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The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for introducing this debate on a matter which is constantly in the forefront of public concern. Your Lordships will remember that it is only three weeks since we had an important and wide-ranging debate on the EEC Report on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture, during which we touched on some profound ethical and philosophical as well as scientific and technical aspects of genetic modification. I do not want to go over that ground again. I believe that this debate should be more limited in its scope to the practical provisions outlined in the Bill for the amendment of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in ways which will enshrine in law the broad principles with which the Government have already expressed sympathy.
Since the debate of 27th May I have had the opportunity of reading, like I am sure many of your Lordships, the conclusions of the Nuffield Council inquiry into the ethical and social issues raised by genetically modified crops--a report published on the day of the last debate. I warmly welcome that report, which in many of its recommendations points to the need for the sort of provisions contained in this modest Bill. The Nuffield Council report rightly emphasises the importance of the potential cumulative impact of genetically modified crops which could lead to unacceptable developments not apparent from their specific impact in individual cases. So it calls for,
"a powerful public policy framework to guide and regulate the way in which this technology is applied". With that I am entirely happy, but I am less happy with the over-confident statement in the same council report that,
"There are such powerful utilitarian and welfare-based arguments for treating the environment carefully that no purpose is served by straying into philosophically contentious territory to bolster this case". Would that that were so: alas, the utilitarian and welfare-based arguments have not done very much to protect the environment--in particular, biodiversity--in the face of the depredations of intensive farming, especially over the past 30 years.
I believe that it matters very much indeed that we preserve what is left of our biodiversity. In fact, we need to enhance it. We have a biodiversity action plan, but its benefits are potentially threatened by the possible consequences of the introduction of genetically modified crops with their presently unknown impact on the environment. That is why we so urgently need the research referred to in this Bill. Its wording is brief, perhaps inadequate, for no time-scale is spelt out, nor is there any indication of conditions which must be met before research on any particular GM crop may be deemed to have yielded satisfactory results.
In replying to the debate on 27th May, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, gave an assurance that research would, if necessary, continue beyond the year 2002, which was the date quoted in the course of the debate. It would be good to have that assurance renewed today by the Minister in the context of this Bill.
It would also be good if the Minister could give some indication of how the Government view the matter of the interface between experimental GM crop areas and organic farms; and not only organic farms but also environmentally sensitive areas and Countryside Stewardship areas where extensive farming is practised. This matter was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, in the last debate. Although a written response was promised, the Minister was not able to give an answer in the course of the debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned the John Innes research, which has confirmed that some degree of contamination may be unavoidable. But that simply underlines the good sense of the request of the Soil Association for a six-mile separation zone. I do not believe that that is entirely impractical.
This leads on to a further point about the shape of this modest Bill. I fully understand that research must come first and that it must be thorough, vigorous and sustained before guidelines can be drawn up for the possible commercial release of GM crops. But guidelines are needed urgently for the research itself. I fear that this Bill may, implicitly at least, place too much reliance on the SCIMAC voluntary code of practice--a principle which, yet again, takes an unrealistically optimistic view of how self-interested individuals and organisations sometimes behave. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for what she said about the risks of that approach.
The report of the Nuffield Council was influenced by three main principles--those of general human welfare, of the maintenance of people's rights and of justice. They are admirable principles in so far as they go, but behind all our dealings with this difficult, uncertain and complex matter must lie the precautionary principle: we do nothing unless we are certain that it is safe to do it.
My best endeavours to find out expert advice from genuinely disinterested sources have revealed again and again that the answer to some of the most frequently asked questions is, "We do not know". For example: how long should this research continue? We do not know. Is the six-mile radius round GM crops adequate? We do not know. Should there be baseline data against which to measure the findings of research? Well, it depends. I asked that question in the last debate and I was told that expert advice had been taken to the effect that a baseline survey was not necessary. I still want to challenge that answer. If the question is simply about cross-pollination of GM crops, then that may well be so because we are dealing with a new threat from newly-planted crops, but if we are talking about the impact of GM crops on biodiversity, then the answer must be that a baseline survey is essential so that change can be measured and losses and gains accurately recorded.
We are in new territory here. The precautionary principle must be paramount. There are other enormously significant areas which this modest Bill does not attempt to touch. The Nuffield Council report has some very wise and helpful things to say about the huge area of intellectual property rights and developing countries. I hope that in due course we shall be debating those issues and that the Government will be bringing forth legislation to tackle some of the points made very well indeed in this report. In the meantime, I welcome this modest Bill but I suspect that it may well need to be amplified and strengthened in its subsequent stages through your Lordships' House, or in another place.
Lord Taverne: My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for the way in which she introduced her Bill. It seems to be a Bill to which there is no great objection. I am not absolutely certain that it is needed, or that it will place further obstacles in the way of research. But that is something on which I very much welcome the attitude of the Government.
I am very sorry that I was abroad at the time of the debate in this House on the report of the Select Committee, so I want to make some general remarks about the subject now. However, perhaps I may begin by making it absolutely clear that I do not speak for my party. I have no axe to grind and no connection with any of the biotechnology companies. I am a passionate environmentalist and I believe that the threat to our environment is one of the most important problems of our time. But having examined the evidence over many years, including the two recent reports from the Royal Society by some of the leading authorities in this country, the excellent report from the Nuffield Council on bio-ethics and the two excellent reports from the Select Committee of this House and the Select Committee of the House of Commons, I do not share the current discomfort or the hostility to GM foods and crops.
It seems clear that the GM foods now on sale are at least as safe as conventional foods. One can never prove absolute safety, but they have been rigorously tested and, indeed, some strains of unmodified potato, for example,
The Royal Society's report of last February suggested that our control systems are really effective and that the risk of gene transfers to wild plants are slight. The society said that the likelihood of gene transfer to wild relatives depends on the species of crop and the location in which the crop will be grown. It is noticeable that the scientists are very specific, particular and cautious, whereas the condemnation of these crops tends to be very general and dogmatic. The report states:
The House of Commons Select Committee was told that the introduction of GM cotton in the United States had reduced the use of chemicals in growing cotton by 80 to 90 per cent. English Nature gave evidence to the House of Commons Committee. It stated that GM crops,
However, the most surprising intervention has been that of the Prince of Wales. His general views are well known. He is not impressed by scientific evidence or the scientific method and he prefers a more mystical approach. When the Nuffield Council, which includes a number of distinguished environmentalists as well as scientists, argued in a carefully documented case that GM crops are needed to feed the world, he described that as "emotional blackmail". Was he wise to enter the present controversy so publicly? He is of course entitled to pursue his interests in organic farming and to hold the views he holds on genetic engineering but he has now actively and publicly engaged in campaigning against government policy; namely, the field testing of some GM crops. He should perhaps carefully consider his position. It would be intolerable for a constitutional monarch to engage in political controversy. This is something the Queen has impeccably avoided throughout her reign.
My last point concerns the role of the biotechnology companies. A kind of latter day Marxism now prevails which argues that government must not talk to companies and that the public must ignore the findings of company scientists because companies make profits. Of course the companies have a special interest; so, incidentally, do the environmental lobbyists whose membership depends on publicity and is boosted by scare stories. The companies' products should be independently tested and carefully regulated, and they are. It is in the interests of companies to have effective regulation, but it is also crucially in their own self-interest that their products are safe. If they are not, the companies face ruin.
Further, I think it is also fair to say that most people who work for these companies believe that they are doing good as well as earning a profit. Where would we be without the contribution of drug companies to the fight against disease? The pharmaceutical industry has been a great benefactor of mankind. If they are given the chance, I am sure the same will be true of genetic engineering and those who apply it to the growing of food.
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