grave concerns that exist among the public.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page