The Bill is short and simple. Its effect is also short and simple, although I am afraid that the explanation of its background and the reasons for introducing it are a little longer. I hope that your Lordships will not feel that they are too long.
The Bill amends the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and incorporates a definition taken from the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. I stress those two dates--1990 and 1985. On 16th February, the Parliamentary Secretary for MAFF repeated to this House the Statement which had just been made in the other place. At that time I had the temerity to complain about the Government's failure to stick their head above the parapet, and give what I described as unequivocal guidance to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. In his response, the Minister accused me of having what he called, "some chutzpah", for daring to question the Government on that subject. He then launched into the usual tirade against the previous administration, whom he accused of having done practically nothing.
The two substantial Acts that I have just mentioned are part of the considerable "something" undertaken by the previous administration to protect the environment, as distinct from the mere 160 words of waffle contained in the Labour Party's manifesto. That states:
There is now certainly a demand for more specific labelling, so that members of the public do not have those products literally crammed down their throats without their knowledge. The fact that parts of the public wish to be able to make an informed choice is also beyond doubt. I am sure that appropriate labelling regulations, together with a voluntary code of practice among manufacturers and retailers, will receive universal support. The emotive language used by some
That brings me to the subject of this Bill. It concerns genetically modified crops, especially those in the current course of development and experiment. Every mouthful of food that your Lordships have ever eaten or will ever eat is derived from genetically modified crops or animals. Ever since the first nomadic caveman poked a hole in the ground with a stick and dropped a seed into it at least 9000 years ago, possibly even earlier, both deliberate and accidental cross-pollination, in addition to that occurring naturally, has taken place. Farmers have gradually improved their crops, meat and the milk-producing capability of their animals. Those of your Lordships who follow horseracing are well aware how the breeding and ancestry of each horse can make a tremendous difference to its value.
Then something happened to speed up the whole process of plant and animal breeding; something to reduce the time it takes to cross one plant with a relative, or to graft a plant with one desirable property onto another. In both cases, the growing time that this rather hit-and-miss method takes to produce a result was reduced. What happened was the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953. Their discovery answered one of nature's greatest puzzles; that is, how genetic information is passed from generation to generation. Watson and Crick deservedly received the Nobel prize for their work. The advances in biology generated by that discovery cannot be exaggerated; for example, our understanding of cancer, of genetic and infectious diseases. It has enabled scientists to design plants and animals; to eliminate undesirable traits; or to introduce desirable ones. That is where the need for careful regulation comes in.
Let us suppose a plant is designed which is resistant to a particular type of herbicide. It can then be sprayed without harm to it. But let us suppose that the resistant characteristic is passed to different plants in an adjacent field. We are then in danger of unwittingly creating a breed of "superweeds". For the purposes of testing and experimenting, a sanitary cordon is supposed to be created around the experimental crop. The controversy that has now arisen is over whether the current requirements are adequate or whether a wider sanitary cordon is required. The Government have received a certain amount of contradictory advice from various credible sources. That is perhaps a manifestation of Duggan's law.
To every expert there is an equal and opposite expert. English Nature, the Government's own specialised think tank, recommended considerable caution in the methodology of experiments in biotechnology and the licensing of the ultimate products. The Government's own Advisory Committee on Releases into the Atmosphere (ACRE), for example, recommends a gap
Your Lordships may have observed or even suffered themselves from this phenomenon in the past few days. Anybody travelling around what we call the "West End" will have seen dozens of people with streaming eyes and noses caused by hay fever. The West End is almost solid brick, concrete and asphalt, so where does the pollen that causes the hay fever come from in Central London? The nearest sources in the West End are Hyde Park and Regent's Park. So, maybe it even travels further, but it certainly appears to travel a lot further than a derisory 200 metres.
The Soil Association calls for a five to six-mile cordon, but my noble friend Lord Reay, in his excellent and instructive presentation of the Report of the EC Committee on 27th May told your Lordships that these demands
The Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, made certain recommendations in its comprehensive report presented last December. I do not wish to be accused of selective quotations, but I do not want to take too long. The Select Committee confirms that genetic modification can offer great benefit to agriculture, industry and the environment. But the committee drew attention to the need to assess the risks, including possible delayed risks, as well as the potential benefits, simultaneously.
The report stated that the risks can be controlled by a strict management process and that any novel crop should be subject to an oversight system. It considered that the only way that knowledge of how such crops would interact with the environment can only be acquired by large-scale trials, but unequivocally stated that it considered that an outright moratorium would be inappropriate.
Finally, the committee welcomed the ability to set specific conditions for commercial release and said that conditions and regulations should only be imposed where necessary, which of course comes back to the controversial question. In paragraph 182 the committee states--and this is worth stressing--that monitoring is
The Royal Society, in its comprehensive and incredibly interesting report published last year, made 13 strong recommendations and asked for further research on four major topics. It is sufficient to say that the Royal Society recognises the importance of biotechnology on the quality of food and the development of crops as well as the need for clarity in labelling of the ultimate products. But it also recognises the concerns about the new and developing technology and calls for collaboration between industrialists, public sector scientists, the regulatory authorities and environmental organisations.
This Bill is no Luddite attempt to prevent what is undoubtedly considerable scientific progress which can be of substantial benefit to mankind. It is also no rejection of developments which will be of considerable commercial benefit to farmers as well as to the bio-technology industry.
I recognise that companies such as Monsanto or Diatech, who have both been denigrated in some parts of the press as though they were villains, or Zeneca, are entitled to exploit their considerable investment in research. However, on the other hand, I do not think it did their cause any good when a spokesman for Monsanto made the incredibly arrogant remark:
I assume that the Government have been briefed on these in the extraordinarily huge number of meetings that they are reported to have had with the industry since they came to power. I believe that there have been 104 with MAFF, plus many more with officials and Ministers of other departments, quite apart from those conducted with the Prime Minister.
"there is no scientific basis for GM crop moratorium and that the first GM crops will be available for planting in the year 2000". The year 2000 is less than 200 days away. The spokesman did say, when pressed, that they had no intention of providing the seed for commercial planting so soon. But I feel that unchallenged and without strict regulation, somebody may be tempted to jump the commercial gun.
In a case where public health is at stake, and where there are grave environmental and ecological dangers, it is not for the industry itself to tell us what is right and what is wrong; or what is and is not needed. It is not for the industry to tell us what it will and will not do by way of precautions. It is the Government's responsibility and indeed their duty to take control and to place the public interest over commercial interest. It is not for the Government to accept without question the industry's assurances. It may be right and there may be no real dangers. But the Government have to pay regard to the public anxieties and the public suspicions. They may turn out to be ill-founded and even what the Prime Minister in an intervention called "hysterical", but the Government cannot simply dismiss them out of hand.
The Government have received a great deal of persuasive advice and unfortunately that advice goes in both directions. Until those differences are resolved--not absolutely because I admit that that is not possible, but beyond reasonable doubt--the Government must err on the side of caution; on the side of ultra-caution. The sum total of the scientific advice and pressure group statements, often, as I have said, conflicting in their conclusions about the need for or the desirability of GM crops, all seem to have one factor in common; that is, that there is a need for careful evaluation and even more for careful monitoring.
The unanswered question about the tests is this. Suppose they reveal that some crops cause some form of ecological damage, contaminate the surrounding area and wildlife and produce undesirable mutations in nearby fauna. How is anybody going to redress that? We cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. Suppose the trials are successful. With all the public disquiet that has been caused and with the major supermarkets displaying notices saying how they are removing GM crops from the shelves, how will the public be persuaded to buy the stuff?
I say the "stuff" as a direct quote from the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who was interviewed on the "Today" programme on the radio on 9th June. He was being asked about the decision of the company he chairs--Northern Foods--to cease using GM products and supplying them, as "own brands" to various supermarkets. He said he wished he had never heard of the "stuff".
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