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The recent media campaign against genetically modified crops and foods, which has resulted in a significant loss of public confidence, has now been exposed as lacking, as yet, any credible scientific basis. Clearly, the Government are determined to rebuild that confidence, and last week we announced a series of measures designed to do just that. These measures constitute our GM policy, while scientific research and monitoring continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Reay, asked whether antibiotic resistance marker genes were being phased out. The paper published by the Chief Medical Officer in May recommended that those developing genetically modified foods should be encouraged to phase out the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes as soon as feasible.
I was also asked about independent monitoring. The Government consider that consent holders may carry out monitoring themselves, or contract independent organisations to do it for them. The methodology is the important factor.
Points have also been made about the negotiations on de minimis in the Council of Ministers. The Commission was due to issue a proposal by the end of March. Unfortunately, that, along with many other things, has been delayed following the Commission's resignation.
On the issue of the rotation of ACRE members, under post-Nolan rules, nine members of ACRE are obliged to retire as they have served two terms. One has also resigned. The Government see no reason not to comply with the guidelines. Obtaining 10 new members provides an opportunity to broaden the professional backgrounds represented.
I was asked whether the new strategic commissions would be scientifically based. They are intended to complement existing regulatory commissions, and to look more broadly than purely scientific issues, including questions of ethics and public acceptability. They will be able to include scientific members, and will have scientific expertise in the secretariat.
My noble friend Lord Grantchester asked about the six-mile corridor. We recognise the organic sector's concern to avoid contamination. We understand that the Soil Association is considering a new set of standards. It is not clear to us whether the standards will include a six-mile buffer zone. The John Innes Centre will shortly be publishing a report which concludes that complete genetic purity simply cannot be guaranteed. But it recommends appropriate safeguards. The SCIMAC guidelines, which we endorsed last week, include separation distances, and if experience shows that they are insufficient SCIMAC has indicated its willingness to amend those rules.
Several noble Lords asked about the effect of Bt maize on the monarch butterfly. In any event, that particular GM crop will not be grown in the United Kingdom, nor does that butterfly live here. However, the Department of the Environment will consider that information carefully and will ask the advice of ACRE on the implications for the United Kingdom.
On the question that my noble friend Lord Shore raised, which I batted off, I should tell him that member states can put forward objections based on particular environmental circumstances in their territory. There is provision for restrictions in the European Union approval process which would avoid prejudicing those issues. We could include restrictions on a geographic or environmental basis.
The right reverend Prelate said that it is crucial to ensure that GM modification is introduced with full consideration of the implications and risks. We believe that risks are dealt with by the appropriate scientific advisory committees. The broader issues, including ethical issues, will be considered by the new commissions.
He also asked also about farm-scale evaluations, comparing the effects of GM crops with conventional crops. We have taken independent expert advice in designing that research, including advice from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Ecologists have advised that, owing to the comparative nature of that research, base-line surveys are not necessary before that research is begun.
The right reverend Prelate said that the four-year evaluation is not long enough. Our policy is to consider the results of the farm-scale evaluations year by year. If necessary, we shall consider research beyond 2002 and will take the appropriate scientific advice on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said that the Government are allowing commercial planting of GM crops. That is not correct. The Government are taking a precautionary approach of managed development. Areas grown will be limited. There will be scientific monitoring of the ecological effects. We shall not sanction unrestricted commercial planting unless we are satisfied about the results of the monitoring. As I said, we are operating the precautionary principle in regard to that.
I thought the noble Baroness said also that the scientific evidence is changing week by week. That is not our experience. The media stories certainly change week by week, but the scientific evidence available to us is certainly not complete and may evolve, but so far it is summed up consistently by the Chief Scientific Officer, who says that there is no inherent risk in GM foods.
The noble Baroness raised the scale of the evaluation. There is a need to carry out that research on a commercial scale in order to address the biodiversity issues properly and in an appropriate context. But the areas planted will be limited to 20 fields for each crop per year.
The noble Lord also mentioned the risk of a trade war with the United States. He is absolutely right. Great care is needed in this area. We believe that the best way to avoid any problem is to ensure that decisions are based on sound science which is universal. That is our approach.
The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, raised the need for international controls. The United Kingdom has participated actively in negotiations on the biosafety protocol to the convention on biodiversity which will control trans-boundary movements of living modified organisms. We were disappointed that there was no agreement in Colombia in February, but will strive to keep up the momentum and seek agreement.
The noble Lords, Lord Reay, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Rathcavan, mentioned the burden on restaurants. The Government undertook two public consultations before introducing the labelling regulations. They took place in July last year and February this year. The Government consider that all food containing GM material should be labelled. Given the current absence of thresholds, manufacturers and retailers should take all reasonable measures to establish the content of the food that they sell in accordance with the "due diligence" provision in the Food Safety Act.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, spoke of the timetable for the introduction of GM cereals. Genetic modification in cereals is much more complex than in other crops. We believe that it will be several years before any GM cereals reach the market.
The noble Lord also asked about herbicide tolerant crops. We accept that there are particular risks. That is why we have set up the farm-scale evaluations to see whether serious problems arise. We have encouraged industry to draw up the SCIMAC guidelines. We are requiring that herbicides should be specifically re-evaluated for their new use on GM crops. We have also set up an ACRE sub-group to examine that issue.
Earl Peel: My Lords, will the Minister give way? He referred to the importance of the interface between genetically modified crop areas and organic farms. Does he agree that it is equally important to have a sensible regard to the interface between genetically modified crop trial areas and any areas of farmland where nature conservation schemes are in progress? The dangers of cross-pollination and damage through sprays are just as important in those areas as they are within organic farming areas.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I see the importance of the noble Earl's point. I have been talking for 30 minutes and I still have a string of questions to answer. With the permission of the House perhaps I may write to the noble Earl and to any other noble Lords who feel that they have been neglected.
Lord Reay: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all those who have taken part in this debate, members of the sub-committee and the welcome number of speakers who are not members. Everyone said something complimentary about the report. Some said a great deal that was complimentary--none more so than the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, whose previous incarnations as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Secretary of State for the Environment admirably qualified him to give endorsement to our conclusions. What appealed to him was our recommendation that the member states within the European Union should be allowed to opt out of the growing of genetically modified crops, not the import of foods, for domestic or environmental reasons. I believe those are the words we used. I am grateful to the noble Lord for demonstrating that it is arguable, from the words of the EU treaty that such opt-outs would already be legal. As he pointed out, that position is not yet endorsed by Her Majesty's Government, either at the start of the debate or at the end.
The issue of the terminator seed, the one-use only seed, was a matter of concern for several noble Lords, particularly as regards developing countries. That was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, and others. Many crops today are hybrids which lose their vigour after first use and require new seed the following year. That is likely to be the case, so far as we could see, for genetically modified crops. But I did not quite understand why the right reverend Prelate considered that our report had been cavalier--I think that was his word--in our treatment of the issue as concerns developing countries. Paragraph 69 of our report goes at some length into the interests of the developing world in this science. In paragraph 86 on the one-use only seed, we state:
In regard to trade matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, called for a change in the onus on the World Trade Organisation to respect the environmental conditions and concerns of individual states. I thought that was a most interesting proposal and would like to take it back to our committee for use in another context or possibly for consideration in its own right.
My noble friend Lord Haddington brought forward for our attention another issue, the threat to bees from genetically modified crops. I suggest that, if he could amplify it somewhat, the matter could be passed on to the Government's new commission on agricultural biotechnology.
I am grateful also for the welcome the Minister gave to our report and I thank him for the answers that he was able to give to the questions which I put to him. As for those which he did not have time to answer this afternoon, perhaps he will send answers to speakers. Perhaps he will also ensure that the replies are placed in the Library.
A great number of other interesting points have been raised this afternoon. We have had a fascinating debate. I agree entirely with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that everyone has brought to the debate his own angle, and Hansard will repay careful study. I beg to move.