HC Deb 10 February 1999 vol 325 cc307-9
5. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If he will make a statement on the membership, work and progress of the ministerial group on biotechnology and genetic modification. [68647]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham)

The ministerial group oversees all aspects of biotechnology policy. It is made up of Ministers from all Departments with an interest in biotechnology. One of its first decisions was to begin an examination of the United Kingdom framework for overseeing the technology.

Mr. Dalyell

As a well-qualified chemist, and in my right hon. Friend's official capacity, can he do anything to dispel the ignorant hysteria that often surrounds genetic modification?

Dr. Cunningham

The UK is a world leader in biotechnology, which has huge potential to benefit society by delivering improvements to health, agriculture, food production and to the environment. However, it must do so in ways that gain public trust and confidence. The Government's primary duty is to protect people and the environment. As my hon. Friend rightly says, while it is right for the media and others to probe and challenge and to examine what is happening, they should take care not to alarm or mislead people unnecessarily. It is important that we make clear to everyone that the decisions that we take are based on the best available medical, scientific and industrial advice. I would be the last to complain about criticism from the media, but it is important that we do not undermine public confidence in the potential of biotechnology to bring huge benefits to humankind.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In accord with the Minister's comments, I acknowledge that the ministerial group has a considerable work load because of the huge backlog left as a result of the previous Government's inadequate attention to those important issues, despite the efforts of Liberal Democrat Members. May I ask particularly that the ministerial group should examine carefully the work of the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen, which has reviewed the results of the research undertaken last year into the impact of genetically modified food on the immune systems of rats and by definition, therefore, on humans? That research is obviously extremely important and is funded by the Government.

Dr. Cunningham

I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government understand and act on genuine concerns expressed by the public and by hon. Members. I assure him also that we examine all the available scientific evidence. For those reasons, the Government have taken action on food labelling, for example. We shall shortly publish decisions following consultation with the catering industry. We have taken action to set up an advisory committee on animal feedstuffs. We have set up a Cabinet Committee, as I said, to examine all those matters. We are pressing in Europe for better control in all those areas. None of that was done by the Conservatives when they were in government.

As we have been speaking about misleading and irresponsible statements, may I say that nothing was more misleading or irresponsible than the Leader of the Opposition saying last week in the House that English Nature had called for a moratorium on these matters? It certainly has not done so. English Nature recognises that it is important to carry out the experimental trials on genetically modified crops, so that we can make a proper scientific assessment of their impact on the environment.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

In its further deliberations on biotechnology and genetic engineering, will my right hon. Friend invite the ministerial group to consider the difference between the application to medical science, where the patient who is carrying the risk hopes to be the beneficiary, and the application to crop production, where the risks are carried by the environment and the public, and those who hope to reap all the benefits are the producers?

Dr. Cunningham

I can tell my hon. Friend that we already do so. For that among other reasons, I made it clear to the House today that we not only listen to but act on the advice of organisations such as English Nature and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. We study their recommendations carefully. I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that both those organisations believe that it is right and safe for controlled trials of genetically modified crops to take place, precisely so that we can evaluate their impact on the environment before commercial exploitation would be allowed.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

All interested observers agree with the Minister; the last thing that we want is public concern on such matters. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition last week called for a moratorium, on good advice from English Nature in its written evidence to the House of Lords Committee that is looking into those matters. We simply do not know what effect genetically modified foods will have on human health. Therefore all we want is a three-year moratorium on their commercial use, so that we can find out what the scientific evidence is.

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman repeats the error of interpretation of English Nature's position. I have a letter from English Nature, which states: English Nature is not against genetic modification per se and always gives advice based on sound science. Contrary to what has been reported, we are not asking for a moratorium on commercial release of all genetically modified crops. The Opposition may be calling for that, irresponsibly, and damaging Britain's prospects, but they are totally misleading in saying that English Nature supports that call.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

A great deal of the public debate about the risks of GM foods and crops is made more difficult by the complexity of the scientific research which underpins it. An example would be the research at the Rowett research institute, which does not pertain to the risks of GM foods in general but of particular lectins included in GM foods. What is the ministerial group doing to enable the public better to understand the complexity of the science which underpins biotechnology, so that the public debate generates rather more light and considerably less heat? Will my right hon. Friend make that information available to the Leader of the Opposition, who clearly needs a scientific education?

Dr. Cunningham

If the Leader of the Opposition continues to take advice from the Opposition spokesman on agriculture, it is no wonder that he is in a mess, as he is on many other things.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The ministerial group has been considering exactly the kind of strategy that she says we should, so that we can put the facts dispassionately before the British people. In addition, my noble Friend the Minister for Science is carrying out a public consultation on public attitudes to and understanding of bioscience, so that we know exactly people's fears and concerns and are better informed about how to deal with them.