§ 5.33 p.m.
§ LORD SHACKLETON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the catastrophic casualties caused to game and wild life, especially during the last few weeks, which are attributable to the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture, and to ask what immediate steps they propose to take to deal with this urgent problem. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question on the Order Paper. I realise that its words are very strong, and I shall do my best to justify them and prove, as I hope, that they are not too strong. I should like, first of all, to say how glad I am that my noble friend Lord Walston is to make his maiden speech. With his wide knowledge of this subject I am sure that his contribution will be of great value and interest. I am sorry that the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, who has been so active in this field, is not able to be here; but I have his blessing, as your Lordships would expect, in regard to this matter. I am also extremely sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, has apparently been silenced or is, for some reason, unable to take part in this debate.
§ My Lords, I am very conscious that this is an extremely difficult and complex matter and that there is nothing to be gained by scaremongering or attacking farmers or attacking manufacturers, or even attacking the Government, although I shall have something to say later on about the Government. But the situation is a very dangerous one. I say this in the full knowledge that these chemicals have been of very great value to agriculture, not merely in this country but throughout the world, an4 that it is of profound importance that we should be able to have these aids to greater productivity. I believe that something like 80 per cent. are weed killers and are not dangerous, at least to animal life, in the majority of cases.
§ I raised this matter in the debate on science last November in which the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Hailsham, spoke. On that occasion he made no comment at all about the 808 dangers of the situation that were arising or my plea for a greater emphasis by the Government in regard to scientific research in the field of ecology. I would stress again what I am sure all your Lordships are aware of: that it is dangerous to interfere with nature without some regard to the consequences of your action. Of course any agriculture or forestry, or any of these activities, involves such interference. Nobody is suggesting that that is undesirable, although it carries its own dangers. Noble Lords are as well aware as anyone of the dangers of the wrong sort of agriculture and of the total destruction of large areas of the world by bad husbandry. I am well aware that much has been done in this matter and that a great deal of responsible action has been shown by many people, whether they be farmers or manufacturers or the Government. This does not, however, conceal the fact that we are faced by a really critical situation.
In the Report of the Nature Conservancy last year they made reference to, and a warning about, the wild life casualties that occurred, particularly in the spring, and to the mysterious deaths of large numbers of birds, allegedly due to the use of toxic sprays. They went into great length on the question of the heavy mortality of foxes, which is a matter I referred to in the debate last November, and which at that time was believed by many people to be due to a virus disease. The Nature Conservancy, on the investigations they then made, said that
…this investigation, though by no means conclusive, suggests that seed dressing with dieldrin and similar chemicals may well be a cause of the heavy Fox mortality.
§ They gave descriptions of unusual events, of sick foxes being found wandering in such unlikely localities as the yard of a master of a particular fox hunt. But there was no conclusive evidence, although there was strong circumstantial evidence at the time, of the cause of these fatalities.
The Government took action and an Inter-Departmental Advisory Committee was set up, then later a special Committee was set up to study the need for further research into the effect of the use of toxic chemicals. But the atmosphere hitherto has rather been one of, "This may be a serious problem, but we
cannot interfere with processes of agriculture and we hope that everything will be all right." Sir William Slater, who was formerly Secretary of the Agricultural Research Council, wrote an article in the New Scientist, which, on the whole, took the point of view that these chemicals were of such value that we must, within reason, be prepared to put up with some disadvantages. He did say, however:
Any signs of widespread destruction of wild life attributable to the use of a particular chemical would bring an immediate demand from farmers for an alternative, and a fall in sales.
He went on:
The manufacturer also knows that any evidence of serious risk to the human population would result in the prohibition of the use of the substance responsible. A part from these weighty commercial considerations, the chemical manufacturer is as anxious as anyone, for purely humanitarian reasons, not to cause unnecessary pain or suffering.
§ My Lords, for the second year in succession heavy casualties have been reported, both of birds and, to a lesser extent, of mammals, and they have been reported from all over England. Significantly, they have coincided with the spring sowing. There is undoubted proof that, in 19 out of 20 samples analysed through the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, death has been caused by seed dressings, and there is good circumstantial evidence for the same causes for most of the others. On one estate in Lincolnshire the number of wood pigeons killed went into thousands. Agriculturists may say that that is a good thing—although it is, of course, forbidden to kill pigeons by poison bait of that kind. But it was not only pigeons: 33 pheasant, 14 partridge, 14 long-eared owl, 5 tawny owl and 5 sparrow hawk were also killed. It is probable that the bird predator population in this area has been virtually destroyed.
§ There is also new evidence which has been collected by the Game Research Association, and I should like to read out the list of dead birds that were collected, in the space of 11. hours, on one well-known estate in Norfolk. There were 32 pheasants, 15 red-legged partridges, one partridge, 284 wood pigeons, 59 greenfinches, 24 chaffinches, 5 blackbirds, 1 song thrush, 5 skylarks, 5 moorhens, 11 bramblings—whidi, in- 810 cidentally, are specially protected; they are in the First Schedule—and many other birds, including the predators. A total, of well over 600 birds was picked up in the course of that 11.-hour search on one relatively small area of about 500 to 1,000 acres.
§ I have in my hand (I will not go through them all) no fewer than 30 reports of a similar kind from all over the country. In one report, for instance—from Tunby, in Lincolnshire—there were found 39 pheasants and many other birds which again are protected, among them 2 racing pigeons. It has been alleged that disappearance of some racing pigeons has been due to the activities of predatories; but the evidence, I am afraid, is circumstantial. Indeed, the evidence of the actual analyses that have been made of some of the birds, shows that they were killed by toxic chemicals. In these circumstances I think the word "catastrophic", if we were to extend this all over the country, would certainly not be excessive. There are, I admit, existing arrangements for voluntary co-operation to prevent these difficulties, but the fact is that they do not seem to be effective. The agricultural chemists seem to have achieved a record in regard to the countryside that the Borgias would envy.
§ My Lords, this is a very serious matter, because we are interfering, to a degree that has not been equalled since the inclosures, with the course of nature. Indeed, the chemicalisation of the countryside may have as profound an effect as the inclosures did. The only difference is that we do not yet know, nor have we any idea, what the long-term side-effects of the use of certain of these materials will be. Another striking thing is that if it were not for the action of private individuals, and of organisations like the British Ornithological Trust and the other bodies that I have already mentioned, the public and the Government would not have been provided with the information necessary to assess the seriousness of the situation. It seems that the situation is truly deplorable. There are real implications of wholesale poisoning; and, my Lords, existing arrangements do not seem to be adequate in regard to putting pressure on chemical firms to produce less toxic seed dressings. Under present arrangements, there does not seem to be 811 much hope that the situation will improve.
§ My Lords, those of us (and I am quite sure they include the great majority of the people in this country, and certainly in your Lordships' House) who refuse to tolerate the present situation do not wish to do any damage to agriculture; but the fact that we are now seeing wild life eliminated quite unnecessarily—and I stress the words "quite unnecessarily"—gives us very serious grounds for complaining and urging the Government to take this matter a great deal more seriously than they appear to have done so far. Quite apart from the æstbetic and humanitarian grounds, there is a real economic risk in the extermination of wild life. We do not know what the ultimate effect may be of the use of these chemicals. The destruction of wood pigeons on a particular estate does not necessarily mean that the farmers will suffer any the less from wood pigeons. The long-term effect of preservation measures (and those of your Lordships who are involved in agriculture will know this extremely well) cannot always be foreseen, and merely wiping out a particular species in a particular area at one time does not mean that they may not be bothered by the same species or, indeed, by others.
The schemes which exist are not, in my opinion, adequate for dealing with the situation, and my first concern is with the attitude of the Government themselves. When the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, asked a Question earlier this year, the noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, in a long reply, and in the series of replies which followed, made a statement in which he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 229, No. 50, col. 512]:
…my information is that the manufacturers are doing a great deal of research on this subject and that the Government research organisations are co-operating with them in that research.
I would ask the noble Earl to justify that statement this afternoon, because it is my information that in fact the chemical manufacturers are doing practically nothing in the way of long-term ecological research. If I am wrong, I shall be glad to withdraw that remark, but that is my information and the result of my research. In fact, a very well-known chemical supplier remarked to a
friend of mine, a well-known ecologist, that they did not regard it as their responsibility to investigate the side-effects of their chemicals, which, he said, could be tested only in practice.
My Lords, when it comes to the Government, the situation is really pathetic. Only in the last two years has any research been set in train at all, and it is at the moment being done by two people in the Nature Conservancy. I think there may be four or five others concerned in the Agricultural Research Council, but this is very different from the reply that the noble Earl gave when he said that there had been
a great deal of research on this subject and that the Government research organisations are co-operating with them".
I only wish that there were some Government research organisations to provide that co-operation. By "research", I mean real research on the lone-term effects: not merely a committee deciding what might be done. The situation was made a little worse by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, who suggested (I do not wish to press him on this point, because he was speaking during one of his more philosophical moments) that this was not the responsibility of the Agricultural Research Council at all. We should like to know what the Government's attitude in this matter is, and whether they will, in fact, face up to their responsibilities.
§ The question, then, is: What in fact can we do? I have already said that it is no part of my case to make a general attack on the use of chemicals, but there is little doubt that the use of seed dressed with dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor or similar products is responsible for this massacre in the countryside. When we look at the agricultural chemical scheme we find that it is there laid down that certain highly desirable and worthy objects should be achieved. It is laid down in a particular paper, which is called Notification of Pesticides; Scheme agreed between Government and Industry, that in the voluntary notification of chemicals the manufacturer is required to state whether there is any risk, or extension of risk, to the user of the product, or the consumer of the dressed crop, or to wild life. In the actual details of the notification scheme, wild life is specifically mentioned—birds, mammals and beneficial insects. When 813 we look at the actual list of chemicals, there is no mention at all of risk to wild life, except in regard to bees, and one D.D.T. product in relation to fish.
§ I should like to know how it is that these items have appeared in the list and have failed to fulfil the requirements of the voluntary scheme. Either the information was not given, or false information was given, or it was ignored. I understand that this is a matter to which the Government have given some attention, and that arrangements have been made that the effects on wild life with new chemicals will be notified. But it is of profound importance that notification should be made at the earliest stage, and that the long-term consequences should be backed up by some real understanding of the questionable effects, from a long-term point of view, of the use of these chemicals.
§ We have now to consider what is to be done, and whether in fact we can wait for the Report of the Government-appointed Committees. There are a number of courses of action which I should like to urge upon the noble Earl and which I would ask the Government, even if they cannot give an answer today, to consider. First of all, there may be some interim administrative measures they could take, including, above all, publicity, so as not only to avoid the disasters which have occurred in 1960 and 1961 but to prevent an even worse disaster in 1962. They may have to consider additional control by legislation of the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture. Above all, they must provide finance for long-term research instead of the miserable amount which is at present available in regard to this matter.
§ There may be certain other things which might be done. It might be possible that there could be some voluntary abandonment of the use of certain toxic seed dressings, but I suspect that this is not the right way to approach it. It would be far better if there were some reasonable restriction on their use, particularly the use of the dual-purpose seed dressings, the ones which include not only dieldrin but possibly mercury as well; they should be used only when there is a definite indication of the need for their use. I understand that at the present moment—and my noble friend Lord Walston and the noble Earl 814 will be able to confirm whether this is so—many farmers do not know what dressings they are using, and the corn merchants, whose job it is, after all, to push up their sales, are selling some of these products without regard to their needs. We would not tolerate any chemist doing this with regard to drugs for human beings.
§ It may be argued that there is a difference between the two. But would it not he possible to treat this matter in the same sort of way and allow its use where there is a real need; where, for instance, an official of the National Agricultural Advisory Service recommended it? If there were an undoubted high presence of wireworm or wheat bulb fly infestation, then it would be used, but not used indiscriminately, as it is now a great deal. If some of these chemicals were even then found, after experience, to be exceptionally dangerous to wild life, then either they should be withdrawn voluntarily, as has been done by the chemical manufacturers already in regard to the arsenites, or they should be prohibited by law. Other proposals, with which I will not weary your Lordships, have come from other bodies. The Game Research Association has again set forward definite proposals for dealing with this problem, and it is clear that something is going to be expected from the Government and from the industry.
§ I do not myself see how we can ask the individual farmer to solve this problem by himself. He is not in a position, in many cases, to do so. It has been argued by some (and I am not in a position to judge) that the good and very efficient farmer does not need to make much use of toxic chemicals. There is no doubt that the good farmer has a proper attitude of trusteeship to his land, and regards it as a trust of which he is going to make the best use. There is a need to help him. There are other methods of control. For example, there was one which was evolved, but which, I believe, came to nothing, by Sir Alexander Todd for producing a synthetic potato juice which would mislead the eel worm into producing at the wrong time of year, when the potatoes were not there, and as a result the land was cleared. This came to nothing, as I say, but it seems to me to be the type of biological control which would be 815 much more preferable. Then there is the specific control, the material evolved by, I think, Doctor Picket, for controlling the codling moth in apple orchards, and this was specific only to the codling moth.
§ What has happened this year, and in the last two years, is the first of the big outbreaks. I am told by friends of mine who are biologists that it is just pure luck that there have not been others already, but that we shall certainly not succeed in avoiding new ones in the future. If the Minister were to think the use of the word "catastrophic" excessive, then I should like to point out that this is a word used recently by the Nature Conservancy. There is a possibility of outbreaks of many kinds as a result of using chemicals of the long-term effects of which we are unaware.
§ My Lords, I should like to sum up. The position seems to me to be this. That it is wrong to destroy wild life heedlessly, I think we should all agree. In my youth I used to collect birds eggs. Nowadays nobody collects birds eggs. It will progressively make the country a great deal duller if we destroy everything which is part of the nature of the countryside. Most serious of all, the effects on life are only partly known, indeed, are largely unknown, and it is going to take a long time, I admit, to understand the full consequences of the use of these chemicals. I stress again that these consequences are very long in their effect. There is a report from America—I do not think I have it with me—of an investigation carried out with regard to the destruction of robins in one area. It was found that they had largely been wiped out as the result of eating worms which had themselves eaten insects which had been attacked by chemicals for a perfectly valid agricultural reason. We do not know what these long-term effects will be; and if we are to criticise the destruction of game in Africa, then I think we have to make sure that our own hands are clean in this matter.
§ In the last century, a great deal of damage was done to this country during the Industrial Revolution—I have mentioned this in the House before. We look back now and wish that it had not been done. We have now moved into the age when we can say that chemicali- 816 sation of the countryside is taking place. It is because these chemicals are being used everywhere. We do not know yet what the long-term effects will be, but I am sure that subsequent generations will not forgive us if we do not take some forethought as to what we are doing. I should like to make a plea that, whatever short-term steps the Government take, they will give more support to ecological research. This involves much more support and a complex approach to our problems. If we are introducing these complicated things, then complications are bound to follow, and the effects are of a kind which will soon arouse a good deal of feeling among the public.
§ I have a letter here, which I will not read to your Lordships, on the horrible effects on birds of some of these chemicals. Many of your Lordships will have seen it in Country Life. And we all remember the public reaction to myxomatosis. I am fully aware of the value of these chemicals, but we are playing with dangerous things. To-day the public are fully conscious of the dangers of radioactivity and the Government have taken every sort of step to limit them, but these chemicals may be equally dangerous. I will not go so far as to say that they are dangerous to human life, but certainly dogs have been killed through eating birds that have been poisoned in this way, and I know people who have already decided never again to eat pheasants and partridges. For my own part, I should be extremely sorry if I were deprived of that pleasure, but unless something is done, we shall be confronted by a real public reaction. We cannot go on, whether in the name of freedom or anything else, irresponsibly destroying what is part not only of our heritage, but of the heritage of posterity.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ LORD WALSTON
My Lords, it is the convention, I am told, on the occasion of one's maiden speech, to ask for your Lordships' indulgence. It is probable that some who speak for the first time in your Lordships' House have had experience elsewhere and ask for that indulgence purely as a matter of form, and for no other reason. They have served their apprenticeship elsewhere. I can assure the House that in my case these are no idle words that I use. My task is made easier by the great friendship and kindness which, in 817 the relatively short time I have spent among your Lordships, I have already encountered from all sides. I suppose that my task is also made easier because this subject, on which I am happy to follow my noble friend Lord Shackleton, is one which is of real importance.
Some people may say that it does not matter much if a few birds die here and there: there are plenty in the country, and in any case nobody looks at them. I do not know what are the actual implications of this slaughter that is going on. In a matter of percentages, I do not know whether it is 1, 5 or 10 per cent. But I do know that in certain areas it is large, and I would suggest to the noble Earl, when he eventually comes to answer, that he might tell us what steps, if any, are being taken to secure more statistical information about this, so that we know just where we are: whether we are dealing with a few isolated outbreaks, which have been blown up into large importance by a small number of people, or whether this really is, as I strongly suspect, a national problem.
The point of my noble friend's speech which I should like to follow is not the question of the extinction of bird life in the countryside. I confess that, as a farmer, I should be delighted if I found far fewer birds about, just as I was delighted when I found that there were far fewer rabbits. I might even say that I should be delighted to see fewer hares: and the loss of foxes, too, would not upset me very much. It is not this question that I want to deal with, but the whole question of the balance of nature, which is quite clearly being interfered with at the present time.
My Lords, I am not against interfering with the balance of nature. You cannot be a farmer and not spend your whole life interfering with it—that is what agriculture is. Nature gives us fen country, swamps and marshes; we drain them, and they become fertile. Nature sends us a drought, and we irrigate. And nature certainly never intended the common cow to do anything other than munch a few mouthfuls of grass and suckle one calf every year. It was no part of nature ever to stuff that animal with all sorts of cattle foods and feeding-stuffs, so that she will produce enough food for ten or twenty calves every day. So let us not be put off by talk about "interfering with nature," let us go on 818 interfering with nature. But the more we do it, the more careful we must be to see that the results we are achieving are the results we wish to achieve.
My noble friend has already referred to some mistakes which have been made in the past by interference with the balance of nature. The dust bowls of America, the eroded mountains of the Dalmatian Coast and of North Africa—all in their days highly fertile cultivated areas producing food for the world, have gone; and it will require a great deal of effort and a great deal of cost to bring them back. That is something which this country—and indeed, the world—cannot afford to allow to happen. At the present time, with the methods of communication, of mass dissemination, of advertising, public and private, and of Governmental instruction, the results of a mistaken policy are 10 times-100 times—worse than they would have been 50 years ago. That means that our care must be very much greater, to make certain that we do not get off on the wrong foot.
Chemical fertilisers, chemical sprays, hormone sprays—all these things are to-day an essential part of modern agriculture, and without them we could not make even the very poor attempt we are making at the moment to banish hunger from the world. But this is not the sort of thing about which we can sit back and say, as Sir William Slater suggested, that we can leave it to the manufacturers not to produce something that is harmful or that they will not sell it if they do. To a limited extent, that is true. They will not deliberately put on to the market something that they know is going to be harmful; and they certainly will not expect to sell, for instance, to the farmers of East Anglia, any form of compound which is going to reduce the partridge and pheasant population. To that extent, Sir William Slater is correct in what he says. The problem, however, goes much deeper than that. The implications of the use of these modern methods is so much greater that we cannot sit back and leave it to private enterprise to get on with the job.
This fact was recognised by Governments in the past. I expect that we shall be reminded, as many noble Lords themselves will remember, that in the late '40s a Committee was set up, under the 819 chairmanship of Sir Solly Zuckerman, to inquire into the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture. That Committee made three reports. The first one was simply on toxic chemicals in agriculture, published in April, 1951. There was a second one, dealing specifically with residues in food, in April, 1953. The last one, published in June, 1955, dealt specifically with the risk to wild life. But even the last one was published nearly six years ago. Its recommendations were designed to make sure that the sort of thing which is happening to-day would not happen.
My Lords, I do not want to find fault with the findings of that Committee. They seem to me very sensible. And, with the little knowledge I have, I do not want to find fault with the work of such inter-departmental committees as may have been set up as the result of the recommendations of that Committee. But it seems to me to be clear that whatever steps were taken to implement the findings of this Committee have so far failed, just as it also seems fairly clear that such work as is being done (and there is some work being done, as your Lordships may know: Professor Blackman at Oxford is and has been for many years carrying on a general ecological study of these problems) is not sufficient for what is happening to-day.
I do ask your Lordships not to sit back and say: "Well, this is a tiresome problem; but, after all, we may enjoy our pheasants over-ripe, or high or low; we may enjoy our foxes; we may not like to see the song birds and thrushes lying dead in the hedges (and, in fact, we do not think many of them do), so let it go through the normal channels. It is only a small problem, and we have more important things to think about." Looked at in that way, there are more important things to think about. But looked at simply as one symptom of the results which can come about through fighting nature; through unbalancing the existing balance that has established itself; through ignoring the ecological implications; through ignoring the vast chain reactions which can be set up through one comparatively simple application of one comparatively simple chemical formula—looked at in that light, this surely is a problem on which the Government must take positive 820 action of their own, and must enlist all that body of technical help that exists—the manufacturers themselves; the Agricultural Research Council; the universities and, one might even hope, the Royal Agricultural Society, which should be intimately connected and concerned with this matter. I do ask your Lordships to regard it in this light, and to make sure that the damage which to-day is being seen so clearly in certain of our fields and in certain parts of our countryside is not allowed to spread wide into far greater fields, which can have a far more serious effect on the whole rural life of this country and upon its whole food-producing potentialities.
§ 6.12 p.m.
My Lords, first of all, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Walston, on his maiden speech, which I think we all realise was a remarkable speech. He is a well-known farmer, and he has brought out his points extremely well. I found his speech intensely interesting in every way, and it was no less remarkable for the fact that he only once, and that I think for a matter of seconds, looked at a note of any description. I can assure the noble Lord that speeches of that description are always welcome in this House, and I hope that we shall hear him on many more occasions, and soon.
There is no doubt that, as has been said by both noble Lords who have spoken, this is an important matter. The bird life of our country has been seriously affected. Many noble Lords will remember the Protection of Birds Act, 1954, which came to be known as the Tweedsmuir Act, because it was taken through the other place by Lady Tweedsmuir and through your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Tweedsmuir. We spent a long time on the Bill in this House, and many of your Lordships will remember that it caused a lot of discussion and there were high feelings as to the birds that should or should not be protected. We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that same of the birds found to be destroyed are what in the Army were called "top of the roll" of this list. It is strange to think that we bring in Acts of Parliament to prevent people from destroying birds, and yet by other means far more of them are destroyed than would have been in the normal way.
821 I am not an expert on these matters, but it seems to me that, whereas in most discussions there are two sides to the argument, in this case there are not, and no one is fighting anyone else. The farmers want to use aids for their production, and they want to use aids which are economical, but they have no desire to kill off the bird life or animal life of the country. The people who produce these toxic chemicals have no desire to kill off the wild life of the country. The Government are anxious that all parties should do well—the farmers and the people who make the chemicals. Again, the general public want to see the bird life and animal life protected; and they want to see the farmers happy, in order that they may reap the good of the earth for their pleasure and for eating and for the general health of the country. So that really no one is against anyone else.
What we want to ask the Government to do as a matter of urgency is to collect together the experience of all those concerned and really get down to the problem in both the short term and the long term. Both noble Lords who have spoken have said that we do not know what is going to be the result of using all these chemicals; nobody knows. So far, it has not attacked many mammals. The noble Lord mentioned a dog. I have also heard of the case of a dog; and, strangely enough, only last week my own labrador appeared from somewhere with a dead and rather mangled pigeon in his mouth; I do not know where he had got it from. The first thing I did was to wash out his mouth, because I was terrified that this bird might have died through one of these chemicals. We do not know what is going to happen, and that is why, as the noble Lords, Lord Shackleton and Lord Walston, have said, the whole position is serious. I would beg the Government to treat this matter as one of urgency and collect together all the agencies who are going in for research and really get out some plan.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, I should like to add to what the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, has already said about the great pleasure it has been to listen to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Walston. When he started his remarks he made the 822 conventional remark about the nerves of maiden speakers. I did not share his apprehension, however, because for many years we have worked together on various agricultural projects, and I had same knowledge of the kind of speech that we were likely to hear from him. As a maiden speech it was a speech that had almost everything, in complete knowledge and grasp of the subject and in its presentation. I am sure that we shall all look forward to hearing him on many occasions in the future.
I should also like to support the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, in his plea for urgency in this matter, so far as the Government are concerned. None of us wants to halt or handicap the farmers in the use of chemicals which will destroy pests or weeds, and thereby make cultivation and production easier and more prolific. But it seems to me that it is indiscriminate destruction. In other words, manufacturers invent a chemical which will do a certain job, without, apparently, finding out what other destruction it will cause. It is not merely a case, of course, of the cruel destruction of birds and mammals; it is the case that many of these sprays do a great deal of damage to crops in adjoining fields. It may be that farmers are careless, and do not judge the wind properly. Also, they may feel, "We are insured, anyway, so it does not matter". But a great deal of destruction can be wrought in a very short time. I had a personal experience of that myself, when a neighbouring farmer was spraying toxic chemicals to destroy weeds. He destroyed about four acres of a willow plantation of mine, at a cost of something like £2,000, in about half an hour. It was covered by insurance, but it is a most unpleasant business to have to prove these things, and it seems so utterly senseless not to find out first the possible damage which may be caused. That seems to be the core of the trouble.
One thing, I think, must be said. I know that my noble friend's Question deals with toxic chemicals. I do not know whether they could be described as toxic, 'but a great many of these chemicals are not harmful at all, except for the specific purpose for which they are intended. For example, every year, round about the end of May, my plantations are visited by billions of very pretty, 823 little golden beetles, and if they were left unattended in the space of three or four days they would virtually destroy the crop. We spray with a D.D.T. emulsion which takes the beetles away like magic, and the wilting crops recover. The D.D.T. emulsion, although it does the particular job, is not only not a bit harmful to the plant, but is not in any way harmful to any other form of life, even to the birds who eat the beetles. It seems to me that that should be the way in which the Government should ask that inquiries should be directed—not that there should be any intention of hampering investigation and research into the use of chemicals to assist agriculture. When a new chemical is produced it should satisfy certain requisites.
We have had discussions in your Lordships' House about new drugs, and it has been suggested—in my view very properly—that before their indiscriminate sale and use is allowed there should be a considerable volume of experience: a great many tests carried out before it is thought safe to launch these things on a suffering public, so that, in curing, or attempting to cure, one particular disease, we can avoid setting up many others. I should have thought that the same kind of thing ought to apply when dealing with crops.
There is also the other point, which has been touched upon, or implied, in the speeches of my noble friends Lord Shackleton and Lord Walston. That is that we do not know what the long-term harm may be to human beings from the use of some of these chemicals applied to growing food which we are going to eat. That is another thing which I think needs looking into. I will ask the noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, not necessarily to deal with this point to-night, but to consider, through his Department, dealing with the known toxic chemicals like phenoxylene and dozens of others which are poisonous. I cannot accept the manufacturers' claims that they are not going to do any harm to other things, because I believe they are. They are a virulent poison, and it is difficult for me to believe that they are not going to do long-term harm. If it is found that chemicals of that kind do vicious harm to other crops and, as it were, go far beyond what they are intended to do, and are poisonous to birds and mammals, 824 then their use should be prohibited. It is no good messing about with the problem, otherwise we are merely using words. If these chemicals are found to be vicious, then they should not be used.
I do not think that that is contrary to my view (and I believe it is the view that everyone holds) that farmers should be permitted the full use of suitable chemicals to help them in food production. It is quite certain that, with a little extra research, it will be possible to and a suitable chemical to do the job without these extra harmful effects. For example, we use hormones on our lawns. That does not harm birds or animals. We use weedkillers on our paths, and they do not do any harm to animals, although admittedly they may kill the grass if they get on the grass from the gravel. It merely needs a short step from the weedkiller which will do its job and not harm animals, but does harm other plants, to the weedkiller which does its job without harming either.
My Lords, the final point I should like to make is to support the plea made by all noble Lords who have spoken so far: that there should be much greater research, a greater sense of urgency and drive on the part of the Government, to find out what are not only the most harmful chemicals but also suitable substitutes to do their job. I hope that the Government will at the same time consider taking suitable powers. The noble Earl will remember that some few weeks ago a Question was put to him upon which there were many supplementary questions. One supplementary question I put was whether if the Committee reported that it was necessary to prohibit the use of certain chemicals the Government had the power to do so. The noble Earl said that there were no such powers. I should think that, if we really mean business, when all the research has been carried out and a decision has to be taken, then the Government should be armed with powers to prohibit the use of those things which are considered improper and harmful. I therefore hope that the Government will consider, at the same time as the research goes on a suitable form of powers which they can take in order to end this evil to which my noble friend has drawn attention.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF ALBEMARLE
My Lords, I had not intended to say even a few words, but as one who lives in the country I have been immensely affected by noxious chemicals. I want to say two things. For six years I have been wondering why a directive was not given by the Government—by whichever Department whose duty it is to investigate certain notified diseases of crops—as to what should be done. To put it shortly, it occurs to me that we have fallen, as it were, between two stools—between the Minister for Science, who has surely a great number of ad hoc committees which he is gradually bringing together at his command, and the Minister of Agriculture, who is in charge of the National Agricultural Advisory Service. Doctors notify diseases throughout the country and it is somebody's business to deal with it. The Ministry of Agriculture N.A.A.S. notifies diseases among crops. Why is it not somebody's business to get on to the E.R.U. from the N.A.A.S and say that certain crop diseases need to be attended to? And why does not the Minister for Science (I suspect he has really too much on his shoulders) give a directive of his own free will, as I would if I were in that position, saying, "I want that seen to. That is a directive". He is Minister for Science. How is it—if lie is not too busy—that he has not during the past six years given a directive that he wants this matter attended to?
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ LORD DOUGLAS OF BARLOCH
My Lords, first I should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend, Lord Walston, on the ease, the clarity and the balance with which he addressed your Lordships, and I am sure we shall look forward to hearing him again on other occasions.
I want to add just a few words in support of the views which have been put forward on all sides of the House that this matter is of extreme importance and urgency. What has brought it into special prominence at the moment is the large destruction of birds and animals as a result of the dressings applied to seeds in the spring. That is perhaps a more spectacular example than many others of the evils which may follow from the use of chemicals in agriculture, but we must remember that chemicals 826 are being used more and more extensively. In the United States it was estimated recently that the amount of pesticides used in agriculture amounted to some 5 or 6 lb. per head of population. I asked some time ago whether some figures could be given of the total amount of chemicals used in agriculture in this country, but I was told that there was no information available. But this is information which we should have.
It is perfectly true that the most obvious results are upon wild life and upon the larger forms of it, but there are many other recondite results which have to be considered. I call to mind one illustration. It was found at the University of Michigan some years ago that the thrushes were disappearing, and when careful investigation was made it was found that the reason was this: the elm trees had been sprayed with D.D.T. in order to combat an elm disease. The leaves fell off, of course, in the autumn; they were eaten by earth worms; the thrushes ate the earth worms and they were destroyed. That is only one out of many illustrations of the effects which can occur and which are not at all obvious at first sight.
Another one which I recollect, also in the United States, where perhaps they have had a wider experience so far of these things than we have, is where the water in a certain lake was sprayed with a chemical in order to kill a gnat which affected those who went to it in order to bathe and fish. The insecticide was carefully chosen for the purpose so that it would not affect the fish, and that appeared to be the case. But after a time it was discovered that certain fish-eating birds which used to frequent this lake were disappearing, and although the fish were not visibly affected it was found that they were storing up this chemical in their fat in very large quantities, and this was killing the birds. Incidentally, it presented an added peril for the people who resorted there to fish. That is one more illustration of the unexpected ways in which these things may act.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, would my noble friend allow me to correct him? The birds that were destroyed at the University of Michigan were robins, not thrushes.
§ LORD DOUGLAS OF BARLOCH
The Americans call them robins; we call them thrushes. That is the explanation.
I do not want to detain the House too long, but do not let us forget that part of the environment which has to be considered and which must be protected is human beings. There is, I think, little doubt that the constant use of chemicals in agriculture tends to build up a residue of chemicals which may appear in quite unexpected ways, and the longterm effects, as I have said, are something which simply cannot be predicted. This is the reason why the utmost caution must be adopted before new chemicals are admitted into agricultural use. It has been estimated that to test fully the effects of a chemical which it is intended to use in the manufacture of foodstuffs it may cost perhaps £50,000, in order to conduct the whole of the experiments which are considered necessary. There you are perhaps upon a narrower field where the effects are likely, at any rate, to be more direct. But when you come to the use of chemicals in agriculture you are in a field in which the ramifications are extremely wide. There is the destruction of insects, such as bees and others which are pollinators; there is the destruction of weeds—and do not let us jump to the conclusion that all weeds are necessarily objectionable. I think there is good evidence that in pastures certain weeds are necessary for the health of the cattle which eat the herbage.
I feel most alarmed about this situation, because it is perfectly certain that the Government are not spending sufficient money in order to ascertain what the facts are, and the manufacturers are inventing fresh chemicals with great rapidity. For certain purposes in which I am interested, I happen to see the records of new patent specifications which are filed. Week after week I find that there are being patented new chemicals which are intended for some kind of use in agriculture or in the food industry but which may affect the lives of human beings. I do not for a single moment suggest that the manufacturers are wantonly throwing these things into public use, knowing that they are going to have disastrous effects—naturally, they are not doing that; but they themselves are probably not conducting the 828 long-term researches which are necessary in order to discover whether, after many years, the results may be injurious to human beings or to the environment upon which human beings depend. This matter is therefore extremely serious.
§ 6.42 p.m.
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD (EARL WALDEGRAVE)
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for having raised this matter to-day and for giving me an opportunity to answer this extremely important Question. I am grateful to him for the moderate way in which he developed his argument and for the constructive approach that he has made to the whole subject. He was only immoderate, I think—he is quite entitled to be—when he was attacking the Government rather than attacking agriculture or the agricultural chemical industry. I take no exception to that.
A number of noble Lords have contributed to this debate and have kept it on a high level. I should very much like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Walston, for his maiden speech. If other noble Lords had not intervened I should have been in order in speaking for rather longer on that point (I thought I was on the list of speakers as the maiden after the maiden), but I have been deprived of that pleasure. The noble Lord gave us a good contribution and we hope that we shall hear him frequently in the future. He knows the subject of agriculture and science, and he is knowledgeable about other subjects as well.
My Lords, first of all, the Government are not complacent. We are aware, in the terms of the Question, of the damage that is being done to wild life, though I am afraid that I must join issue straight away with Lord Shackleton on the use of the word "catastrophic". I will not argue with him strongly about that, but "catastrophe" is a serious word, and we must not over-exaggerate a serious problem.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
Would the noble Earl allow me to interrupt? What would he call a catastrophe? If there is evidence that wild life, running into probably hundreds of thousands on the basis of these samples, has been destroyed, what would he call that—a minor incident?
No, my Lords; but we must be careful about the use of words. It is late and we must not be too long. If my nose was suddenly to bleed I should think it a catastrophe; but if a bomb were to fall on this Chamber that might be regarded much more reasonably as a catastrophe. "Catastrophe" is a strong word that we use, but we must not use it lightly. But on complacency I am on very sure ground. Only last week, in another place, my right honourable friend used these words to one honourable Member who asked a Question on this subject:I assure my honourable friend that my Department and I myself take this matter extremely seriously.As to the nature of this problem of toxic chemicals in agriculture, I may say that an enormous range of chemicals is used in agriculture, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, narrowed the field to a certain extent to the particular problem which is facing us at this moment. I think that on all sides this is agreed to be chiefly connected with a comparatively new form of insecticidal seed dressings which has lately been much more widely used than ever before. If we were to range fully over the whole subject we should have to take much more time. That is not in any way to deny the point made, for instance, by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, or the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, that other chemicals can do damage or have deleterious side effects. But let us continue to confine ourselves to this question of the new insecticidal seed dressings which are probably causing the great problem.
The chemical seed dressing of cereals, sugar beet and vegetable seeds has for a long time been widely practised in the United Kingdom, and all over the world, as a defence against fungus diseases, and the value of the organo-mercury dusts which were discovered in the early 'thirties is widely known. It is only, I believe, since 1945—and timing comes into this problem—that there have been two major developments. One was the introduction of dual-purpose seed dressings. First of all, they added to the organo-mercury compound the chemical benzine hexachloride, and then, about 1956, they added the chlorinated hydrocarbons, of which the best known are 830 dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor. There has been a second development, which is to use these things in liquid rather than in dust form.
These dual-purpose (insecticidal as well as fungicidal) seed dressings, have of course proved most valuable to agriculture; that is admitted on all sides. It is because the more well-known forms of organo-mercury compounds were not fully effective against insect pests—of which two are especially damaging to cereals, namely, wireworm and the wheat bulb-fly—that these other substances came to be used. Rarely do we get an unmixed blessing. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, for one, seems to have found an unmixed blessing in the treatment that he gives to his willow which appears to do no harm to anything else. But it is rare that that should be so; and some scientists may even wonder whether or not there were side effects to the beetles attacking the willows—but I do not know. We certainly have not an unmixed blessing in these dual-purpose seed dressings, and I do not for a moment wish to imply that we have. It has been found that dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor, in particular, carry serious risks to birds which eat the dressed seeds. The deaths from this cause first began to be noticed in 1956, but it was not until the 1959–60 sowing season that the deaths were reported on a wider and a heavier scale than in previous years; and that was, I think, the first time that deaths were reported of animals suspected to have eaten poisoned birds.
My Lords, I want to emphasise, when we are accused of not having completely solved this problem with which we are dealing, that it is very largely a question of timing; and the problem is a comparatively new one. A great deal more evidence has recently been received—and much of it has been given to-day—about deaths from these causes, particularly seed dressings. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, quoted, I believe, from the report (of which I have a copy in front of me) of investigations carried out by the Game Research Association. I should like to return a little later to the point made by the noble Lord in that connection.
What are we doing about this problem? As a result of deaths reported to us in 1959–60 my Department put in hand two main efforts: first, experimental 831 feeding trials. That was done in cooperation with the Government Chemist's Laboratory which is now part of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research under my noble and learned friend, the Lord President of the Council. The trials were started to find out more about the lethal doses of dieldrin and about the quantities of poison occurring in the bodies of birds which might be detectable by chemical analysis. The basic work has been done. Secondly, from October, 1960—and this is very important—the Ministry's pest officers throughout the whole country have been instructed to investigate and report on unusual deaths of birds and mammals, with particular reference to poisoning by seed dressings.
With this programme in hand, the Ministry arranged for a meeting of all interests concerned (referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton) to discuss the problem and, if possible, to agree on the right course of action to deal with it. That meeting was held on December 20 last. It had a very broad attendance, being attended by representatives of manufacturers, merchants, land owners, farmers and the bodies concerned with nature preservation—that is to say, the Nature Conservancy, the Council for Nature, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, I believe, led the delegation from the Council for Nature.
I should like to read to your Lordships what that meeting agreed, because I believe it is very important. I quote from the Press notice which had a very wide publicity throughout the country. They agreed that seed dressings play a valuable part in agricultural production—they used the words "very valuable". They then said that not all seed dressings present a hazard to wild life, butThere is evidence that seed dressings containing dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor, which in other respects are particularly valuable in present circumstances, can kill birds that eat dressed seed; and there is strong circumstantial evidence that deaths occur from this cause, particularly when sowing conditions are difficult.It was agreed that further experimental work should be done and that there should be collaborative experimental work by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Government Chemist's Labora- 832 tory, including examination of birds and foxes whose bodies would be sent in through this survey; and we were to investigate the local circumstances.
All that has been agreed. And yet we have been asked this afternoon on many occasions what we have been doing. This is what we are doing. Collaborative research is continuing between the manufacturing companies and the Ministry of Agriculture, and publicity has been arranged by the Ministry and all parties concerned so as to warn farmers about the risks to wild life. I think that this is very important, and it is not generally known how much we have done in this sphere. We have also given warnings against illegal spreading of poisoned grain, which is contrary to the Protection of Birds Act. Our publicity has drawn attention to the care needed in disposing of any surplus seed and warns against mixing it with undressed seed or feeding it to livestock. Finally, the Department undertook to review the whole position after the spring of 1961, when further information would be available. We are just coming to the end of spring, 1961. The further information is available, and I hope that this meeting will be convened in the very early summer. So all this programme has been put into effect.
There was one other point that I should have stressed, and it came out in that Press release which received wide coverage. We recommended—and that meeting agreed—that advice issued by manufacturers with the dressings should be modified so as to ensure that wheat bulb fly dressing is employed only when there is real need to use it to control that pest. Seed merchants and manufacturers of dressings would continue to warn users of the risk from dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor dressings and draw attention to the extra risk from higher doses of insecticide; and would thereby enable landowners and others to use their judgment more critically than hitherto when deciding on the choice of dressing. I cannot emphasise too much that we are wholly against these particularly dangerous kinds of dressing being used wholesale, whether required or not.
§ LORD STONHAM
My Lords, will the noble Earl allow me to interrupt him? He said a few sentences ago that spreading poisoned seed is an offence, but I 833 take it that seed dressed with the three substances he has mentioned several times (I will not attempt to repeat their names), is not regarded as poisoned seed.
My Lords, yes, that is poisoned seed; but it is illegal, and a contravention of the Protection of Birds Act, to use such seed deliberately as a bait. A large number of incidents have been brought to light by this survey, which have been investigated and reported upon; and analyses are being done on the bodies of more than 200 dead birds which have been received. Those analyses have been commenced, but to detect the quite small traces of these particular chemicals the analytical procedure needed is very complex and lengthy, and we shall not get the results immediately. The largest number of birds reported to have been killed is of pigeons.
Noble Lords will have seen reports in the Press showing the progress of the survey being made by the Joint Committee of the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Here, again, a large number of incidents have been reported and my Department's scientific advisers are keeping in close touch with the officials of that Joint Committee; and, of course, we now also have the advantage of the Game Research Association report. I am not suggesting for a moment, and I hope nothing I have said will lead anyone to believe, that we are complacent about this problem and do not regard it as a serious one. But we really must not exaggerate it; and, further, we must not jump to unjustifiable conclusions.
I have already said that I doubt whether the word "catastrophic" would be a proper one to use, but leaving that aside for the moment I feel we must be careful to distinguish between those chemicals which appear to have this serious side-effect on wild life and those which, over a large number of years, have been used and have not, so far at any rate, given evidence of producing those or any other such serious effects. It would be a serious disservice to agriculture to condemn all chemicals out of hand—and nobody has suggested that this afternoon—because evidence is accumulating that certain chemicals are much more dangerous than others.
834 That brings me to the question of the Game Research Association's report. If it were widely circulated in the form in which I have it in my hand parts of it could conceivably be misleading. I say no more than that. In the case which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, quoted of Tunby, Lincolnshire, where this holocaust seems to have taken place, this very large number of dead birds was found, the seed dressings alleged to have been used in the neighbourhood, and therefore by inference to have been responsible for this, are all in fact (my scientific advisers have translated their names for me) the old-fashioned organo-mercury dressings, which would be, I am advised, extremely unlikely to have had that effect, Therefore, there is something missing in this evidence, I think, on that particular case. There was something, perhaps, that had not been discovered which caused these bird deaths. But we must beware of drawing a false conclusion, that B always follows A; and I think that is only fair to the manufacturers of the chemicals which have been used for a long time and have not been proved to do much harm.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, I think that the noble Earl is the one who is drawing the conclusion. This is an objective report which is only at a very early stage and the value of which has yet to be assessed; the Association merely state certain information. There is no doubt about the large number of birds which have been killed, or which have died, and they mention quite honestly the information they have with regard to the chemicals. If they happen not to be the particularly toxic ones, they still honestly put them in. The report is not complete in this sense, and I do not think anyone, except the noble Earl himself, is attempting to misunderstand the Game Research Association and Dr. Ashe, who does all this work.
My Lords, I very much hope that I shall not be misunderstood on this. I did not for a moment suggest any form of deliberate misleading or dishonesty, because I am sure none is there. I say simply that if this report in this form gets into the hands of people who may not take a great deal of care to read all the footnotes, they will see this heading "Poisons" and then four 835 trade names, not of the dieldrin type, and a long list of birds that have been picked up. I think someone might make the inference that one follows the other. We could empty out the baby with the bath water, and so condemn perfectly innocuous chemicals, if this were misunderstood. I am only drawing attention to that, because I am sure that there was no possible intention to mislead, and I think it is a very valuable report.
§ LORD DOUGLAS OF BARLOCH
My Lords, is the noble Earl saying that the organo-mercury compounds are nonpoisonous?
No, indeed. I am not saying that they are nonpoisonous. But I am saying that they have been used for a number of years, and the evidence accumulating to measure damage being done to seed-eating birds does not point to those compounds but to the newer ones, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, implied in his Question. We agree with that.
Many noble Lords have said that we should tackle this problem in various ways. Perhaps the first should be by publicity and education, so that we use the right chemical at the right time and not at the wrong time. I should like again to quote what we have issued in the Press, as a warning to farmers. We issued a Press notice which had a very wide coverage in the Press; I have it here. It is headed "A Warning to Farmers" and I think we covered in it a great many points which noble Lords have raised this afternoon. It says that seed dressings are of great value. The notice continues:Seed dressings containing dieldrin, aldrin or hep[...]achlor can kill birds that eat the dressed seed, and may prove fatal to animals that eat the bodies of such birds. Farmers using seed treated with these dressings should take the greatest care, both in storing and when sowing the seed, to ensure that none of it is left where birds or animals, whether wild or domestic, can get at it.The higher dosages of these three insecticides designed to guard against wheat bulb-fly are particularly dangerous to wild life. This strength of dressing should be used only where there is a real need for it, and not as a routine measure of protection. In practice this means that it should be used only on winter wheat, and then only in areas where there is a real danger of attack from wheat bulb-fly.That, I think, goes a long way to meet the point made by, I believe, Lord 836 Stonham, that these chemicals should not be used regardless, unless they are really necessary.
It continues:It is dangerous to feed any creatures with food containing seed dressed with insecticides and such seed should not therefore be mixed with untreated seed. The spreading of poisoned grain as a bait is an offence under the Protection of Birds Act.If there is any doubt about the need to use dressed seed in particular circumstances, farmers should seek the views of their district advisory officer.The chemical manufacturers, the merchants and the farmers have been active in their co-operation. The National Association of Corn and Agricultural Merchants, for instance, has recommended to its members that a warning to farmers should be on the label of any sack of seed treated with these dressings. One large firm of manufacturers had its labels over-printed with a special warning after they had been printed. Another firm has had special meetings with merchants who sell its dressings, to explain the policy and warnings to them. The National Farmers' Union has publicised these warnings in its periodical the British Fanner. When your Lordships' House discussed this matter on March 9 (when I answered a Question of the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank), the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, I think it was, suggested that all these warnings ought to be embodied in the next issue of the list of chemicals approved under the Agricultural Chemicals Approval Scheme. Not only will this be done, but we have meanwhile issued an Amendment to the current list so that it can be interleaved in the approved list now. Next year the Amendment will be part of the list.
So far, I have talked of the short-term and immediate steps to deal with the problem. What of the longer-term research which I think is clearly needed, for instance, on the general ecological effects of these casualties, or on the long-term effects or side effects of agricultural chemicals? Many noble Lords have spoken about that question, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Walston, and Lord Douglas of Barloch. These long-range aspects fall to be dealt with in the report of the Research Study Group, under Professor Sanders, which was set up by Ministers to examine the need for further research into the effects 837 of toxic chemicals used in agriculture. Their report is expected this summer, and we cannot anticipate what this report will say. But the group have taken extensive evidence, and I can assure noble Lords that we shall take this report very seriously and that we have no intention of shelving or delaying this subject.
The Research Study Group, of course, will cover all these wider aspects of the problem which have been raised by so many noble Lords. But in addition to this Research Study Group, which is working on the problem at the moment, we have the Nature Conservancy themselves, who have established a unit to attempt to elucidate the more urgent ecological problems—and, of course, as the Lord President pointed out to your Lordships on March 9, this is a proper field of study for the Nature Conservancy.
I would remind your Lordships of the very far-reaching existing scheme that we have—the voluntary notification scheme. Before all new chemicals, or new uses for existing chemicals, come on to the market, they have to be screened against risks, not only to operators and to consumers of the treated crops, but to livestock and, in these latter years, to wild life as well. Under the voluntary notification scheme the chemical manufacturers submit details of all new toxic products to the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances used in Agriculture and Food Storage. This is a Standing Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Dodds, who is Courtauld Professor of Biochemistry at the University of London: it is an effective Committee and an effective scheme. It is under this voluntary scheme, for instance, that the manufacturers recently agreed to withdraw the alkali arsenites both from manufacture and from use. That was a very big step forward. So, my Lords, this scheme does work. It was after the Report which the noble Lord, Lord Walston, referred to (the Third Report, I think it was, of Sir Solly Zuckerman's Committee) that risks to wild life were brought into the scheme. Moreover, a joint panel of the Committee, the Nature Conservancy, the Ministry and the industry has reported on the guidance to be given to manufacturers about the sort of information that is required, and how it should be experimentally obtained, in 838 relation to the wild life risks, so that this scheme can be fully operated.
Now, my Lords, I acknowledge, and it is widely acknowledged, that certain of these insecticidal seed dressings can, and do, kill wild life. But it is acknowledged that these seed dressings are very valuable to agriculture. This risk to wild life we must cut to the very minimum; and I am sure that one of the best ways of ensuring this—it is an absolute sine qua non, whatever else we do—is that everyone concerned should know about the dangers, and do his best to avoid them. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, said that we may have to go further than that and, by means of new legislation, or by existing legislation if it does exist (but I doubt whether it is comprehensive enough), have prohibitions.
My Lords, I cannot give any indication of what may have to be done in the future. We are at a comparatively early stage in this matter. This Research Study Group, to which we attach the greatest importance, will probably be reporting in the next months; we have these various schemes going; this matter is of urgent importance and has been widely canvassed in both Houses of Parliament and among the public; and I do not think that it is right now to anticipate what will or will not be necessary to bring about the end which we all desire. The one suggestion in the opening of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, which I absolutely rebut, is that we are doing nothing about it and are complacent. That I cannot accept. We may have to do more; but we are certainly not complacent, and we are certainly doing a great deal about it. Her Majesty's Government will continue to do their utmost to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits—and they are very real benefits—of these agricultural chemicals with only the minimum of the serious toll to wild life which so seriously mars the picture at the present time.