HL Deb 03 May 1961 vol 230 cc1262-7

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether any information is available as to the effect upon the consumer of agricultural products which have been stimulated or fertilised during growth or production by artificial chemical substances.]


My Lords, so far as plant products are concerned there is no conclusive evidence that crops grown with properly balanced chemical fertilisers are any less nutritive than crops grown with farmyard manure or compost. A recent experiment by the Human Nutrition Research Unit of the Medical Research Council tends to confirm that there is no difference in the nutritive value of wheats grown under various fertiliser treatments.

As regards the residual effects of substances used to promote growth in fattening animals, the use of antibiotics is restricted by regulations made under the Therapeutic Substances Act, 1956, on the advice of the Agricultural Research Council and the Medical Research Council. Present evidence is that meat from animals treated with synthetic oestrogens involves no risk to the consumer, but certain aspects of the use of these substances have been referred to the Ministry of Health's Standing Committee on Medical and Nutritional Aspects of Food Policy.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that interesting reply, is he aware that before these chemical products were introduced, pneumonia and consumption were the main diseases of the nation? They have now been largely eliminated by medical science, but in their place are cancer and coronary thrombosis, which we hardly had at that time. Is it not rather curious that that should coincide with the use of these chemicals, and is there no connection between the two, particularly when one realises that people in places like Lapland, where they do not use these artificial fertilisers for their food, are not suffering in that way?


My Lords, so far there are no indications that there is any connection. There are a number of Committees, as the noble Lord knows, some of which were referred to in the debate we had last week on toxic chemicals in relation to their effects on wild life. They were referred to particularly in the speech of my noble friend Lord Waldegrave.

I think it may be of interest to the noble Lord if I say, in ease he does not already know, that in addition to those Committees mentioned by my noble friend there was established last year the British Industrial Biological Research Association, under the auspices of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which receives a 50 per cent. grant from the Government, the other half being paid, of course, by the trade. They are to set up a research centre for the purpose of examining food additives and other substances, for instance agricultural residues, so as to assess whether the residues of chemicals used in agriculture are likely to prove toxic to the consumer. It is considered that that should produce a good deal of additional evidence of the sort which the noble Lord requires.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, in addition to the negative evidence mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bossom, there is now considerable positive evidence, both in the United States and here, particularly as a result of the work of those engaged in research at Bristol, that these artificial chemical substances, including seed dressings, do have an effect on the incidence of cancer? Can he arrange that this particular evidence should be examined by the Committee to which he has just referred?


My Lords, the particular matter which interests the noble Lord does not, I think, really refer to these seed dressings—because, so far as is known, there is no evidence at the moment in this country about that—but it could be said to refer to the use of these oestrogens in cattle. There was a report on that matter, as a result of which the Agricultural Research Council and the Medical Research Council made a Press release in April, 1959, relating to the effects of oestrogens on the fertility of animals, and giving advice to farmers accordingly. Further investigation is being made by the Standing Committee on Medical and Nutritional Aspects of Food Policy. One of the things they have under review in this connection is the possibility (I think this is what the noble Lord wants to know) of carcinogenic risks in food additives and pesticides. This Standing Committee on Medical and Nutritional Aspects of Food Policy has this particular subject under review.


My Lords, can the Government get no urgency to this matter? We have heard so much about Committees being appointed, but Committees do not do the research. May I ask the noble Lord how many scientists are likely to be supported in this research? Is he aware that even in the last few days competent biologists have been turned aside because no research money was available?


My Lords, during the debate we had last week, the noble Lord accused the Government of not having a sense of urgency, and I think that a reply was made fairly effectively—in fact very effectively—by my noble friend. There are a number of these bodies. They are not all just Committees sitting in armchairs studying other people's papers. There are scientists attached to these Committees, working as well, and they are all very highly-skilled and qualified people—professors of biology, of science, and all the rest. There is no doubt that a good deal of work is being done. I have just made reference to the new British Industrial Biological Research Association, which obviously includes scientists actively working on particular problems. While my right honourable friend will take note of what the noble Lord has said, I think he will not feel guilty about the charge of complacency or lack of sense of urgency.


My Lords, is it not the case that these substances have been brought into mass use long before any research has been devoted to ascertaining what their ultimate effects may be upon the human being who consumes these products? Is it not true that research has lagged far behind the need?


No, my Lords, I do not think that that is true. First of all, the noble Lord is well aware of the notification scheme agreed with the chemical industry, to which my noble friend Lord Waldegrave referred last week. Under this scheme new toxic chemical substances and proposed new uses for existing substances are referred to the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances Used in Agriculture and Food Storage, a Standing Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Dodds, which recommends the precautions that should be taken to ensure that food produced from treated crops contains no harmful residues. Of course, local authorities also have power under the Food and Drugs Act, and they do act. Their inspectors go round, and are concerned not only with foreign bodies in food but also with toxic effects. These two activities are of considerable practical use.

I do not think it is fair to say that chemicals are brought into use without knowledge or without being tested. There is also Professor Sanders' Research Study Group on Toxic Chemicals in Agriculture and Food Storage, which concerns itself precisely with this sort of question, and is continually reviewing the need for further research into the contamination of foods with pesticide residues, which refers to insecticides used on fertilisers and not only seed dressings and oestrogens. So a considerable amount of work is being done by way of protecting human beings from all the dangers about which the noble Lord is anxious.


My Lords, would the noble Lord explain this paint? He mentioned the carcinogenic properties of oestrogen, but this was known many years ago. This knowledge is accepted by scientists and not disputed. It seems an amazing thing that, after oestrogen has been fed to animals for years, that we are now concerned because its carcinogenic properties may be transmitted to human beings who eat animals. Surely that is a simple deduction, which should have been arrived at before oestrogen was given to animals.


My Lords, this question was put forward two years ago and then apparently the only sure knowledge was that these oestrogens affected fertility, and farmers were advised not to feed this substance to breeding animals, only to animals for slaughter. The other problem to which the noble Lady has referred is under investigation at the moment and a report has not yet been made. There was no conclusive evidence of the nature such as she has suggested existing two years ago.


My Lords, why allow these things to be used while the research is still going on and when the results are not known?


My Lords, these things are of benefit to agriculture. We had the argument in principle last week on the effect of toxic chemicals on wild life and it came out how seed dressings are of great value to agriculture. In certain cases, oestrogens are of value to animals, and I do not think that it is a reasonable proposition, to say that we must stop the use of practically all chemicals until it has been proved conclusively that they cannot possibly harm anything or anybody; because there has been a great advance in the field of agriculture all round as the result of the use of chemical substances.


My Lords, only last week we were told that certain seed dressings had been causing the death of thousands of birds who had been on the seeds—pigeons, rooks, jackdaws and others. I had experience of this on my farm last year and banned the use of these particular dressings. But they are still in use, and if they are killing thousand's of birds, they must be a danger to human beings. I think it is time that the Government did something about it.


My Lords, we must recognise that this question was debated at great length the other day and we are now dealing with the effect of agricultural products on humans, not on birds.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount whether the Government will consider the advisability of producing a White Paper which embodies the number of Committees and the representation thereon, so that we shall get an intelligent reply to the questions we have been putting?


My Lords, as we are dealing with a Starred Question, would it be in order to move, "That this correspondence be now closed"?


My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Earl would be in order, but I assure him that many of us would welcome it.