HC Deb 05 February 2004 vol 417 cc885-8
4. Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central)(Lab)

If she will make a statement on her review of the scientific evidence on GM crops. [152866]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

We warmly welcome the final report of the GM science review and advice on the results of the farm-scale evaluations. We are now considering all the evidence and will set out our conclusions shortly.

Tony Lloyd

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her response. I put it to her that the public are still sceptical about the value of GM crops, and that such scepticism is based on the view that it is not unscientific to hold to the proposition that the contamination of conventional or organic crops from GM plantings would have a long-term impact, which might be irretrievable and cause permanent damage to our economy and agricultural system. Will she take those views into account and ensure that she lays out the scientific evidence clearly if she wants to convince the doubting public that there is some benefit in GM crop plantings?

Margaret Beckett

I assure my hon. Friend that there is nothing I would like more than to feel that the scientific evidence is fully in the public domain and for people to weigh it. I entirely accept his point that the public are sceptical about the value of some GM crops at the present time. Indeed, he will recall that the economic study carried out by the Prime Minister's strategy unit made the point that the present generation of crops that are available have only limited relevance, worth or impact in UK circumstances. It might perhaps be different in other parts of the world. Of course we take those concerns seriously, but my hon. Friend would accept, since we are talking about scientific evidence, that in a world where GM is extensively grown and extensively available, we have to deal with the reality of its existence and not hope that somehow it can be totally wished away.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

In a written answer to me on 17 December, the Minister for the Environment confirmed that the relevant Government Departments had agreed to authorise the use of Bt11 GM maize, even though surveys show that less than 2 per cent. of the public support the use of GM in all circumstances. Does the Secretary of State understand that there is widespread unease about that, and about the other incremental steps that are being taken towards a momentous and irreversible decision on GM crops? Will she confirm that the Government will bring forward a clear policy on the matter before any other decisions are made, and that time will be made available for a debate on the Floor of the House, on a substantive motion?

Margaret Beckett

We are not trying to pre-empt the outcome of the debate or to make major decisions before the appropriate policy statement can be laid before the public or the House. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman—as I have told the House in the past— that ongoing procedures for handling these matters exist in the EU. I am sure that he will recall that, not so long ago, the Government were being pressed by groups outside the House to make no response at all to requests for input or information about matters put before the EU as a whole by other member states. My advice to hon. Members was that, if we made no input, the assumption would be that we approved and that we had no queries or questions to raise. We have always continued to raise queries and concerns, where we felt that that was necessary. I assure the hon. Gentleman that no one is trying to pre-empt anything by stealth.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

The Secretary of State and her Ministers have assured the House constantly that the UK would not support GM crop plantings that were separate from a liabilities regime, irrespective of approval decisions made in this place or in Europe as a whole. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the question of liability for contamination will be cleared up before any plantings are approved or allowed in this country?

Margaret Beckett

I am not sure that my hon. Friend is correct about what Ministers have said in the past, but he will know that we received the independent advisory committee report on contamination and co-existence under the liability only very recently. We are considering it at the moment. We are of course anxious to weigh these difficult and major issues properly, and I hope that we will be able to comment on them in the not too distant future. However. I assure him that we are mindful of the interaction of these issues, both in the minds of the public and in reality.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

The Secretary of State talks about dealing with the reality of GM crops, but I draw her attention to a report published this week by the University of Glamorgan, which found that a large amount of supermarket-bought organic food contained traces of GM. The traces were large enough to be detected, but below the 0.9 per cent. level at which labelling for GM is required. Does that not imply that, before there are any further developments in the UK in connection with GM, we need a proper regime for labelling GM crops? Should not that regime also provide for the labelling of organic foods, and the preservation of the organic sector? Does she agree that procedures for liability and compensation must be in place before any further steps are taken?

Margaret Beckett

I was not aware of the study to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I look forward with interest to hearing about it, assuming that it has been peer reviewed and is considered to be valid. He will know, I am sure, that a strong regime already exists in EU and British law for traceability and labelling. As he appreciates, that regime has a threshold trigger of 0.9 per cent. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman meant to, but in a sense he has emphasized—in spades—the point that I made some moments ago. If the results that he reports are correct, GM presence in the UK is an issue, even though no GM crops are being grown here at present. That confirms my view that we cannot simply wish away this technology.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend worry that many people's objections to GM crops contain an element of Luddism, and that some people deliberately hype up the fears about GM? Does she feel that, in addition to ensuring that there is a good labelling regime, the best way forward is to make sure that people understand fully the scientific benefits, as well as the economic ones, that GM crops could bring to the UK and to many developing countries? Will she go out and preach the message a little bit more?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend expresses his views with his customary vigour. All the reports from the Prime Minister's strategy unit on the economics of the issues and from the science review indicate that there are concerns and potential problems, which must be addressed by strong and sound scientifically based legislation. In the longer term, however, there may be potential benefits not only in this country but elsewhere across the world. My reading of the response to the public dialogue is that people are conscious of that potential, although their concerns remain and must be addressed.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that one reason for the public disquiet is that only one of the three trialled crops was cleared? Cross-pollination is a particular problem that has not been tackled, and it will affect the highly regarded and lucrative niche market in organics. Will she support the draft Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), which comes before the House on 26 March?

Margaret Beckett

I have not studied the draft Bill, but I will do so as a matter of great urgency. The public's unease is not a result of one of the crops in our trials showing different results from the other three; it was there before the trials were set up, and we must take it seriously and understand it. Although the hon. Lady states that one of the crops in the trials was cleared, the immediate response from some who commented was that none of them should be cleared, so there is clearly resistance in some quarters.

The hon. Lady made an important point about the potential for cross-pollination. One of my concerns—this is why I told my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) that we must get as much of the science as possible into the public domain—is that sometimes people are given the impression that cross-pollination difficulties will occur irrespectively, but that is not necessarily the case because different questions arise if a crop does not have wild relatives or does not readily cross-pollinate. I do not mean that there are no questions, but there is greater uncertainty and difference than is sometimes conveyed.