HL Deb 08 March 1999 vol 598 cc4-8

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Ludford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will impose a five-year moratorium on commercial growing of genetically modified food until adequate independent research and testing of its health and environmental consequences has been carried out, and whether they will seek a similar moratorium throughout the European Union.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, no genetically modified crops are grown in the United Kingdom commercially. Therefore, there is no need to introduce a moratorium on commercial growing either in the UK or in the EU. There are some carefully controlled, limited-scale trials taking place. The Government believe that there is no evidence to justify demands for those to be stopped on environmental grounds.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he accept that a freeze of several years—English Nature suggested three but preferably five—is pro-science in that it allows more research and field trials to be carried out? That would help to convince consumers that the health and environmental risks have been fully explored as the Consumers Association believes that at present consumers are not convinced.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, two points arise in relation to that. First, as regards the growing of crops, I agree with the noble Baroness that caution is necessary. That is why we have hitherto limited it to fairly small-scale crops being produced in the United Kingdom and why we are giving a very limited approval to field farm-scale experiments. However, we need to engage in such experiments for the very reason which English Nature drew to our attention; namely, that it is not possible to assess the environmental effects of commercially grown crops without growing them on that scale and measuring that impact on the surrounding habitats and biodiversity.

As regards consumers, I agree with the noble Baroness that consumers need to be aware that there are products which have been approved which contain genetically modified organisms.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there is serious concern about the possibility of the rapid development of herbicide-resistant crops, on the ground that there is already enough poison within the English countryside? While I am sure that the Government will maintain careful consideration of the matter, will they take the point that leadership from Britain in that area may be extremely relevant within the wider Europe?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is very important indeed that the European Union acts as a whole in relation to this matter. The structure of permission is Europe-wide. The way in which we are approaching permission to grow genetically modified crops on that very limited basis takes account of the possible danger to the wider environment—plants, insects, other species and habitats which may be affected. We are adopting a cautious approach. It is necessary to test out those effects on a substantial scale but in limited locations, and in circumstances which are controlled extremely carefully.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, in his reply the Minister said that experiments were carefully controlled. Does he agree that to have only one gentleman, who is a doctor, to keep an eye on the 333 sites in the United Kingdom is not the way to control them carefully? I talk in particular about agricultural crops.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure to which resources the noble Viscount refers. Perhaps I may write to him to clarify the situation in terms of resources. All experimental areas are now monitored by the Health and Safety Executive, which has powers to act if necessary.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that herbicide-resistant crops can reduce the use of herbicides and thereby benefit the environment? Will the Government ensure that any moratorium is not used to prevent the development and prosperity of an industry which, subject to vigorous safeguards, is not only economically important but can also benefit greatly the environment and health?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are not, of course, advocating a moratorium in the sense the noble Lord proposes. We believe that potentially there will be great benefit to the world as a whole if we can produce crops that do not require the number of herbicides that current technology requires. Nevertheless, there are a lot of unknowns in this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, indicated, we all need to be very careful. We do not know the full consequences of the new technology. While there is great potential, we must be protective of the environment as well as consumers.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, on the assumption that Her Majesty's Government may consider it advisable to ask for a moratorium, as inferred by the Question, have the Government ever considered the means of practical enforcement of such a moratorium, not only in the United Kingdom but also in Europe as a whole where there is, of course, a widespread disregard of the law in any event?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as always, my noble friend has turned the subject into a more general argument. By and large, I would defend the regimes of our partners in the European Union. Everyone in the European Union is concerned that we do not open up problems that the unknown consequences of genetically-modified organisms may produce. Throughout the European Union we are equally convinced that there is some scientific and potentially substantial economic benefit if such organisms can be produced safely. I submit that it is better that we act co-operatively with our European partners in this matter rather than each taking separate decisions.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, while accepting that there is nothing wrong with genetic modification by the most advanced scientific methods— indeed there may be huge benefits—does the Minister share my concern that we may be driven faster down that road by commercial considerations than is desirable? Is he confident that we have adequate safeguards in place to prevent that happening?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, undoubtedly, there are commercial pressures and money to be made in this area. It is the responsibility of the national and the European authorities to ensure that the interests of the consumer and the long-term interests of the environment are protected. We have mechanisms and physical controls in place to ensure that that happens. However, we are looking carefully at a number of areas, including consumer labelling, where perhaps we need to take some further measures.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, may I help the Minister? The point that my noble friend was making, and which I think he misunderstood in an earlier Question, was that it is public knowledge, so far as I know, that there is but one inspector to look after all 300-odd sites where the experimental crops are grown. Whatever the resources are that have been allocated in financial terms, it comes down to one man who clearly cannot adequately monitor all those sites.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I indicated in reply to the earlier question, I shall need to check on the exact level of resources both for the Health and Safety Executive and for the agricultural side. Clearly, resources for inspection in these areas are always scarce. It is our belief that we allocate them to the best advantage. Indeed, as noble Lords will know, there have already been prosecutions in this area as a result of commercial outfits not completely observing the protections. I believe that that is a good sign and indicates that our inspections are working.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Will the Government ensure that research institutes which are inquiring into the implications of genetically modified foods do not become so dependent on funds from commercial interests like Monsanto that any scientist employed by them who enters doubts about these foods is liable to be suspended and his research vilified?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I note what my noble friend says. In relation to the particular example to which she is no doubt alluding, that is primarily a matter between the institute and the scientists concerned. Our main concern is to broaden the knowledge in this area; and to ensure that it is not driven by particular interests. The Government will approach the advice that they take in that way. It is hoped that that will be me case throughout Europe as well.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, in view of all the pressure being brought to bear on the Government, can the Minister say why they are not considering delaying the experiments that are being conducted? Last week we heard that the water companies are concerned about them. The general public are not in favour of them. In regard to pollen being transferred, there are great areas of uncertainty. Will the Minister clarify the position for us?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I should have thought from most of what I have said that it is clear the Government recognise that there is widespread concern; and that we need to know more about the effects of growing such crops on the food chain. In order to do that, experiments must be carried out—not only small-scale experiments, which already exist, but also large-scale ones—so that the effects on die wider environment can be judged were we to move to commercial production. My objective, and that sought by the noble Baroness, namely that we do not proceed to commercial operations without knowing the answers to all those unknowns, can be met only by some degree of experimentation. It is that carefully controlled experimentation that is permitted by the Government.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, my Question differed from that of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. I was not seeking to postpone research. Indeed, I sought further research and a moratorium on commercial growing. It is only by further research that we can reassure consumers. At the end of the day it is the people who will have to accept them.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I note the clarification of the noble Baroness's Question. In this country we are not at the stage of giving permits to commercially grown crops. That will depend on the outcome of the trials that we are currently conducting.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, will the Minister say whether the experimental crops will ultimately be destroyed? If so, will that not be to the great satisfaction of the consumer?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the outcome of those tests has yet to be assessed. It is not normal practice for us to destroy the evidence, positive or negative, that the trials yield. Currently, the intention is not to destroy the experimental crops; nor do I think it would be scientifically sensible to do so.

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