HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc860-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

10.40 pm
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

I would like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of genetically modified crops. As the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Prime Minister have said recently, it is time for a rational and national debate around this subject and it is essential that that debate be informed by sound science and economics.

For some time now, the tenor of public debate around the issue of GM crops has been of too high a pitch. That has led to a considerable degree of misperception in the public mind as regards levels of risk and potential benefit. That is not to say that people are wrong to be concerned about the health implications of a new food technology such as GM. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will confirm tonight that DEFRA's highest priority is to protect human health and the environment.

Nor would I suggest that pressure groups of one kind or another are wrong to flag up what they perceive as potential problem areas; quite the reverse. Indeed, in preparing for this debate, I received an excellent brief from Greenpeace, for which I have great respect, even though it knows that I do not agree with the general thrust of its argument on the GM issue. It is essential that all sides of the GM argument are heard and that organisations such as Greenpeace play a key role in this matter.

Most people would agree, however, that the best basis for debate is a foundation of reliable and generally agreed facts. Indeed, unless anything can be taken as axiomatic by all parties to a debate, the debate cannot really exist at all. Rather, the activity that ensues will simply represent a clash of world views yielding a similar effect to the playing of two CDs loudly at the same time.

It is of course possible to come to a set of axioms in a number of ways; perhaps through reason or scientific observation, or perhaps even as a matter of faith. Yet however it is done, there is a need for all parties to obey the rules of the game—otherwise, there can be no game.

It is especially worrying that a common means of laying down the parameters or assumptions contained within the debate—that is to say, empirical observation and broad scientific method—has played such a small part in the debate around GM to date. It is clear to me, for example, that the Food Standards Agency is unequivocal in regarding GM crops of the type presently being grown as part of the farm scale evaluations as safe for people to eat. The view has been arrived at through rigorously applied scientific method. It has also been arrived at in other countries. By the time of the beginning of the European moratorium on GM food production in 1998, 70 million acres had been cultivated in all sorts of trials without any substantive predicted or unpredicted hazard being discovered.

Key elements of research have been published in peer-reviewed journals and the scientific orthodoxy is that GM crops such as those being trialled at present are safe. Of course scientists will usually regard any orthodoxy as contingent and there will always be those who propose counter-arguments, but that is part of scientific method itself; indeed, it is part of life itself.

It seems to me that some interest groups have heretofore set about disrupting scientifically informed debate, rather than actually participating in it. For example, the farm scale evaluations presently under way, which will be completed next year, have been subject on occasion to official representatives of non-governmental organisations, dressed in wacky masks and white dungarees, using their size 10—and indeed size five—wellington boots to tramp down the trial crops. Participants in such activities doubtless claim that the evaluations' underpinning framework and assumptions are technically wrong. However, the greater impression conveyed by such people is that they wish to bypass scientific debate, and to use media spectaculars to distort public perception of risk. I am afraid that, at times, some interest groups have seemed more intent on spreading fear than on engaging in scientific debate. That has been a pity, to say the least.

To begin redressing the consequence of interest groups' spinning and the sometimes one-sided media reportage, I want to emphasise some of the potentially great benefits of GM technology. GM crops offer the possibility of greatly increased crop yields, less waste and the use of fewer resources. That has fairly obvious environmental benefits, but it could offer entirely realistic scope for massive indigenous production in the developing world. Perhaps as many as 400 million people worldwide suffer from vitamin A deficiency, more often than not as a consequence of inadequate diet. Many such people are children, who will develop other health problems as a result. In theory, at least, GM could help dramatically through the development of a new type of rice, for example, which could deliver the daily level of required vitamins. Dr. Ingo Potrykus, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, has pioneered the genetic modification of rice using daffodils and a bacterium called erwinia uredovora. Dr. Dean Dellapena, of the university of Nevada, has produced an oilseed plant with high levels of vitamin E, which helps the immune system to fight disease. That is particularly relevant to those who suffer from poverty in the developing world.

There is little dispute about the benefits that GM, if safe, could deliver for developing countries. It is perhaps for that reason that the interest groups that have so far dominated public discourse have tended to avoid this area. Instead, we have heard much about Frankenstein foods, and little to suggest that cross-pollination has been a natural and everyday reality in farming through the ages. We have heard little to remind us that the animals that non-vegetarians eat every day are the result of extensive cross-breeding through the ages. Nor has much been said of the fact that, to grow food conventionally in volume, we must kill competing vegetation, which involves using chemicals in great volume, too. We have also heard little to remind us of the "killer bees" phenomenon, whereby African and European bees were cross-bred conventionally to provide a higher honey yield. Instead, a highly aggressive species was produced that, according to some, has killed 1,000 people throughout the world.

Indeed, a feature of the discourse to date is that, when apparent scientific evidence emerges that seems to back the case of the relevant interest groups, they have trumpeted it from the rooftops. One example is the now invalidated work of Dr. Árpád Pusztai. I say "invalidated", rather than anything stronger, because it is essential that the unorthodox be given a full hearing; otherwise, we would never experience the step-change advance of some of our greatest scientific triumphs. Equally, however, new evidence has to be evaluated in a balanced and peer-reviewed way, and put properly into context. Ironically, in so far as Dr. Pusztai challenged GM orthodoxy and failed, he helped to strengthen it.

Last night, I debated this issue with Lord Melchett on the excellent programme entitled "Despatch Box". I understand that it may be under threat, and for the sake of intelligent political debate I hope that it is not. Lord Melchett is a world leader in anti-GM theory and practice, and much more besides. He is a leader in the field of organic produce and, by the way, is a former Labour Minister and a thoroughly charming man. Yet I could not help noticing that he selectively quoted parts of scientific research. Given that he famously trampled a field of GM crops that were under scientific test, I found that a little od. In a way, his approach is reflected across the interest groups, which can reasonably be categorised—and are often self-categorised—as anti-GM.

I suspect that, in truth, many anti-GM interests recognise that they are on a sticky wicket on the science front, and that that is why they often seem to avoid balanced debate on the evidence. I hope that such debate will ensue during, and following, the scientific and economic studies announced recently by the Secretary of State, about which the Minister may wish to say something.

I also have an inkling that the objections of many anti-GM interests are in truth economic rather than that scientific in origin, but that the economic objections are less sexy and perhaps less sellable than the pseudo-scientific ones. A paper by Julian Morris of the Institute of Economic Affairs refers to a paper by the Centre for International Environmental Law in Washington DC, which puts two interesting arguments. They are exemplary arguments of their type. It is suggested that the profits of GM will not be shared with the people of developing countries. In essence, the benefit from GM technology will primarily accrue to mainly American multinationals, and that is given as a reason for objecting to it. The CIEL paper also suggested that GM technology could reduce food security in the developing world because real food security problems are not caused by food shortages by poverty, inequity and the concentration of food production. To take the latter point first, the anti-GM lobby may have raised an issue of importance. I do not agree with the IEA paper which rejects that point out of hand, because I have seen at first hand how countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo can have great natural resources but people are simply too afraid to farm the land. GM crops would not solve that problem directly. It could only be solved by countries such as ours giving countries such as theirs assistance with security by means of regional security forces and so forth. Perhaps through the New Partnership for Africa's Development—NEPAD—we will arrive at that point.

It is the former argument about who benefits economically that forms the bulwark of the anti-GM philosophy, but it remains obscure to most of the public, hidden behind nonsense about Frankenstein foods and other stunts. At one level, the argument may be refuted by appealing to the logic of global markets and arguing the case that liberal and democratic economies and countries will provide much of the solution to the problem of national underdevelopment in the developing world. Perhaps it is reasonable that that is not enough for the anti-GM lobby, since it has—it sometimes seems—a world view that is antipathetic to economic globalisation. That is its right, but although globalisation does not produce uniformly perfect outcomes, it is broadly a force for good. I disagree with the anti-GM lobby on that point, but I do not intend to press that case tonight.

My objective tonight has been to highlight the fact that until now public discourse on the vastly important subject of genetic modification has been dangerously slanted. It is now time, in the months leading up to what may be a Government decision in 2004 on the future of GM crop production in this country, for the interest groups in the UK and in Europe to participate in a full and open debate, potentially to the great benefit of us all.

10.52 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I found that speech refreshing listening, given that the debate has been rather hysterical and polarised. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) gave a balanced and thoughtful view, and I congratulate him. This is a contentious subject and the Government recognise that people have genuine concerns about GM crops. The Prime Minister confirmed that in his recent speech on science and technology, when he said: In GM crops, I can find no serious evidence of health risks. But there are genuine and real concerns over biodiversity and gene transfer.

We have heard some interesting points tonight from my hon. Friend and I would like to respond by trying to set out—to copy my hon. Friend, in what I hope will be a balanced and evenhanded manner—the action that the Government are taking in this area. First, the release and marketing of GM crops are governed by a statutory control regime agreed by the European Union. It is detailed and rigorous, and makes it clear that protecting human health and the environment is the overriding objective of public policy. That very much reflects the Government's own thinking—I emphasise this point—that if there is any unresolved doubt about the safety of a GM crop, we will not allow it to be grown.

The Government played a leading role in negotiating a strengthened EU regime, which will come into effect in October. We have improved risk assessment procedures, as well as new provisions on public consultation and the monitoring of genetically modified organisms after they have been released.

We are implementing the EU regime openly and transparently. Information on proposed GM crop releases and the associated risk assessments is made freely available. The minutes of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment are posted on our website, as are the locations of GM crop trials. We are ready at all times to consider views or evidence on the science relating to the safety of GM crops or public concerns in general.

Further controls on the traceability and labelling of GMOs and on the approval of GM foods and animal feeds are currently under discussion in the European Union. We will continue to support controls that help to maintain safety and provide for informed consumer choice.

I turn now to the farm-scale evaluations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops. As the House will know, the Government are sponsoring this research programme, and we have agreed with the industry that GM crops will not be commercialised in the UK before the results are considered. Commercialisation will happen only if they are found to pose no risk and cause no damage to the environment. The trials illustrate our precautionary and responsible approach to assessing the potential risks of this new technology.

I have just announced the final round of farm-scale trials to be sown this autumn. The crop concerned is oilseed rape. As with previous rounds, we have written to parish councils with a trial in their area to explain the trials' purpose, and officials from the Department will attend parish council meetings if requested. I assure the House that I have always been anxious to ensure that local people know what is happening in their area, and why it is happening. I have also written to all hon. Members to provide background on the trials.

A number of issues have been raised by hon. Members, and I shall turn to them now. Some hon. Members have complained about the distribution and selection of sites. The industry body, which is rather oddly titled the Supply Chain Initiative in Modified Agricultural Crops, identifies a pool of candidate farms. Researchers assess and select those that are suitable for participation. That is done in accordance with criteria established by the independent scientific steering committee overseeing the programme, which also approves the overall distribution of sites.

Some hon. Members are worried about the disproportionate clustering of farm-scale evaluation sites, especially in Dorset. The distribution of the trial sites has to reflect the geographic range over which the particular crop is grown and the range of different management regimes for the crop in the UK. Having several sites in one area—whether it be the south-west or Lincolnshire—does not preclude that, provided that the sites taken overall are representative of the crop in question. The scientific steering committee for the programme is content that the overall distribution of sites is in line with the aims of the farm-scale evaluation research.

I should make it clear that the purpose of the farm-scale trials is not to test the GM crop plants—a mistake that many people make—but the herbicides being used with them. To that extent, the scope of the trials is rather limited. The GM plants have already undergone a full safety evaluation as required under EU legislation. Contrary to what many people think, the trials are not about safety. ACRE said that the crops in the trials pose no greater risk to human health or the environment than their non-GM counterparts. We are allowing the trials to proceed only on that basis.

One concern about the farm-scale evaluations is their potential impact on other farmers in the vicinity. Indeed, I think that is the issue that is raised most often. The Government recognise that the transfer of GM material might affect the economic interests of conventional and organic producers, so separation distances are being applied to the trials to ensure that any GM cross-pollination is kept to a very low level. For example, the distances relating to organic crops will ensure that cross-pollination is normally below 0.5 per cent.

I am pleased to say that, to my knowledge, there has been no instance of a farm-scale trial affecting the status of a neighbouring conventional or organic crop. We are currently considering how GM and non-GM crops might co-exist in a commercial setting, although of course there is a huge difference between protecting conventional or organic farmers in respect of a limited number of trial sites and protecting them if full commercialisation were to take place.

The first results from the farm scale trials will be published next summer. They will tell us what impact herbicide use with GM herbicide-tolerant crops has on farmland biodiversity, relative to the impact of equivalent conventional crops. We await that information; that is the purpose of the trials. If the results show that the GM crop herbicide regimes have a negative effect on the environment, we will use that information to impose restrictions or to block the commercial release of the GM crops. I want that to be clear.

I shall take this opportunity to address some of the objections that have been raised from time to time about the GM field trials. The first relates to GM contamination and the demand made by some people that there should be zero GM contamination. However, we cannot avoid all GM cross-contamination. GM crops are widely grown in other countries—as my hon. Friend made clear—so GM traces may occur in imported material. It is also impossible to prevent cross-pollination between compatible crops and extremely difficult to test reliably for incidental GM presence at low levels. However, we realise that some people want the lowest possible GM presence and we shall bear that in mind as the policy is developed.

Another issue that has frequently been raised is liability; it has certainly been raised in the House. EU proposals for an environmental liability regime are being considered. If adopted, they will provide liability rules for GM crops, covering damage to biodiversity and serious harm to human health. We are also considering the measures that might be needed to facilitate the co-existence of GM and non-GM production, recognising of course that GM crops may affect the economic interests of non-GM farmers.

Another point that I wish to discuss—it has been raised in the media and in other ways—is the production of superweeds and the experience in Canada. Crop weeds in Canada have acquired multiple herbicide tolerance because different types of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape have been used. That is known as gene stacking, and it raises the concern that it might result in agronomic or environmental problems here. However, gene stacking cannot occur with the GM crops in line for possible use here, because they do not cross-pollinate each other. If it is proposed to release other crops that could result in gene-stacked weeds, I give the assurance that the risks will be fully evaluated before that is done.

Two years ago, the Government established the independent Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission to provide strategic advice on the social and ethical aspects of developments on this issue. That recognises that the issues raised by biotechnology and genetic engineering are not purely science based. The commission includes members from a range of backgrounds, including environmental and organic farming groups as well as from the biotech industry. It produced a major report last year on the farm-scale evaluation programme called "Crops on Trial"—I recommend it as reading to any hon. Member—that the Government accepted, including the recommendation for a GM public debate.

We have confirmed that we will encourage a full and informed public debate on GM issues, including GM crops. Among other things, we expect the debate to address the current state of scientific knowledge on current issues, focusing on public concerns about the potential risks to human health or the environment from GM crops and food. We are also commissioning an economic assessment of the costs and benefits of GM crops, including their effect on conventional and organic farming.

At present, we are considering detailed advice from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on how the debate should be conducted. It recommended several innovative ideas, including the use of citizens workshops to identify the issues for debate, and the production of a video film to illustrate the issues and stimulate discussion among local groups—for example, parish councils—and in specially convened focus groups. We genuinely want to stimulate public debate and we are considering all the options. There has never been a serious and thoughtful debate—it has been polarised—so we now want a much more rational and balanced debate, such as we are having tonight in the light of my hon. Friend's speech.

We want the debate to start as soon as possible and an announcement will be made once the arrangements have been finalised. The debate will ensure that the Government are fully informed of the range of people's views before decisions are taken on the possible commercialisation of GM crops. It is intended to demonstrate that we are responsive to people's concerns and are looking to maximise the opportunity for public views on all sides of the spectrum to be heard.

Contrary to what is often suggested, the Government have an open mind on what we may offer. We are clear that the potential risks have to be fully evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We have always proceeded on that basis. At the same time, however, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the potential for this technology to deliver benefits—as my hon. Friend suggested, it could be used in some circumstances in developing countries—if it is used wisely. That is an important consideration, given the considerable concerns. We believe that people should consider the issues carefully taking due account of sound science. That is what we intend to promote.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.