HC Deb 09 March 2004 vol 418 cc1379-94 12.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government's approach to the technology of genetic modification, including its use in crops. The tool of GM has been used for at least 10 years across the world in the production of food and medicines, both human and animal.

In the UK, only a handful of foods have been approved for use—GM soya, tomato puree and some forms of maize. The first two were approved under the previous Administration and the maize in 1997–98. At present, no GM crop has all the approvals needed for commercial cultivation in the UK.

Decisions as to what can be consumed or grown in the EU as a whole have throughout been taken by member states collectively under a regime of safety testing, monitoring and control, which itself dates back 10 years. That legal framework has recently been substantially strengthened, and a much-strengthened regulatory regime came into effect in the UK last year. It is firmly based on the precautionary principle and applied on a strictly case-by-case basis. Every genetically modified organism for which authorisation is sought must receive a comprehensive prior assessment of any potential risk to human health or the environment.

In 1998 the Government decided to go further. We were advised by English Nature of its concern about the effect of current GM herbicide-resistant crops on biodiversity. It was agreed that farm-scale trials would be conducted to assess those risks. Those trials were largely completed and reported by the end of last year, and the results were referred to our independent advisory committee for its assessment.

In the meantime, another advisory committee had advised the Government to fund an independently run public debate or dialogue on GM issues. I accepted that advice and announced in May 2002 that the Government and the devolved Administrations would sponsor such a dialogue with three strands: the debate itself, a thorough review of the science, and an economic cost-and-benefit study by the Prime Minister's strategy unit.

The public dialogue reported general unease about GM crops and food, and little support for the early commercialisation of GM crops. People already engaged with the issues were generally much more hostile. Those not so engaged were more open-minded, anxious to know more, but still very cautious; and it was suggested that, as they learned more, their hostility deepened.

The cost-and-benefit study concluded that the currently available GM crops offer only some small and limited benefits to UK farmers, but that future developments in GM crops could potentially offer benefits of greater value and significance, even in the UK. The science review concluded that GM is not a single homogeneous technology and that applications should continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It reaffirmed that there were some gaps in scientific knowledge and, in particular. that it was important to keep the regulatory system under review so that it kept pace with any new developments. It concluded, however, that there was no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops or products.

The review examined all the concerns generally raised. In particular, it reported no verifiable ill effects from extensive human and animal consumption of products from GM crops over seven years, and it concluded too that current GM crops were very unlikely either to invade the countryside or be toxic to wildlife. The most important environmental issue identified was the effect on farmland wildlife, which was the subject of our extensive trials—the largest carried out in the world.

Our independent advisers have now reported to us on these trials. On the basis of that advice, and having consulted the devolved Administrations, I have concluded that the UK should oppose the commercial cultivation of the relevant varieties of GM beet and oilseed rape anywhere in the EU using the management regime tested in the farm-scale evaluations. However, I have also concluded that we should agree in principle to the commercial cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant maize, but only subject to two further important conditions.

The first condition is that restrictions should be imposed on the existing EU marketing consent that expires in October 2006, so that it can only be grown and managed as in the trials, or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effects on the environment. The second condition, which responds to concerns that have been raised about the phasing out of atrazine in the EU, is that the consent holders should be required to carry out further scientific analysis to monitor changes in herbicide use on conventional maize, and also to submit new evidence if they seek to renew the existing EU marketing consent when it expires in 2006.

Before commercial cultivation of GM maize can proceed, separate approval will also be required under seeds legislation, and also under pesticides legislation for the associated herbicide use. Chardon LL will not be added to the UK national list of seeds until the necessary amendments to the EU marketing consent are in place. We also anticipate that co-existence measures will be in place before any GM crops are grown commercially. I do not in fact anticipate any commercial cultivation of GM maize before spring 2005, at the earliest.

The farm-scale evaluations also raised much more far-reaching questions about crop management and the environment. Incidentally, those questions reinforce the value of the case-by-case approach. The evaluations showed that there was no blanket difference between GM and non-GM crops. The trial crop with the "best" results for the environment was a conventional crop. The crop that was "worst" was also a conventional crop, yet we have nothing like the influence over the growing and management of conventional crops that we have over GM crops, even though the effects may be just as far-reaching. We are giving careful consideration to these issues.

I believe that the approach that I have outlined today is the right one. It is precautionary and evidence-based. In practice, it means licensing one application, which runs till October 2006 and is subject to two further conditions.

Apart from the scientific decisions that flow from the trials, there is the related issue of GM and non-GM crops being grown in the same area—so-called co- existence. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission has recently produced advice on this issue.

I propose that, as the AEBC advises, farmers who wish to grow GM crops should be required to comply with a code of practice based on the EU's 0.9 per cent. labelling threshold, and that this code should have statutory backing.

There are particular concerns, of course, for organic farming, for which the Government have much increased funding, and to which we remain committed. The AEBC argued for a lower threshold for organic farming, but could not agree on a figure. We will explore further with stakeholders whether a lower threshold should be applied on a crop-by-crop basis.

I will also consult stakeholders on options for providing compensation to non-GM farmers who suffer financial loss through no fault of their own. However, I must make it clear that any such compensation scheme would need to be funded by the GM sector itself, rather than by Government or producers of non-GM crops. The Government will also provide guidance to farmers interested in establishing voluntary GM-free zones in their areas, consistent with EU legislation.

This is a difficult issue, bedevilled by confusion. There are many legitimate concerns—about gene stacking, cross-pollination and much else—but reports that combine comment on all these matters can be misleading. People worry that a GM crop could affect wild relatives and hence the gene pool. Maize—the crop that we are prepared to license—has no wild relatives in the UK. It is highly unlikely that any stray remaining plant or seed would survive a winter here and thus cause concern about a subsequent crop. Equally, very little organic maize is grown here, so many of the concerns usually raised do not apply. That reinforces the value of a case-by-case approach. Some GM crops are already used for animal feed, although they are not grown here. Several GM veterinary medicines are also in use and much vegetarian cheese is produced using a GM processing aid.

There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all the uses of GM. Safety, human health and the environment must remain at the heart of our regulatory regime, and rigorous and robust monitoring must be maintained. Equally, there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM. I know of no one who argues, for instance, that the GM tool alone can solve the problems of the developing world. However, it is less than honest to pretend, especially against a background of climate change, that GM does not have the potential to contribute to some solutions.

That, too, was part of the outcome of the public dialogue. I thank those who ran it and those who took part. From that process and many other attempts to assess public opinion, it is clear that most people believe that genetic modification should be approached with caution. They want strong regulation and monitoring; farmers want a framework of rules for the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops; and customers want a clear regime for traceability and labelling so that they can make their own choices. The rules that we now have and those that we shall put in place in the months ahead meet the criteria as well as being soundly based on the scientific evidence, and I commend our approach to the House.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con)

I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make this statement and also for giving me advance sight of it.

The statement itself is not a surprise. Indeed, it confirms the decision made nearly a month ago in the Cabinet sub-committee, the minutes of which were then leaked. At that time, it was reported that the Government would announce their decision the following week. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the reason why the decision was not announced was that, in the words of the Cabinet sub-committee minutes, the Government have been trying to prepare the ground with key MPs, particularly those with an interest in science or food security"? Will the Secretary of State accept that one group of key MPs are the members of the Environmental Audit Committee? Will she explain why the Cabinet approved the growing of GMHT forage maize 24 hours before the Committee unanimously recommended that it should not do so? Is it not extraordinary to dismiss a Select Committee's recommendations before even having had a chance to read them?

Will the Secretary of State accept that the Environmental Audit Committee has raised some serious concerns about the validity of the farm-scale evaluations? In particular, does she agree that the findings of the GMHT forage maize trials were based on a wholly invalid comparison? Will she accept that, in the words of English Nature, atrazine turns a maize field into a wildlife desert? That is why atrazine is to be phased out and why it is not that surprising that any herbicide regime that does not use atrazine is likely to be preferable. The Government should conduct new trials to compare the effect of GMHT forage maize with its non-GM equivalent grown without the use of atrazine. The few trials that did take place were on too small a scale to produce conclusive results.

The Secretary of State knows that results have been published for only three of the four crops trialled. Can she say when the Government intend to publish the results for the winter-sown oilseed rape trials? Can she also say what work is being done to examine the cultivation of GM crops in north America? Will she accept that the experience there has been that, over time, the use of herbicides on GM crops has had to increase as herbicide-resistant weeds have developed? Does that not suggest that the trials in this country should have been longer, and can she explain why that evidence appears to have been ignored by the Government in reaching their decision?

We welcome the Government's recognition that there needs to be a clear framework governing separation distances and liability before plantings take place. In considering those issues, will she also take account of the north American experience, which has seen up to two thirds of all seeds cow contaminated by GM genes?

It has been suggested that legislation may well be needed to establish the rules. The private Member's Bill, the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contamination and Liability) Bill, being introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) aims to do precisely that. Will the Government, therefore, take advantage of the Bill, which provides an opportunity to debate the necessary safeguards against contamination that we all want to see?

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, despite the Government's decision, more than 40 regions in Britain—including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and the Lake district—have indicated their wish to declare themselves GM-free? Will the Government provide advice to these authorities on the establishment of voluntary GM-free zones?

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that both the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have decided that no GM maize planting should take place for the foreseeable future, and say how she intends to obtain their agreement to the inclusion of GM maize on the national list?

Finally, the Cabinet sub-committee apparently noted that The public is unlikely to be receptive to this decision. Is that not a masterly understatement? The Government's own national GM debate showed that 90 per cent. of the public opposed the commercial cultivation of GM crops. What was the point of having that debate if the Government now ignore the opinions of the overwhelming majority? Does the right hon. Lady accept that until that changes it makes little difference whether the Government give the go-ahead, since people will simply refuse to buy meat from animals fed with GM produce?

Has the Secretary of State seen the letter to the Prime Minister from organisations representing 8 million members, including the National Trust and the National Federation of Women's Institutes, calling for the postponement of the introduction of GM crops? The concerns raised by the Select Committee and by all those organisations are not scaremongering; they raise real questions about the dangers to the environment that may result from GM crop cultivation. Yet the Secretary of State has chosen to ignore all of them and to press ahead. Many people will want to know why, when by her own admission the economic benefits are small and limited. Until those questions have been satisfactorily answered, no approvals for commercial plantings should be given.

Margaret Beckett

Let me begin where the hon. Gentleman ended and remind him of what I said in my statement, and of what we have said repeatedly about the strategy in the report, which is that it is clear that there are few advantages to the UK of crops that are currently available. However, it is also clear that this technology has the potential to produce much greater advantage. That is why the Government have taken a case-by-case approach.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues, and he would not be very happy with me if I attempted to answer all of them. Let me pick out one or two.

The hon. Gentleman asked what was the point of having the public dialogue to which I referred. I remind him of what the AEBC itself said when it recommended that the Government have such a dialogue. It said in terms that the intention was not to conduct some kind of referendum on the crop trials or on the decisions that flowed from them, but that it thought that there would be merit in exploring the range and spectrum of public concerns, what questions the public had and the potential range of answers.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the recent letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I say this with some caution, because I have read the letter: I think that there is a degree of confusion. That is a problem when people draw their conclusions from material that has been leaked rather than from knowledge of what has actually happened.

The reference seems to have been to a discussion about future uses of biotechnology. That is not, of course, just genetic modification. It is a considerable range of scientific endeavour and potential scientific advantage to this country for the future. I very much doubt whether the organisations that signed that letter would wish to say, "Let us abandon all biotechnology." What should we do with all the 1 million people who are dependent on GM insulin, for example? What should we do about the poor vegetarians, who want cheese that does not have to be made with material that comes from animals? There is, as ever, scope for misunderstanding here, and it is important that we try to avoid misunderstanding.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the devolved Administrations. I cannot remember his exact phraseology, but what he said is not correct. The devolved Administrations have not made the decision that he suggests, and we are, as ever, trying to work closely with them.

The hon. Gentleman asked when we expected the results on winter-sown crops in tones that implied that he thought that the Government were suppressing them in some way. We shall publish those results when we receive them from the scientists in question, after they have been peer-reviewed. We have no control whatever over the timing of that, any more than we had over the timing of the first trial publication, but we anticipate that the results are likely to be available towards the end of this year.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the discussions and consultations held by the Environmental Audit Committee. We take seriously what the Committee says, and have looked with care at its observations. However, those observations drew on known material and the Committee could not draw on the further assessment, published in Nature —as it happens, on the morning of the publication of the EAC's report—which addressed some of the concerns that the Committee had raised. Having heard the Chairman of the Committee dismiss the article in Nature in all of 1½ seconds flat, I feel confident that the article will be disputed in its assessment of those concerns. However, in our judgment, and that of the scientists who carried out the assessment—independent scientists, not the same lot—it is not invalidated.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned English Nature. As I said in my statement, it was of course English Nature that first asked the Government to carry out further trials, as we did. However, he may not have observed that Dr. Johnson of English Nature said that he thought that the results of the trials were valid and showed that growing that particular crop would be better for the environment. Dr. Johnson also made the point that electricity can kill people but we do not call for it to be banned.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for providing an advance copy of her statement. I welcome the fact that it was billed as a Government statement on GM policy and not dismissed as a minor issue on one aspect of a consent licence, because this is a watershed decision.

Some people will want to characterise the debate as being held between cavalier scientists in the pay of multinational biotech companies versus green Luddites, which could mean that we lose sight of the serious questions that need to be asked. However, the Secretary of State has partly answered some of those questions. Decisions should be based on sound science, not on hasty or make-do science. The decisions made now are probably irreversible.

A number of questions arise from the statement. The Secretary of State announced two conditions on the growing of fodder maize. The first was that it be grown and managed "as in the trials, or under such conditions as will not result in adverse effects on the environment". But who will make that decision? How will an assessment be made before the crop is grown?

Secondly, the Secretary of State appears to be saying that consent holders need to present new evidence if they want to renew a consent after October 2006, but they do not need to present it beforehand. In that case, why issue consents before 2006? I agree with the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) that the decision should be put off until at least that date.

The AEBC says that lower threshold figures for organics should be given, but, with regard to GM contamination on organic farms, when will those decisions be made? Will it be before the first planting, which is likely to take place next year?

I welcome the Secretary of State's comments on compensation payments, but when will they be in place? If DEFRA's arrangements for the fallen stock collection scheme are anything to go by, it will be a very long time indeed before any compensation arrangements are made.

The Secretary of State did not answer the question about Government support for areas that want to establish GM-free zones. It is important that she send a message today to demonstrate that the Government are prepared to go to Europe for some tightening of regulations to support regions such as Cornwall, which want to set up a GM-free zone to obtain market advantage.

The right hon Lady also failed to answer the question—properly put—about the Government's assessment of Dr. Benbrook's research in north America into the greater use of pesticides over time. We need further independent research.

As this is a watershed decision. the Secretary of State should have consulted Parliament rather than coming here with a statement after the decision had been made. I complained about that when she made a statement about single farm payments a few weeks ago, yet she has done the same thing today. She was unhappy about my comment that some people thought she was treating Parliament with breathtaking disdain, yet I have to point out that, although I raised the issue with Leader of the House and was promised a debate in Government time, as well as a vote on the issue, the decision has been made, so we can debate the matter only after the event. That is not good enough. A cross-party motion has been tabled in today's Order Paper calling for such a debate and, in future, the Secretary of State must consult Parliament and allow us to hold a proper debate, with a vote, on such substantive issues.

Margaret Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that I did not manage to deal with all the questions raised by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and I am grateful to him for repeating some of them. As he rightly says, some of them are of some importance.

The hon. Gentleman asked about experience in the United States. The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment is looking at the most recent suggestions made about changes in herbicide use. Many of the other issues to which he alluded were very much part of the assessment of the science review, which tried to look at all the scientific evidence from across the world. He particularly referred to contamination, but some of that evidence is not wholly germane as, for example, there are few, if any, co-existence measures in place in the United States. However, I can assure him that both the scientific review and our advisory committees have locked at and taken into account all the various evidence.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether decisions for thresholds for organics would be made before the first planting. We anticipate that that will be the case, although as I pointed out in my statement, little organic maize is grown in the UK, so the issue is not of major importance. However, we anticipate that the decisions will be in place. Furthermore, we intend, as soon as possible, to issue guidance on the establishment of voluntary GM-free zones, if that is what people want. We propose to address all those issues. Similarly, I have said that we will be holding consultations on compensation issues, and we shall do so.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the management of the trials and what we meant by the new conditions that we were putting in place. In the short term. the use of atrazine will continue to be allowed, although we anticipate that it will be phased out. The wording means that a range of other management regimes can produce equivalent effects without using that herbicide; it is intended to convey that we should be confident that we are not running a regime that is any more damaging to biodiversity than the regime that was trialled—that is why I have written to the lead authority, which is the French Government on the issue—and there are a variety of ways of doing that, as the trials showed.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East) (Lab)

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. May I refer her to the part about public consultation? She stated that as the public learned moo e about GM, their hostility deepened. May I suggest that we ignore that hostility at our peril and remind her that the fastest growing part of the food sector is organics? Ten years ago, it was worth £1 million; last year it was worth £ l billion. People are very concerned that organic production will be compromised by association with GM contamination. Will she accept that many of us feel that the presence of atrazine in the comparator crop severely compromised the research? Finally, may I remind her that science is not neutral, is not always right and is almost never definitive?

Margaret Beckett

I am very mindful of that, but I have reported—faithfully, I hope—what was reported in the statement on the outcome of the public debate and dialogue. However, although that is what was said in the report of the public debate and dialogue about what was called the narrow but deep polling among a smaller group—as those in the group became more informed, their concern deepened my hon. Friend may not be aware that the overall outcome of the debate was independently evaluated by a study. That study, which I recall was performed by Leicester university, reported that an independent evaluation of the public debate, as opposed to its being written up by the people who ran it, suggested that, although there was genuine concern—it is right that we are properly respectful of that genuine concern—it was perhaps not as deep and widespread as the outcome of the debate and dialogue report suggested. There was a greater rang of views, although, of course, there is a very considerable degree of concern.

I take the point that my hon. Friend makes. She is entitled to say that, in her judgment, the presence of atrazine in the trials invalidates them. All I can say to her is that that is not the judgment of either our independent advisory committee or the different group of scientists who assessed that aspect of the trials' outcome. Indeed, that view was peer-reviewed and not endorsed.

My hon. Friend is right to say that people are particularly interested in organic production. I made the point a moment ago that little, if any, organic maize is produced and that organic production has grown substantially, perhaps not least because the Government have put millions of pounds into supporting and endorsing it. No one wishes to jeopardise organic production, but if my hon. Friend's argument is that we should completely ban the use of genetic modification in crops on the basis of the concerns that she expresses, that is not supported by the science. Much of the organic produce that is bought in this country comes from countries that grow GM crops in parts of their countryside.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State apologise for her discourtesy to the Environmental Audit Committee in deciding to make an announcement when she knew perfectly well that its report would be published 24 hours later? She referred to the Nature research. Who paid for that research, and how does a sample of four half-fields not treated with triazine make a valid basis for decision taking? Is it not the case that the scientific evidence for her decision today is at best equivocal; that the public remain implacably opposed I o GM and will not be spun by the Government into acquiescing; and that where there is no demand, there is no market and therefore no reason for her decision today?

Margaret Beckett

No, I do not believe that. If the Environmental Audit Committee felt that I was discourteous, I would, of course, regret that, but I do not believe that I have shown discourtesy to the EAC. I was asked whether we would announce the outcome of the discussion on an earlier date, and the answer is no. It was always envisaged that the decision would be announced now, following further consultation and discussion.

I do not know who paid for the Nature study, but I deplore few things more than the growing tendency to point the finger at people and say, "X paid for this; Y paid for that. Everyone is corrupt." The Nature study was conducted by independent scientists who had no interest in the outcome of the field-scale trials because, in fact, they did not conduct them. The study was peer-reviewed and would not have been published in Nature unless it was thought to be valid, so that issue ought to be put on one side.

I think that I heard the hon. Gentleman incorrectly say on the day of publication, when he so speedily rushed to judgment on the Nature report, that a handful of fields were part of the assessment that underlay the Nature article. In fact, there were about 26 fields, with different kinds of management, and the implications of all those patterns of management were assessed.

Finally, attempting to spin issues has never been a habit of mine, and I simply put it to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, he is right to say that there is little, if any, demand for GM produce to be bought or marketed at present—so why do we need to ban it?

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean) (Lab)

Why did the Government hold the consultation when they so clearly ignored the outcome of that debate? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, if that GM crops go ahead, meat products from animals that may have been fed on GM maize are fully labelled so that consumers may choose not to eat that meat?

Margaret Beckett

For reasons that I have already made crystal clear, I do not accept that the Government have ignored the outcome of the debate. It was never intended that the debate would do more than explore the range and nature of the public's concerns. That is what it did, and it did so well. It identified the fact that the public want caution and that they want regulation and monitoring, which the Government have put in place or are putting in place, but it also confirmed that many members of the public accept that there may be circumstances in the future when this technology could be of value and that there is perhaps not the same pressure to turn one's back completely on the technology as there is from some other quarters.

On labelling, the science review referred to how one can study whether and what material ends up in the human gut. My hon. Friend will find that there is no evidence whatever to suggest that such material survives all the way through the human digestive system. She will certainly find, if she inquires, that although few animals are fed on GM maize, many animals are fed on GM soya. We have in place a strong traceability and labelling regime. We should do everything that we can to make it relevant to people's real concerns.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

I do not disagree with the precautionary principle that the Secretary of State will exercise in introducing the crop and I appreciate that little organic maize is grown in this country, but has she taken advice on where the legal liability would lie if an organic crop were challenged by a GM crop? Would it lie with the grower of the GM crop, with the producer of the GM seed or with the Department that issued the licence?

Margaret Beckett

The hon. Lady says "challenged", but I presume that she does not just mean that there is a challenge. She presumably means that there is evidence of a breach. It seems to me that there would be liability if there were proof of management neglect against the farmer who grew the GM crop or if the incident happened inadvertently and was in some way a fault of the seed supplier. Liability would lie with whoever was responsible for that event—not, I fear, with the Department.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is the wrong decision because, now that atrazine has been banned throughout the EU, it is not supported clearly by the science? It continues to be strongly opposed by public opinion, which the Government say they want to listen to, and it is not driven, as it should be, by a public interest need for precaution, but by the commercial interests of the big biotech companies and, no doubt, pressure from the White House.

If cross-contamination occurs, as it will, who will pay the compensation, when the industry flatly refuses to accept any liability, the Government have rightly said that they will not allow taxpayers to foot the bill and the insurance e industry will not provide insurance for farmers who grow GM crops? ACRE insists that the only basis for going ahead with GM maize should be that it follows exactly the same regime as that for the trials. How will the Government secure that when it would require an amendment to the consent in Brussels to which the other 14 member states would almost certainly not agree?

Margaret Beckett

My right hon. Friend asks how we could secure that, but I have already dealt with the point about the same or equivalent regime and the question of what would happen if contamination occurred. He says that the decision is not supported by the science, but I simply disagree with him about that. He says that the decision is driven by the biotech companies, but I genuinely do not understand why people who are especially concerned—it is a legitimate concern about the influence, advice and interests of major multinational biotech companies are desperate to get any research on, or development and experience of, the handling of genetic modification out of this country. Our independent laboratories and universities have a strong scientific reputation, so I would have thought that people might want such research to be pursued here, rather than leaving it all in the hands of those whose motives they mistrust so much.

Finally, my right hon. Friend says that the decision was driven by the White House, but I simply say that I assume that the decision in 2004 was no more driven by the White House than the decision that he made in 1998.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the Environmental Audit Committee's report said that a decision along such lines would be irresponsible. Does she agree with that conclusion? If it was irresponsible a few days ago, why was it responsible to take such a decision today? We should turn her statement round. If the crop is so unimportant to the United Kingdom's economic future, why break the dam now? Why license the crop now to get small economic gains? The real issue is the signal that the decision sends to future licensing applications for GM crops in this country.

The Secretary of State has not yet responded to two questions on whether areas in the United Kingdom will be able to declare themselves GM free. Will she now take the opportunity to say how that will happen—not only in respect of voluntary relationships whereby farms come together—and whether, for example, Wales and Scotland will be able to maintain their GM-free policies?

Margaret Beckett


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I point out that every hon. Member so far has asked about four supplementary questions? That is unfair to other hon. Members who wish to be called.

Margaret Beckett

As I have said, we intend to give guidance so that if people want to set up voluntary GM-free areas, they may do so. It would not be lawful to have an arbitrary designation of a whole geographical area, but there is nothing to stop people coming together and the Government will offer advice on how that may be achieved. I do not accept that the decision is irresponsible, but I accept that there is some truth in what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) says. The decision does send a signal. It sends a signal that the Government will try—no matter what the pressure is—to make decisions that we believe to b right on the basis of evidence that we carefully weigh. There will be disagreement about those decisions and legitimate disagreement about judgments. In the end, however, it is the Government's responsibility to do their best to make the right decisions, which is what we have done and will do.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement, and especially on her reaffirmation that case-by-case scientific evidence will determine the future cultivation of genetically modified crops. What steps will be taken to protect such crop; from destruction by misguided direct action?

Margaret Beckett

I would have hoped that those with a view on trying to destroy such crops would have learned a lesson from their experience in the farm-scale trials, because if they had succeeded in destroying the trials we would have had no evidence on biodiversity with which we could decide not to proceed with growing two of the crops. A cautious approach is needed, and the law on the matter applies as it does to any other action that people take.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)

I have asked the Secretary of State on several occasions who will compensate organic farmers if their farms bee contaminated by GMOs, and I am grateful to her for partially answering the question. In her reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), she amplified that answer by saying that the GM seed producer or the GM farmer would have to offer compensation. Who will determine what represents contamination? Will it be determined by the Soil Association, which is, after all, the organisation that certifies that an organic farm is growing organics?

Margaret Beckett

As I have already indicated, consideration will occur on a case-by-case basis, and who will be liable for any compensation will depend on what happens in a specific instance. With regard to how a case would be judged, we have indicated that we will consult on thresholds. We do not oppose the notion that there should be a lower threshold for it organic crops, but we think that it is wise to consider that case by case because it must be realistic; otherwise, it will harm the interests of organic growers and others.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that her decision will have wide ramifications for the third world and, especially, the new entrant states. Some of us see this as a Trojan crop. What advice can she offer the Governments of those countries when they come under pressure from the biotech industry to introduce other crops on a licensed basis? What guarantee can she give this country's consumers that they will be eating non-GM in the future?

Margaret Beckett

There is a limit to the extent of the guarantee that anyone can give because there is much GM material grown throughout the world and one cannot undo the reality of what has already been done. The EU has a strict traceability and labelling regime—I think we were one of the first Governments to put it into law and we will monitor that to ensure that it is observed. He makes an important point about the third world. The UK is a signatory to the Cartagena protocol, which puts in place an international regime of advice, support and monitoring to help developing countries to reach decisions.

I simply make one point to my hon. Friend and others who are understandably concerned I about the matter. I recently read an observation from someone who studies such issues in the developing world closely who said that if, for example, one could get a good and reliable crop of maize to grow in the climatic, pest and disease conditions of Africa, that single step would mean that millions of people would be lifted out starvation. Although I completely accept that there is much more to hunger and famine than that—especially given the possible impact of climate change—it seems to me that it would be folly to turn our backs on a technique that might allow us to tackle the problems of salinity, drought and other difficult conditions.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that her statement would have been unpopular and questioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House irrespective of what she had announced? Her decision seems to be a sensible way forward in difficult circumstances, and as we would have had few developments over the past 500 years without such decisions, it is necessary for the opportunity to be given.

Does the right hon. Lady accept that one part of her statement is especially important, because some conventional mechanisms for growing crops are seen to be environmentally damaging? How does she intend to try to identify those so that we can improve the environment of our nation for the benefit of all?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is quite right. Professor Pollock, who oversaw the trials, made the point that throughout history the human race and wildlife have competed for the sun. When wildlife is in the ascendant, as it was, for example, in the middle ages, many members of the human race went hungry, even in countries such as ours. However, we are now in danger of biasing the decision too far in the opposite direction. It is hugely important that evidence going far wider than anecdotal evidence is available to us for the first time about the impact on the environment and biodiversity of some conventional crops. The advisory committees to which I referred are pursuing those issues, looking at what research can be done and how we can follow it through, but I think that that is the most important lesson of all from those trials.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend has achieved a difficult balance. I think that she got it right and applied a very precautionary principle in making her decision. Does she agree, however, that the stringent operation of the trials and the criteria used to approve the particular variety of maize send a clear signal to the GM industry that in future it needs to concentrate on varieties that will have much less damaging effects on the environment so that we can look forward to GM varieties that perform much better in relation to the environment than the conventional varieties that we are using at the moment?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful for her remarks. One lesson is that it is important for GM companies to consider, as others must, the impact on the environment of their choices. It is also important that they accept that one lesson of the public dialogue was that people did not feel the need to attenuate their hostility to the technology because they saw little benefit for humans in many of the present developments. If people who are engaged in research in this field could turn their attention to things that have a clear net benefit for the human race, that would make a significant difference.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD)

In 2002, research published by Newcastle university showed that bacteria in the intestine could pick up GM material in the stomach. The public are concerned about the fact that we do not have enough sound scientific research about the flow of GM material from one species to another. Is the Minister considering the possibility of substantial research so that the public can be satisfied about perceived risks to human health and their fears allayed?

Margaret Beckett

We have known since the 1940s that such a flow of material was possible, and it has frequently been studied for various reasons and in different areas. The hon. Lady is right that those issues are of interest and concern, and people are following them. She will find in the science review a reference to the studies that have been carried out, and she will know that the World Health Organisation does not perceive that there is any special impact on human health from the growing of GM crops available at present. It is because that applies to crops available at present that a case-by-case approach is important. I understand that the British Medical Association made a similar point just this morning.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

Does the Secretary of State accept that such an important decision, which many members of the public and Members of Parliament oppose, will set a precedent and is the thin end of the wedge? Should we not therefore have a vote in the House after a proper debate, and will she assure me that, if this goes ahead, compensation for organic farmers whose farms are contaminated will be on the statute book before the final decision is made?

Margaret Beckett

I have already dealt with the issue of compensation, and I repeat to my hon. Friend, as I have to others, that, yes, we anticipate that we will deal with the co-existence regime and will also be able to deal with and resolve the issue of contamination. We also anticipate further discussions in the House. She is right, however, that these are important, complex and difficult decisions that, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said, will undoubtedly make us unpopular with various players. That is what is called being in government.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

The right hon. Lady's statement illustrated the care with which she has assessed the difficult scientific and environmental issues surrounding the matter in reaching her conclusions. May I press her to make it clear in Government publicity the basis on which the decision was made, as there is ignorance about such matters and a need for education? Will she also clarify the use of the technology when applied to the plant as a biofactory? Finally, will farmers who choose to plant the approved variety be able to do so without public identification or announcement of their planting intentions?

Margaret Beckett

I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's final point—because there will not be trials such announcements may not he necessary. I am grateful for his remarks as Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and we will do everything possible to convey the basis of our decision to people who, I suspect, will be beset by a fog of misinformation. He is also right to draw attention to the potential of the technology as a biofactory. I heard a passing reference from a Nobel scientist to its potential as a technique to produce plants that can fix their own nitrogen, which would mean that we would move away from the regime of fertilisers and so on, which has bedevilled much of our environment for a long time.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend said in her statement that it was "highly unlikely that any stray remaining plant or seed would survive a winter here and thus cause concern about a subsequent crop. Equally, very little organic maize is grown here". In other words, there is a perceptible risk of environmental contamination. There is a growing demand for organic food, not an appetite for GM food, so would it not be w se to learn the lessons evident in the behaviour of bigger companies such as Unilever, Nestle, Sainsbury and Tesco, which are not pursuing GM foods because they are consumer-driven, not scientifically led? Perhaps we should be more democratically led, not driven by disputable scientific interpretations that, it is accepted, still leave a possible opening for environmental contamination.

Margaret Beckett

It is because I use words with care and try to use them accurately that I used the words that he quoted. Of course, there is potential for cross-contamination and (Toss-pollination between one crop and another. but as maize is not native to this country it has no wild relatives, so that is irrelevant in this case. Similarly, I said that stray plants or seeds were unlikely to survive the winter because they are not native to this country. Strong sub stances such as atrazine had to be used in conjunction with the growing of maize because it is difficult to grow the crop in the UK as it does not belong here.

My hon. Friend talked about disputable science, and suggested that other approaches would be better. The technology has been more scrutinised and tested than any other. In the farm-scale trials we compared the use of genetically modified crops and others, and discovered information about the use of conventional crops and their impact on biodiversity that was not previously known. The vast majority of stuff that we have eaten for generations has never been studied in this way. Cabbage contains 17 or 27 substances that, fed separately in sufficient quantities to animals, can be carcinogenic. Should we all stop eating cabbage— [Interruption.] There are some good recipes using cabbage.

It is because I would not make up my mind in advance of the evidence and ban the use of genetic modification in crops that I have been accused of being pro-GM. I am not pro-GM any more than I am pro-Petri dishes or pro-mass spectrometry. II is a technique or tool that allows us to do with rather more precision something that the human race has been doing since the dawn of time. If the human race had not been doing so, most of us would not be here and the ones who were would be very hungry.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

I welcome the right hon. Lady's sensible and balanced statement. She and her sceptical Ministers must have taken some convincing, but I am confident that they are right to move forward cautiously. Does she agree that the silent majority have found it difficult to hear the voice of sound science, and that one reason for that-I say this in the nicest possible way, without any criticism of the Minister involved—is that we do not have a science Minister in the House of Commons? Next time round, we need a science Minister in the House of Commons who is not bound by conflicts of interest that prevent him from saying anything about the issue.

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and for his consistent view that we should assess the technology very carefully.