HL Deb 14 January 1998 vol 584 cc1048-51

2.41 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to allow genetically modified crops to be grown in the United Kingdom.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, genetically modified crops are currently being grown on a small scale for experimental purposes and for seed production. They are controlled by a strict regulatory regime. They may only be planted with the explicit consent of the Secretary of State or if marketing approval has been granted by another member state in accordance with the European Community directive on releases of genetically modified organisms. Some genetically modified crops are currently undergoing official testing before they can be placed on the UK national list of seed varieties.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does she agree that, following recent bad experiences which consumers have had with such things as BSE, E-coli and salmonella, there is considerable doubt and confusion in the public mind as regards which modern foodstuffs are safe to consume? Does she further accept that multinational companies like Monsanto, which is demanding the right to produce commercially genetically modified crops, are adding to that confusion? Does the Minister also agree that no licences to grow genetically modified crops in the United Kingdom on a commercial scale should be granted until there has been a full, scientific and public inquiry into all possible aspects of this particular phenomenon?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is absolutely right that we take a very strict and considered regulatory approach to this issue. The regime in place ensures that that is done and that releases take place only if there has been very strict assessment of the scientific effects. There is some confusion in the minds of consumers, however, and obviously a great deal of anxiety, some of which will, I hope, be allayed by proposals about which your Lordships will hear later in the day. The use of foods from genetically modified crops is strictly controlled by the EU novel foods regulation which came into force last year. It specifies mandatory controls on the pre-market safety assessment of all novel foods and includes an examination of labelling requirements. I believe that better labelling and better transparency will both reassure and give more choice to consumers.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the cat has already been let out of the bag in that vast quantities of soya products are imported from the United States of America and we cannot prevent genetically modified materials being incorporated in such products?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right that applications for marketing of genetically modified soya and maize have been approved through the EU regulatory framework, the view of member states being that safety was not compromised. As the noble Earl is aware, the US is far in advance of the United Kingdom and Europe in this area. We recognise the concern, but the assessment was carried out on the grounds of safety. We are also looking at how monitoring and labelling can be improved in the future.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, am I correct in thinking that there is still no test which can prove whether or not a crop has been genetically modified?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am not sure that I am totally confident about giving a "yes" or a "no" answer to the noble Baroness. However, I know that before any genetically modified crop can be tested, developed, released or marketed in this country, it has to go through the approval process. I am sure that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I undertake to write to her on her direct and specific question.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is another side to this question? Does she agree that the genetic modification of crops may be extremely important to certain third-world countries where starvation is often rampant? Would it not be ill-advised to start placing restrictions upon such research until we are sure that the ill effects outweigh the advantages?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord points out—rightly, I believe—the basis on which the Government and Europe have taken the position they have. There has to be scrutiny on safety grounds and there has to be regulation. However, we must also recognise that there are potentially enormous benefits from the development of such technology, including effective pest control with a reduced use of insecticides, an improved crop yield and in terms of the production of pharmaceuticals and other products which may save lives. They could have applications in both the developing world and the developed world and it would be wrong to rule them out completely.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's earlier comment about labouring—I mean "labelling"; indeed, I am not sure whether "labouring" is a word much known on the Benches opposite at the moment—does the noble Baroness believe that it is realistic to require food processors and producers to segregate genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops? If so, what advice has the Government been given to make them believe that it is realistic to make such a requirement in relation to, for example, soya beans?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I said earlier, food labelling is important so that people can be well aware of exactly what they are buying. As the noble Baroness pointed out, it is important that we recognise that large percentages of crops in America come from genetically modified seed. It is therefore difficult to ensure that something is completely free of genetically modified material. In those circumstances, we must ensure that the labelling reflects that position. During our presidency of the European Union we shall be looking at ways to improve European directives on the issue. Our proposals are likely to include a requirement for mandatory monitoring and labelling, and increased transparency, for consumers.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that those genetically modified products which are being imported at the moment are completely harmless?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, that is certainly the scientific advice on which the consents for importation were based.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, can the Minister give any indication of the experiences in America with genetically modified foods, since presumably they are consuming the very stuff that they send to us?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I have asked myself the same question and, as I understand it, there have been no adverse consequences to lead the Americans to retreat from the course they have taken in developing such products for growth and for use in food production. Indeed, some of the evidence from the experience in America fed into the decisions taken by the European Union on the issue.