Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, surely he has something to say from the Conservative Opposition Front Bench about the Select Committee's recommendation that each country should have the ability to opt out of importing an approved genetically modified foodstuff or crop from within the European Union?

Lord Luke: My Lords, I believe that I understand the drift of the noble Lord's question but I have nothing to say on that subject.

4.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the noble Lord's final remark. I was struck by the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, as regards possible problems with Dolly the sheep. However, I do not think that those problems are confined to sheep. I am 64 but by this time I feel and think that I am 99! At times I think there are noble Lords in this House who suffer from the opposite delusion!

27 May 1999 : Column 1124

Even on the sunny eve of a Bank Holiday I welcome the opportunity for a debate on this important issue and so many impressive contributions have been made today. I offer my congratulations to the European Communities Committee on such a helpful report which has brought a welcome sense of balance and proportion to the whole question of GM crops and their products, particularly with regard to the clear and succinct summary by its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Reay. It is a pity that its appearance was followed by a period of unprecedented hysteria in the media and among certain pressure groups. This "Frankenstein" behaviour in the media has served only to frighten and confuse the public. More factual information and calm debate would certainly be welcome. I have been asked some 40-odd questions today. I shall answer as many as possible, but I shall write to noble Lords if I do not respond to them verbally.

The Government's first priority has always been, and will remain, the protection of public health and the environment. In this we have taken a cautious approach, based on science. This position was clearly restated in the Government's announcement last Friday.

In paying tribute last week to the Select Committee's work my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer observed that the package of measures he was announcing came to very similar conclusions to those of the Select Committee. These included the creation of two strategic commissions--the human genetics commission and the agriculture and environment biotechnology commission--which, together with the food standards agency, will advise Ministers on future developments and address broader issues such as ethical considerations. The Government also endorsed the SCIMAC guidelines for the cultivation of GM crops. At the same time, the Government's Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser published their report on GM foods, concluding that there is no current evidence to suggest that GM foods are inherently harmful. That is our present scientific advice.

Genetic modification offers a wide range of potential benefits for agriculture, not least a reduction in agrochemical inputs, as evidenced from commercial production in the United States. Benefits will not be realised unless industry is allowed to proceed with development. It is a major plank of our policy that United Kingdom farmers are not denied access to GM technology, providing justified concerns can be addressed. It is as well to be aware that last year some 35 million hectares of GM crops were grown commercially worldwide, of which Europe accounted for only 22,000 hectares. The main areas of cultivation are the United States, Canada, South America, Australia and China. The area under cultivation is expected to increase significantly again this year and trade will grow.

As to trade, where a product has been approved following a scientific assessment, any moves to ban its sale unilaterally would be illegal under both European Union and WTO rules and would be likely to lead to challenge by the exporting country. Equally,

27 May 1999 : Column 1125

a requirement to segregate a product once it has been approved following an extensive safety assessment would contravene WTO rules.

A wide range of controls is in place at European and national levels on GM foods, releases of GMOs into the environment, seeds and pesticides. Where we in Britain think it is justified we have gone beyond the legislation--for example, in encouraging industry to draw up the SCIMAC guidelines on growing of GM crops and in setting up farm-scale evaluations to test ecological effects. I will come back to these initiatives shortly.

Many noble Lords raised the subject of fish, including the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and we recognise the importance that they attach to controls on GM fish. Although the Government did not respond specifically on this point, EC Directive 90/220/EEC covers the deliberate release of all GMOs, including fish, into the European environment. The Government also take very seriously releases of transgenic fish in other parts of the world and play an active role in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which in 1994 established a code of practice on the release of GMOs into open marine and fresh water environments.

Perhaps I may deal with two questions, particularly as the noble Lord was courteous enough to give us advance notice. With regard to the domestic aspects, I have said that the Government take the matter seriously. Work on any GM animal in laboratories is already regulated under the GMO contained use legislation. Work on GM fish will not be allowed unless it can be demonstrated that the facility in which the work is carried out will be absolutely secure. There will be inspections by the Health and Safety Inspectorate to enforce this.

As for international controls, the biosafety protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity is under negotiation, though the talks are currently suspended. The draft protocol addresses unintentional trans- boundary movement of living modified organisms likely to have adverse effects on biodiversity. The United Kingdom is keen to resume the talks with a view to concluding an agreement.

The directive which covers the release and marketing of genetically modified organisms is currently being amended. Revision is particularly timely in view of the extensive discussion and public concern in the United Kingdom and elsewhere about GMOs, their impact on the environment and their use as food.

In response to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about monitoring, I am pleased to remind noble Lords that at last December's Environment Council, European Union Ministers agreed to apply provisions for post-market monitoring, as developed up to then, forthwith to new applications to market GM products under the existing directive. This strengthens the Government's commitment to take the wider biodiversity implications fully into account.

In the area under discussion today many of the most difficult issues arise in relation to the environment rather than in regard to food. With regard to GM crops, the Government have been working to implement two major

27 May 1999 : Column 1126

initiatives announced in your Lordships' Select Committee last October. The programme of managed development will ensure that the first farm-scale plantings are strictly limited and monitored closely for their impact on biodiversity alongside conventional crops. If a problem emerges, the Government will not hesitate to take appropriate action.

That programme will be underpinned by the industry's SCIMAC guidelines on the growing of herbicide-tolerant crops. These guidelines will ensure best practice in the growing of the crops. The Government endorsed this approach in another place last week.

Biodiversity is indeed a very important issue. English Nature and other environmental bodies, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have argued that GM crops should not be grown commercially in the United Kingdom until we know more about the environmental effects. We take the views of English Nature seriously, but we believe that a moratorium is unnecessary. We very much welcome what my noble friend Baroness Young said about that. The best way to answer the concerns about biodiversity is to carry out realistic farm-scale evaluations, and that is exactly what we are doing. I am pleased that English Nature is taking an active role in the steering group. The programme started this year and the monitoring is costing £3 million. Moreover, our legal advice is that a general moratorium is unlikely to be defensible.

I mentioned the SCIMAC guidelines. I should point out that new legislation controlling the growing of GM crops would need new primary powers, which would certainly take some time to obtain. In this context, we concluded that the best alternative was to encourage the industry to develop voluntary guidelines. The group of organisations doing this work is the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops--SCIMAC. It includes the main players in the seed, agrochemical, supply trade and farming sectors. Their object is to ensure that the introduction of the new crops into United Kingdom agriculture is managed responsibly. The guidelines will be enforced through legally binding contracts, penalties for non-compliance and through independent audit. The Government have welcomed the guidelines as a useful step forward. In the longer term, we consider that they can form the basis for legislation.

The issues of cross-pollination and organic crops have also been raised. We recognise the concern about research evidence on long distance pollen transfer. This comes from government funded work aimed at quantifying the issue. Pollen can travel long distances but in normal agriculture most plants are pollinated by those near them in the same field. Frequency of cross-pollination decreases rapidly with distance. The SCIMAC guidelines include separation distances based on those which already successfully protect the integrity of commercial agricultural crops. On organics, the Government recognise that the organic sector, which we have done much to support, has a particular concern to avoid contamination of its produce by GMOs. We are in discussion with it about the practical safeguards which can be put in place to achieve this.

27 May 1999 : Column 1127

I assure the House that the Government are committed to taking full account of the wider biodiversity implications of GM crops. This year we see the introduction of the farm-scale evaluations as well as the enhanced risk assessment and monitoring provisions agreed by the European Union Environment Ministers last December. The Government's statutory advisory committee on releases to the environment has set up a sub-group to consider the wider biodiversity issues. The sub-group will take into account existing government biodiversity commitments such as the biodiversity action plan. The future commercial introduction of GM crops must not prejudice our commitment to halt, and where possible reverse, existing wildlife decline in farmland.

I turn now from crops to GM foods. All genetically modified foods to be marketed in the European Union are subject to a thorough and rigorous safety assessment under the terms of the EC novel foods regulation before being permitted to enter the food chain. Safety assessment of GM foods includes full assessment of the toxicology, allergic potential and the risk of antibiotic resistance being increased and is backed up by an extensive research programme of more than £1 million a year. We are committed to the introduction of post-market monitoring for added reassurance.

We also bear in mind the importance of consumer choice, in giving people the facts about GM foods and letting them make up their own minds. We have pressed hard for labelling rules that allow consumers to do just that. The United Kingdom is leading the way in Europe by ensuring that labelling rules also apply to restaurants, bakers and delicatessens.

It has been said that public confidence must be rebuilt. I agree with that. But rebuilding public confidence will take time. During that time we are pushing a food standards agency forward. We intend to introduce a Bill this Session, if there is sufficient time, which could mean the agency up and running in the first half of next year. The strategic commission announced last week working alongside the agency to provide a broader view of biotechnology developments has an important role to play in rebuilding public confidence. I wish to reassure the House again that we take this issue most seriously. The Government recognise the considerable economic potential that GM technology has to offer. Nevertheless, we are not rushing headlong into the widespread planting of genetically modified crops in this country. We already have a robust regulatory framework in place, covering the approval of genetically modified crops and foods. That framework is kept under constant review. Indeed, we are pressing for a number of revisions to the deliberate release directive to ensure that it keeps pace with developments well into the next millennium.

We welcome rational public debate on this important and understandably controversial issue.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page