HC Deb 18 April 2002 vol 383 cc687-9
7. Jim Knight (South Dorset)

What actions her Department has taken to ensure an even geographical distribution of trial sites for genetically modified crops. [46515]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

We have appointed an independent scientific steering committee to oversee the farm-scale evaluation programme of GM trials. It is content that the overall distribution of trial sites is in line with the aims of the research. It has confirmed that the distribution should reflect the geographic range over which the particular crop is grown in order, specifically, to represent the range of different management regimes that are used for the crop in the UK.

Jim Knight

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I apologise for not being here for the beginning of questions, Mr. Speaker.

I understand why the Government have negotiated these trials with the industry, and I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has talked about the need for improved consultation on the trials, which will be ending shortly anyway. A farmer on the edge of my constituency is particularly keen to help the Government with these trials, but the results of the consultation that we have had locally suggest that my constituents do not want them in their backyard. Why do we consistently seem to have these trials in Dorset despite my right hon. Friend's commitment to their even geographic distribution?

Mr. Meacher

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and I know that a number of sites in the parish of Bincombe in his constituency are involved in the current spring sowing round. I repeat that the spread of research sites aims to represent the range of management practice that is applied to crops within its geographic distribution. It is perfectly true that there is a cluster of several sites in Dorset, but that does not preclude the general principle. I must make the point, which I think my hon. Friend understands, that the sites are not chosen by the Government. The industry body SCIMAC—the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops—identifies the pool of candidate farms. The research bodies then select those that are most appropriate, in accordance with criteria set down by the independent scientific steering committee. That is the basis on which the selection has been made, but I take note of my hon. Friend's concerns, and they will certainly be taken into account in future.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Minister was careful in that reply to his hon. Friend, because he knows that this is an issue of great public concern. I acknowledge his statement that a scientific body is examining the matter, but the Government must, nevertheless, have a view on it. Will the Minister tell us why the separation distances between trial sites for GM crops are smaller in the UK than in other European countries? How can GM and non-GM crops co-exist while maintaining consumer and farmer choice? Given the public concern over GM crops, does he believe that there will be a substantial market for them? That is a key issue for us all.

Mr. Meacher

Separation distances were determined in negotiation with the industry to ensure that in every case, wherever possible, the amount of cross-contamination is below the 1 per cent. threshold. That threshold is reflected in the marketing arrangements that have been agreed in the European Union, and the separation distances have been fixed to reflect that. I am not aware of any differences between us and the EU. The main plant in the farm-scale evaluation trials is oilseed rape and, for ordinary, non-hybrid oilseed rape, the EU still proposes the 200 m separation distance that we use in the UK.

We are examining the issue of co-existence. We have not had the results of the farm-scale evaluation trials, which we will not get until the summer of next year. We are considering contingency plans, whatever the results may be. That examination is in its early stages, so I cannot answer the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raised, which is a fair one, but the issue is certainly on our agenda.

Whether there will be a long-term market is a matter for consumers, not for the Government. The Government are neither for nor against GM crops. It is for consumers to decide whether they want to eat GM food.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the basis of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission's report "Crops on Trial", the Government will not be able to rely on the results of the test trials to make a decision on commercialisation? Can he guarantee that there will be a proper public debate at the end of those trials, which will include the right to say no to the commercialisation of GM crops in this country?

Mr. Meacher

Our policy is as scientifically based as it can be. We believe in sound science and its application. We need to listen to our scientific bodies, such as the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the Advisory Committee on Animal Feeding Stuffs and others, but we realise that it is important to take account of public opinion. We have asked the AEBC to advise us on how we can ensure that there is a wider public debate on this issue as the farm-scale evaluations come to an end. I only wish that it had been possible to have such a debate at a much earlier stage. There are such deeply polarised positions on this issue that it is difficult to conduct a genuine debate. We need such a debate, and the Government want to have one. We shall do our best to ensure that it is proper, balanced and fair.