HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc146-8
9. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

What steps he is taking to ensure environmental considerations identified by his Department are recognised within the ministerial group on bio-technology and genetic modification. [85787]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

Environmental considerations are at the forefront of all our decisions on genetically modified organisms. They are fully taken into account by the ministerial group on biotechnology and genetic modification.

Mr. Baker

I hear what the Minister says, but is he aware of the fear that the new committee is being used not to strengthen the protection of the environment, but to shut down opposition from his Department in the face of the fanatically pro-GM lobby? Perhaps the isolation distance that has been eradicated has led to some cross-contamination from some of his rather less environmentally friendly colleagues.

If the Minister is serious about the issue, which I believe him to be, will he arrange for the publication in full of the minutes of the sinister biotechnology presentation group, along with its remit? Does he accept that, until that is done, the Government have no credibility in this regard?

Mr. Meacher

We have made it very clear that we wish to be wholly transparent in the manner in which we deal with the issue. We realise that public opinion is seriously concerned about it—very seriously concerned— and, indeed, highly polarised. The Government are trying to advance the prospects of the technology, which is certainly important and has potential consumer benefits, in a manner that secures that any risk with regard to the human food chain or the environment is fully taken into account.

The biotechnology and genetic modification Cabinet sub-committee looks at all the evidence. We have openly published almost all the evidence that has been before us. We know that the only way to restore public confidence is by being completely open.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Further to that reply, my right hon. Friend will be aware of reports of the indirect effects of genetically modified crops on organisms such as lacewings and the larvae of monarch butterflies. Has the committee received, or will it receive, such reports? Have the Government commissioned their own laboratory research into such indirect effects?

Mr. Meacher

My Department's committee, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, certainly watches very carefully international research on the issue, particularly with regard to lacewings and the monarch butterfly. Recently, the chairman of ACRE made it clear that it is looking at the full implications, particularly for the latter. However, it was a laboratory study and we need to take account of UK environmental conditions. In addition, the BT—bacillus thuringiensis—maize, the plant concerned in the experiment, is not released in the UK either commercially or experimentally; but we are looking at what are serious scientific results which may have a major effect for the future.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

What measures has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that the resulting products of farm-scale trials of GM foods do not contaminate the environment?

Mr. Meacher

That is the purpose of the farm-scale evaluations. Over several years, there have been several hundred—I think 600 to 700—small trial plantings of GM crops in this country, but to examine the impact on the environment generally, it is necessary to advance those to farm scale. That is why, this year, we have seven to nine fields which will be planted with oilseed rape and maize and, next year, 20 to 25. We want to get a nationally representative sample, precisely so that we will be able to see the impact that GM crops, as compared with non-GM crops, have on the environment, on invertebrates, on field margins, on insects and on bird populations. Again, we will do that completely openly with independent research contractors and an independent scientific review committee. We will make clear the evidence wholly and transparently before we reach a conclusion.

10. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

How many representations he has received during the last 12 months (a) in favour of and (b) against the development of genetically modified crops. [85788]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

During the past 12 months, about 4,000 letters have been received. Almost all expressed concerns on various aspects of genetically modified crops.

Mr. Williams

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his sober and rational response to the article by Prince Charles on 2 June containing his 10 questions. Those are the very questions that the general public want answered. Why are GM foods necessary? In view of the enormous public concern and hostility to these technologies, do we really need GM foods?

Mr. Meacher

The honest answer is that we do not need GM foods, but the technology has some potential benefits. It enables products to have a longer shelf life and to be able to withstand saline or dry conditions in developing countries. There may well be additional benefits that are not yet known. However, we need to be extremely careful in developing the technology to ensure that there is no damage to the food chain or the environment. That is why I have made it clear that we will not allow commercial planting of GM crops until the Government have completed the farm-scale evaluations and have sufficient evidence to reach an authoritative judgment about the impact on the environment.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

Given the level of alarm that the Minister has expressed, given the fact that people are starving in the world not because of a shortage of food but because of distribution problems, and given the environmental risks that we must inevitably be taking, does the Minister agree that there is no rush to develop these foods?

Mr. Meacher

Indeed, I have made it clear that we will not be rushed into an early decision. I repeat that it would be wrong in my view and that of the Government to turn our back on this technology. It has mainly producer benefits at present but it could have some significant consumer benefits in the long run. However, we should not be stampeded by industrial or commercial interests to take a decision in favour of this technology until we know—and can produce the evidence for everyone to look at—that it is wholly safe.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

My right hon. Friend will have received representations from Monmouthshire about applications to grow genetically modified crops in the area. One of the major concerns has been expressed by organic farmers. What assurance can the Minister give me that there will be no cross-contamination for organic producers?

Mr. Meacher

That is an important issue to which the Government are giving great attention. There have been discussions with organic farmer representatives at official level in my Department and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They are, quite rightly, concerned that their organic products should not be cross-contaminated. The Government wish to protect their interests and to see an increase in organic products in this country because consumer demand is considerably in excess of domestic supply, with consequential balance of payments problems.

The issue is largely one of isolation distances, about which there has been considerable public controversy. Indeed, in regard to the Lushill farm, the Soil Association recently changed its view about the adequacy of isolation distances for oilseed rape, from 200 m to six miles. Thus there needs to be a good deal of further discussion between representatives of GM crop growers and organic farmers in order to try to reach an acceptable accommodation that protects the interests of both.

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