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Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. Perhaps if he takes a look at the Press Gallery he will see the intense interest which the press are showing in your Lordships' debate today.
Viscount Thurso : I am grateful to my noble friend. Clearly, today we are better served by quality than quantity. I suspect that the public perceive a pattern with GMOs similar to that which emerged with previous advances. They begin with a great scientific discovery and it is nearly always a British one. There is then an appearance on "Tomorrow's World". There is then exploitation and great promise and gradually the problems begin to become apparent. There are the unintended consequences, and suddenly there is public concern and distrust. We have seen that with the use of pesticides, some drugs and to a certain extent with the nuclear industry.
The result is that some real and genuine benefits have been lost as a result of too much optimism and not enough precaution. We must avoid that with GMOs. It is imperative that we regain and retain public trust. I believe that it is a question of less haste, more speed. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, mentioned belt and braces. He felt that there already was belt and braces, but I would say that we have the belt but we need the braces. However, if we are to retain public trust which will allow us to go on and exploit the benefits, we must be careful how we proceed.
Listening to the debate today, it seemed to me that, broadly speaking, the matters we are discussing split into four areas. They are ethics, human health, the environment and management. The first three are points of principle and the last one is a point of practicality. I shall deal first with ethics. The right reverend Prelate made a powerful and strong contribution to our debate. He said that not everything that can be done should be done, which is a good guide in examining these matters.
Clearly, in ethical terms there is a wide variety of views ranging from those who, for perfectly justifiable religious reasons, are and always will be violently opposed to those who are merely uncomfortable and through to those who are perfectly happy. However, it is clear that the debate must not focus on the area of scientific knowledge. Simply because science says that something is possible and safe does not necessarily mean that it should proceed. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for having raised that point. The ethical value of what we do needs to be explored further.
As regards human health, if anyone were ever to say that such and such an action or chemical is highly dangerous to humans, no one in your Lordships' House today would seek to introduce it. We would all ban it forthwith. The problem is that there is a scarcity of knowledge and that leads to argument. However, we must not confuse the absence of knowledge with the absence of risk. One aspect which concerns me, and which has been mentioned several times today, is antibiotic resistance markers. I would very much like to see the abandonment of these other than for laboratory use. We are already becoming aware that the over-use of antibiotics in farming generally and in medicine is leading to the arrival of superbugs. What has been a great wonder in medicine is in danger of becoming "has been" technology. Whenever we come into the area of antibiotics, we must be extremely careful.
It is up to producers of GMOs to demonstrate a reasonable degree of safety rather than for those who may be concerned to demonstrate where the dangers are. In that regard I welcome the Statement by the Government on 21st May at col. 549 of Hansard which announced the setting up of the Human Genetics Commission and the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission. Clearly, the message that we must be better safe than sorry is being heard.
The biggest worry is in relation to the damage that can be done to the environment. That has been clear from listening to your Lordships today. Most of the debate has centred on crops. I was fascinated by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who spoke about salmon. I saw exactly the same press release. Being involved in Scottish matters at that time I wrote to the Secretary of State at the Scottish Office. I received from him a reassuring letter. He categorically stated that he both had the powers and would use them, to prevent any import of transgenically modified fish from Canada. However, he left open a chink which implied that if these fish had been imported elsewhere into the European Union they could then be imported from the EU into the United Kingdom. I have written to ask for his views on that. I am still awaiting a response. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, and I are clearly thinking along exactly the same lines, although he has done a great deal more work, for which we are all grateful.
We are both concerned about the danger of the release into the wild, by accident, of animals, particularly fish, which have the risk of dramatically changing the natural DNA strains of wild fish. That is an extremely dangerous area. I also have concerns in relation to animals. There really are worries there. Inevitably, there will be escapees; there always are. How we deal with that will clearly be a problem.
Our debate today centred, in the main, around crops. The damage there is somewhat less obvious than perhaps with animals and fish, simply because they are less accessible. There is also much greater scope for the law of unintended consequences. I do not know how many noble Lords listened to Radio 4 this morning. They may recall Dolly the sheep who was cloned a few years ago. It has been discovered that as the cells from which she was cloned were six years old at the time,
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, said we had a duty to enhance the environment, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Looking at ways in which we can use genetic diversity to enhance the environment is extremely important. My noble friend Baroness Sharp spoke about the management issues of crops. There is a huge danger. We simply do not have sufficient evidence. We must therefore work on the precautionary principle.
I turn to management issues. Proper regulation is the key. It is essential that all these areas are properly regulated. I welcome the initiatives made by the Government with the creation of the two new bodies. However, overall, there are so many bodies now involved in looking at various areas of genetic modification and GMOs that we need to ensure they are properly co-ordinated.
We want to ensure that there is public accountability and transparency. It is vital that the public see what we are doing. A further item that has not been picked up in this debate is the question of liability. Undoubtedly there will be damage of some kind, somewhere. At the moment it is unclear in legal terms who is liable for what damage. I suggest that issue must be clarified.
Labelling has been much mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, a fellow hotelier and restaurateur, mentioned it. I am totally in favour of labelling of products--in fact, I was completely in favour of it until my chef came to explain the difficulties of it in relation to restaurants. I am now having second thoughts about how we deal with restaurant menus. But clearly, labelling to enable people to make a proper choice is extremely important.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the question of a moratorium. I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said that it was unhelpful. The problem lies with the semantics of the word "moratorium". We on these Benches are advocating that no commercial exploitation should take place until such time as sufficient trials and experiments have been undertaken to give the necessary confidence to all of us, and the public in particular, that commercial exploitation is not going to have a negative impact. Therefore, it is not so much a question of whether there is a timeframe of one year, five years or 10 years; it is that there is sufficient time for the experiments to take place so that we have the knowledge before we proceed. On that basis it would seem highly unrealistic that we should proceed before 2002.
The question of organic food was raised, and again I declare an interest since we have a small organic farm at Champneys. Clearly, one of the ways in which farming can make greater profits, if not greater yields, is through producing organic and natural food. It is worth bearing in mind, when one looks at farming in the United Kingdom, that in world terms we are not hugely competitive and many other people can produce the food
Finally, another extremely important matter is the question of the looming trade war with the United States. I am very fond of all my American cousins and my American wife, but I have noticed that the Americans are often materialistic and sometimes quite naive in their approach to life. They have a somewhat simplistic view that is black and white, and they do not see the grey areas. Like the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, I would be very concerned that the Americans view this simply as an excuse for us to have trade controls and do not realise the genuine anxieties that there are in this country. As my noble friend Lady Sharp said, it is imperative that the World Trade Organisation understands that there is more to international relations than simply trade.
Biotechnology clearly offers great potential; of that I have no doubt. It has been a great British scientific success. There is potential for its exploitation and for profits. But all those would count for nothing if the price we paid was damage to our environment. As legislators we owe it to the public above all to regain and then retain their trust. In that, precaution, belt and braces, is absolutely vital. With regard to GMOs, they must be guilty until demonstrated innocent.
We on these Benches welcomed the report of the Select Committee when it was published. We do so again today and congratulate my noble friend Lord Reay and his committee on once again proving how efficiently and well the Select Committees of this House do their work. That is the only thing today that is proven. We can never be absolutely sure. Therefore, caution, balance, common sense and judgment are all required.
Life moves on, and so does this debate concerning genetically modified foods. It could be that next week there will be a new development, or the week after; or, indeed, the week after that. We must all be aware of that possibility. One of the most important factors in this debate is the fact that we are looking at two separate but interlinked aspects to the problem. One is the possible threat to human health, while the other is the possible environmental damage.
In my speech replying to the Government's Statement last Friday, at col. 551 of Hansard, I said that there were three criteria by which we would judge that Statement of government intentions. Does it protect the British people against any possible threat to human health? Does it protect the environment of Britain from any possible damage from genetically modified crops? Does it restore
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, assured the House that the answer to those three questions was yes. He referred to the two new commissions that the Government are establishing on human genetics and on agricultural and environmental technology. So we now know that the Government are indeed taking this matter seriously. They are aware of the need for cautious progress and are also aware of the need to re-establish public trust in the way in which these matters are carried forward.
However, it is quite clear that a great deal more research in all areas is required. That must largely be carried out by independent bodies if the general public is to be convinced at the end of the day. After all, the use of genetic modification in medicine is becoming commonplace and the general public, if it is aware of this at all, has not needed reassurance as to its safety; it is just assumed to be safe.
With regard to environmental issues, these must centre on whether genetic modification is going to spread naturally to other species and perhaps cause the balance of nature to be upset. We agree that test plantings must continue. But here I have a question for the Government. I am somewhat at a loss in this respect. We have heard about test plantings, field trials, farm trials and, indeed, other trials; but are there any strict designations about what these things mean as to their size and their extent? When these plantings are carried out, it is essential that some kind of barrier should be set, either by distance--perhaps six miles will be enough, or perhaps it will not be; I do not know--or by physical means, to stop all but the smallest of contaminations. We can never stop them all. As has been mentioned, the culprits are likely to be bees and wind. What can we do about them? We cannot abolish either of them.
Research into all these matters will last a significant time, not least because it has to prove a negative--that is, of course, if there is no danger from these genetic modifications of crops. Organic farms have been mentioned a good deal today. I believe that they are more likely to be at risk from contamination than any other farming activities. I hope that that matter will be addressed as soon as possible. Above all, consumers wish to be able to choose between food with or without genetically modified components. Therefore, the labelling issue, difficult though it is, must be addressed effectively. However, I do not believe that the segregation of crops, though they talk about it in the United States, is actually physically possible.
I should like to return to one or two points made by my noble friends. In the course of his splendid speech, my noble friend Lord Reay mentioned the question of restaurant labelling, which was also mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. I shall be interested to hear what the Government have to say about whether that can achieved.
The Food and Drugs Administration in the United States has approved all the genetic foods being sold in the market-place over there. I am afraid that I have not had time to try to find out--I would like to know this--exactly what the FDA has said about the safety of genetically modified foods with regard to the United States. However, the prairies of the United States are not, of course, the same as East Anglia, and therefore the environmental risks may be different.
I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Soulsby say that GM foods are probably also beneficial to animal production. I do not know exactly what he means by that or whether he was referring to the monstrous salmon that have already occurred. However, that is a matter that will need to be monitored carefully if experiments in that area are carried out.
My noble friend Lord Jopling said that we are just scratching the surface of the implications of this new technology for the plant and animal kingdoms. That gives us some indication of the scale of what may in 50 years' time comprise the most important method of producing all crops.
I was interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, say that as far as she knew no research had been carried out on growing genetically modified crops that would benefit wildlife. I suggest that that is a possible area of co-operation between English Nature and the Game Conservancy that could greatly benefit everyone.
The development of biotechnology offers enormous opportunities to improve our quality of life. It offers even greater opportunities to improve the quality of life in the third world and elsewhere. In the meantime we on these Benches say that a moratorium--there is that word again--on planting any genetically modified crops on a commercial scale should certainly be in place and that field trials should be most carefully monitored and structured to obtain viable results as soon as possible.
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