§ 12.36 p.m.
§ Lord Reay rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture (2nd Report, HL Paper 11).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to start by thanking the other members of Sub-Committee D for their participation in our inquiry into genetic modification in agriculture. They never wilted during nine months of inquiry, despite the complexities of this fascinating subject and the swirling gusts of controversy that constantly blew up around it. Their attendance never slackened, and they are collectively responsible for a report which, I believe, is both thorough and, despite everyone's starting-points and allegiances being different, nevertheless embodies a unanimous and coherent set of recommendations.
§ I am grateful also to our specialist adviser, Dr. Julian Kinderlerer of Sheffield University, whose compendious knowledge of the subject, experience of the regulatory system and hard work, together with the hard work of our young former Clerk, Andrew Mackersie, and of Tom Mohan, Clerk to the Select Committee, alone enabled the report to be completed. I am also extremely grateful to our present Clerk, Jake Vaughan, for picking 1062 up the baton so adroitly from Andrew Mackersie. Finally, I should like to thank all our witnesses for their indispensable evidence, and especially those who came and gave us oral evidence.
§ Our inquiry began over a year ago and set out to examine the present regulatory system, in this country and in the European Union, for the agricultural and food use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), our point of departure being the Commission's proposed amendments to Directive 90/220 on deliberate releases of GMOs into the environment, which is currently going through the process of co-decision between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
§ In order to be able to assess the regulatory system, we first had to form a view about the science itself. We more or less confined ourselves to crops, because that is where science has made the greatest strides. although I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, may say something about some concerns that we had about fish.
§ We also did not directly confront the ethical issues. Those were under examination at the time by the Nuffield Council on Bio-Ethics, with which we held a very useful joint meeting and whose published report I was handed shortly before I entered the Chamber this morning.
§ We came to the view that this science, still in its infancy, has great potential benefits to offer to agriculture, industry, consumers and the environment. To agriculture it offers increased yields and reduced chemical inputs. The resulting cost savings explain why in North America commodity farmers have rushed to embrace the technology so that over 50 per cent of the soya beans, for example, grown in the United States this season are likely to be genetically modified, up from zero three years ago.
§ To industry, it offers all the potential of a revolutionary new science and one, incidentally, in which this country has from the very beginning, since the days of the original discoveries at Cambridge of Crick and Watson, had a widely recognised pre-eminence. For the consumer, there are eventually likely to be—and I emphasise the word "eventually", for little is as yet available on the world markets—foods that are cheaper, that taste better and that are healthier to eat.
§ For the benefit of the environment, GM bacteria are in use already for the clean-up of contaminated ground and beaches, and the opportunity for reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture has the potential to increase biodiversity, if only this can be harnessed without off-setting damage.
§ We do not exclude the likelihood of advantage for the developing world. Just as the previous revolution in crop yield saw, for example, India develop self-sufficiency in food production, so there is undoubtedly huge scope for improving seeds through genetic modification for the growing conditions prevailing in many other such countries.
§ We make some recommendations for ensuring that this happens to the benefit of those countries and their inhabitants. With the world population still rapidly increasing and arable areas in retreat, science must, over the long term, continue to produce increases in crop yields, if that world is to be fed and wilderness areas protected.1063
§ At the same time, we did consider that the science brought with it serious potential risks and hazards which needed to be addressed by proper regulation. So far as the safety of GM foods is concerned, we were impressed with the appropriateness and rigour of the current approvals processes and saw nothing to suggest that any foods approved were other than safe to eat. Indeed, as a result of the regulatory system today in place, more is learned about novel foods than is known about many of the ancient staples of our diet. We were even told by Dr. Janet Bainbridge, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Plants, that if approval were sought today to introduce the common potato, a well-known producer of toxic alkaloids that act as pesticides, on current criteria permission could not be given.
§ However, we join others in calling for antibiotic resistant marker genes, whose use in the GM process is well explained in the paper by Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert May published by the Government last week, to be phased out as soon as possible. I wish to ask the Minister what is happening there.
§ We were less happy with the current system for controlling threats to the environment. While we were content with the expert way in which individual applications for release into the environment were handled by ACRE (the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment) the lack of consideration of the cumulative effects of such decisions and also of the wider strategic implications of the technology gave us cause for concern, as it had earlier given the Royal Society cause for concern.
§ Accordingly, we recommended that the remit of ACRE should be extended to consider cumulative effects and that an additional committee should be established to look at the broader strategic issues that are concerning the public—effects on wildlife, the risk of creating a superweed and so on. I am pleased to say that the Government have since put both those recommendations into effect.
§ On the issue of a moratorium, we were opposed to setting a ban for a predetermined number of years across the whole technology. Once such a ban was in place, how would you ever decide there was sufficient reason to lift it? It seemed to all of us that the full environmental effects of growing GM crops could only be ascertained by trials on the appropriate scale and that the proper course was to hold specific trials on specific crops and then draw the appropriate conclusions from those trials on whether to proceed to further trials or to commercial release and, if so, on what conditions.
§ If the green light is given for commercial release, then we say that the monitoring of the conditions set for each release—and the amended directive makes provision for such conditions to be set—should be performed by an independent organisation, funded through levies on applicants. We called for a Community-wide audit of enforcement to ensure equality of monitoring standards across the Community. It was not clear to me from the Government's reply to our report what their view on the matter was. I would very much like to hear from the Minister whether the Government agree with us that an 1064 independent organisation should do the monitoring in the event of commercial release or wish to leave it to the licence-holder.
§ As for the SCIMAC code of conduct for all those involved in the handling of GM products, which is currently under development and of which further details were published last week, we gave our support for the Government's backing of that code, while acknowledging that it might eventually need to be supported by regulation.
§ One issue of concern is the need for co-existence between the GM crop grower and the organic farmer. The reported recent demands of the Soil Association—the principal body responsible for the registration of organic farmers—for a six-mile radius of separation between organic and GM crops and apparently for zero contamination from pollen, even in situations where the pollen would not fertilise—are so impractical as to appear tantamount to an attempt to prevent the introduction of the technology, despite its call on the Government to uphold the right of choice.
§ It should be noted that organic farmers themselves are permitted a 5 per cent non-organic content in the produce they sell and a 20 per cent non-organic content in the animal feed they use. Could the Minister say what the Government's views are on the demands of the Soil Association?
§ we also considered the issue of public confidence. There is plainly widespread public distrust of GM foods. It would seem to be the case that consumers in this country have not, for the most part, seen or heard of products attractive enough for them to wish to disregard the risks they associate with the technology as a result of their daily reading and listening. In medicine it is a different story. In medicine, GM products are in widespread use and are welcomed by the public. But in food also—or on the borderline between food and medicine as, say, with foods whose allergenic properties have been modified out—products which are attractive to the consumer are one day likely to appear. Until they do, consumers must be given, through labelling, the choice so far as possible of whether or not to eat GM foods; And they must have confidence in the regulatory process.
§ We call for the compulsory labelling of all GM products, including additives, but with a de mininds threshold of, we propose, 2 per cent. This is something that must be agreed at European Union level, together with a list of exempted derivatives not requiring labelling. We were concerned that negotiations in the Council seemed to have stalled. Could the Minister tell the House where matters stand? Do the Government intend to issue interim guidelines as we suggest in our report?
§ Labelling in restaurants was not a matter on which we took evidence. I somewhat regret that now in view of the rather hasty action which the Government subsequently took, which will require from the autumn all restaurants to state on their menus which of their foods contain GM soya or maize. Incidentally, this is the one respect in which I am critical of the 1065 Government's policy. For the rest, I think they have been admirably robust in resisting irresponsible calls for action.
§ But this will be extremely burdensome for restaurants and owing, among other things, to the current vacuum in labelling law, I do not see how they will be able to supply useful information. Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Jopling managed to find out in a Written Answer he received to a Question recently, they will evidently be liable to prosecution, even if there are only minute quantities of GMOs present in a GMO-free product owing to the lack of a legal de minimis threshold. This is something which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, who has wide experience in the restaurant business, may be able to take a little further.
§ We regarded segregation as desirable but considered that it should be market-led, as it is increasingly likely to he with the appearance on the market of foods engineered to have particular properties answering to market demands.
§ As to confidence in the regulatory system, we saw that much had already been done to make the approvals processes open and to allow for participation on the committees from outside the realms of science, from consumers and other interests.
§ The Government are to take this process further in the two new commissions that they have established, and we welcome that. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the advisory committees, and also the new commissions, will remain firmly science-based. In this country we are fortunate to have as many scientists of the quality and integrity that we have, ready for arduous public service. I believe that 60 are involved in regulatory work here and in Europe, many of them spending much of their time also in communicating with the public. I am thinking here of such outstanding public servants as Professor Derek Burke and Professor John Berenger, among many others. The Government rely greatly on them, and for their part the Government must take care to give them the conditions and the support that they need to function effectively. In this context we were concerned at the loss of knowledge that would result from the decision, in the wake of the Nolan rules, to rotate at the same time 10 of the existing members of ACRE. We asked the Government to reconsider this decision. Perhaps the Minister can explain the Government's re-considered position.
§ A major concern of industry, and of our committee, has been the slowness and unpredictability of the timetable for approvals within the EU. At present it takes seven months on average to obtain growing approval in the US and upwards of two years, if it can be obtained at all, within the EU. As a result there are currently some 30 million hectares of GM crops under commercial cultivation in the US and an infinitesimal amount within the EU. Proper scientific procedures must be followed, but both the Commission, and the member states under an obligation to issue consents at the end of the approvals process, have been responsible for inordinate delays. If the revised directive, once in force, does not lead to improvements. we suggest that 1066 member states should be free to disallow commercial growing within their own sovereign territory of crops approved for general release throughout the EU in order to remove an incentive for more reluctant member states to hold up the rest of the Community.
§ We end our report with an appeal to remember Europe's competitive position. Do we want Europe's agriculture to become technologically backward? Do we want to abdicate from the technology and leave the US with a virtual monopoly? Do we want to find, when consumers start to notice the attractions of new GM foods, that all of them must be imported? On the contrary, we say that the science of genetic modification, which has produced food eaten by hundreds of millions without any single manifested ill-effect and which we as much as any other nation in the world, the USA apart, are in a position to exploit—a science of huge potential—must be allowed the chance to demonstrate this potential, under proper regulation and control. That is something which we are confident we should be able fully to achieve.
§ Moved, that this House take note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture (2nd Report. HL Paper 11).—(Lord Reay.)
§ 12.53 p.m.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
My Lords. I am not an uncritical reader of Select Committee reports, hut: I unreservedly congratulate the noble Lord and his colleagues for this report on a very difficult and contentious subject. It was admirably lucid, as was his speech. The report was also very balanced in its assessment of the risks and the potential great benefits of developments in genetically modified foodstuffs and. crops. The report comes at a time when undoubtedly there is very substantial public disquiet and interest in the whole subject. To have an impartial, responsible report from people who have really studied the subject: and drawn upon external expertise is of great value not just to this House but to the nation.
That is a pretty fulsome tribute which is given genuinely and unreservedly. However, I hove some other things to say which will not be so friendly. I am very much concerned about a matter that goes almost to the heart of public disquiet; namely, the effective regulation and control of genetically modified foodstuffs and crops. Although the Select Committee has made a very helpful suggestion about opting out, to which I shall return in a few minutes, the present situation in Brussels is a scandal. If anyone who has worries about allaying public disquiet reads this report and digests what it says about the present manner in which decisions are made in Brussels he will be horrified. I shall return to that matter in a few moments.
First, I tick off those items that I regard as very valuable. Incidentally, in this debate we have the benefit of a government response. Towards the end I shall turn to how adequate or otherwise is that response. Moreover, last Friday we had the Government's Statement in a deserted House of Commons from 1:he Minister Jack Cunningham which carried forward our 1067 knowledge and the Government's response. I wholly agree with what is said about a threshold level for the labelling of genetically modified products. I entirely accept what is said about the need for a new committee with wider, almost deeper, terms of reference, although the present advisory committee has done a very good job. I also wholly approve of the approach to risk assessment and risk management. Further, I agree with the committee that it is a jolly good idea to have a food standards agency, as is foreshadowed and promised by the Government.
In the past few weeks and months I have looked in on the House of Commons. I keep an eye on my old stamping ground. I do not see why there is not room for a substantially larger legislative programme than has been put through. It is extraordinary how quickly the House disperses and how foreshortened are the attendances, even in respect of the forthcoming Recess. We need a food standards agency, which is pledged by the Government. It is perfectly within the ability, timespan and commitment of Parliament to effect that at very short notice. The last matter on which I agree with the committee's recommendations is the very sensible proposal for a time limit for decisions. A one-month or three-month limit is a very good discipline on the European Community and ourselves in coming to conclusions.
Public confidence is at the heart of this matter, as the noble Lord who opened the debate said. The recommendations of the committee and the Government's response to them will undoubtedly go some way to help. For people who take the matter seriously there will be considerable reassurance particularly in the establishment of the two new commissions and the additional new commission which is being discussed and was foreshadowed in Dr. Cunningham's Statement in the Commons last Friday. All of that will help. But there is a real problem in my view in terms of the decision-making process.
Perhaps I may remind the House of the present procedure. The decision-making process in Brussels comes under the broad heading of comitology. Those who know something about Europe will realise that that is a vast network of largely anonymous bodies which make decisions in the names of the Ministers of member states. This is how decisions are made on whether to approve Union-wide the acceptance, use and so on of genetically modified crops and foodstuffs. The report states:The Commission is required to submit its draft implementing measures to the [comitology] committee".The background and qualifications of the one representative from each country we do not know. But the Commission has to submit a proposal. The report continues:If a qualified majority of the national representatives approves the draft measures, the Commission will proceed to adopt them".Qualified majority voting on a matter of this kind! If it is not agreed, the matter goes to the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers again will make a decision by a qualified majority vote. A minor change is suggested by the committee. I do not think that it goes 1068 far enough. The move from the Ma to Mb regulatory committee procedures does not meet the fundamental point that it is not a matter for qualified majority voting.
We are on the eve of a surge of approvals and introductions of genetically modified foodstuffs throughout the European Union and indeed in this country as we know. Therefore it is important to get it right from the start. There have not been many cases so far of the procedure being used. However, I should like the Minister to answer this question if he is able to do so, and I understand that without notice he may find that very difficult. An application by the chemical drug firm CibaGeigy came via the French Government initially but went to the Commission and through the comitology procedure. Was that an issue of which our own scientific advisers disapproved? The Minister needs notice of that question. The decision is reported at page 13 of the May 1998 report of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I put that matter to one side. It is an illustration of the kind of problems which can arise if my information is correct.
The committee addressed itself excellently to this issue. It is to be congratulated on making the recommendation that it did, although I do not believe that it goes far enough. At paragraph 199 of its report it states:Domestic pressures, ecological and agricultural conditions vary across the Community. We consider that Member States should have the right to opt-out of growing certain GM crops for domestic or environmental reasons. The products of such crops, food or other, should however be available throughout the Community".That is not a problem in particular member states. It is a very proper recommendation. It is what we should insist upon. If a novel food or crop is approved of in general, let it circulate in those countries which have given their approval. It makes sense to have Community-wide consideration of that. But if a country does not want it, and if it does not have a great deal of faith in Brussels decisions (which may not be entirely unexpected as a result of recent events), it is absolutely right that the nation state concerned and its government should have the right to opt out. I warmly applaud the Select Committee for making that recommendation.
I turn to the government response. Instead of saying, "Excellent and well done", the Government say this:The statutory procedures under Directive—whatever the European number is—and the managed developed arrangements with ecological monitoring, should ensure that this is the case for GM crops grown in the UK. Provided that no problems arise, the Government sees no reason for Member States to impose additional restrictions, and agrees that the market will decide which crops are grown".That addendum does not help. Of course we want the market to decide in the sense of consumers having the choice. That must be so. But the Government have turned down the major recommendation which would give confidence to the British people who have a considerable, but much weakened, confidence in the judgment of their own elected representatives, their own Government, advised by the best scientific and expert opinion that we have—and we have a lot available.
1069 I find the government response frankly disappointing and indeed reprehensible. In their feeble justification they then state,The legality of allowing a Member State to restrict growing of a product which could he imported from another Member State would need careful consideration".Good heavens, my Lords, do the Government never read the European treaties? For once the European treaty in this context got it right. If the Government read the Treaty of Rome and considered what i s now Article 30 in the re-ordered clauses (it was previously Article 36 and has been in existence to the best of my knowledge since 1957) they would have read this:Quantitative restrictions on imports—including genetically modified foods and no doubt plants, crops and seeds—and all measures having equivalent effect, shall be prohibited between Member States".It continues most sensibly to say:The provisions...shall not preclude prohibitions or restrictions on"—and it gives a range of circumstances including,the protection of health and life of humans. animals or plants".There it is on the face of the treaty. Yet for reasons which frankly at times appal me, our Government are so anxious to appear to be at the heart of Europe and good Europeans that they cannot even make use of a treaty clause which was put there precisely to give that confidence to member states where they feel that their own populations are greatly disturbed and worried about specific issues that may affect the health of themselves, their animals and their plants. I ask the Government to reconsider this; to do it urgently, to do it using the powers of the treaty and to act in the interests of the British people.
§ 1.10 p.m
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, it has been difficult to write an up-to-date speech because, since the committee published its report, the subject has become a moving target. Indeed, articles in this week's press have forced me to change some of the questions I wished to ask.
I believe that the committee produced a quality report. The Government have adopted many of its recommendations, including the setting up of two regulatory committees. The committee was not made up of scientists and its view was balanced. Although the benefits of GMOs can be seen, and the committee believed that work on them would progress, the risks were being assessed. Although they are measured to be extremely small, if the dangers are realised there could be a substantial impact on the environment. I believe that that is what guided the committee.
Many areas were examined. I shall touch on only a few because, as 10 members of the committee are speaking today, many of the areas will be discussed in greater detail by them. First, there is confusion in the press about a case for a moratorium. We on these Benches call for a moratorium on commercial release because the field tests have not yet been completed. It 1070 is outrageous that commercial releases should be considered before the completion of field tests, expected at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003.
That goes to the heart of one of the problems with GMOs. There is an enormous pressure to race to market with the products. Obviously, the multinationals and plant companies which are developing the products wish to recoup the money they are spending on investment. However, the way in which they are pushing forward and taking risks in the process is causing concern. I wish to emphasise the risk of antibiotic markers, which I believe should have been used only in the laboratory and never allowed to go anywhere near field trials.
The second issue is segregation. I believe that. there is a growing need for regulation in this area which cannot be done on a voluntary basis. Segregation is linked to consumer confidence. A great deal has appeared in the press about segregation in field trials and how pollen can move from trial plots into the surrounding environment and into the local wildlife and other crops. The Soil Association has called for a six-mile limit between GMO crops and others. That seems high, but before too long regulation must be introduced along those lines.
Another area of segregation relates to transportation. The committee examined the problem in detail. Although crops can be segregated at production, transportation means that almost no crops coming from the United States can be guaranteed not to have been mixed with GMO products. One of the few countries in which that is not a problem is Brazil, which is a source for many companies wishing to use non-GMO products.
Labelling is another matter covered in great detail. I believe that the committee's recommendation of 2 per cent is insufficient. I take that view because of the many questions raised by my friends. Although 2 pet cent is low, people who wish to avoid GMOs completely will be denied that right. I speak specifically because I was given the task of buying food for a group of archaeologists, a number of whom were vegans. I had to search each packet for any trace of animal products and I believe that before too long consumers will make the same search for traces of GMOs. It may mean a proliferation of GMO warnings on products, as the. Government mentioned in their reply, but that is a price which must be paid. I believe that GMOs will be successful only if consumers have confidence in them.
When the report was first published, it was met by the press with a degree of hostility. My name was published in the Guardian report as being a member of the committee. It is one of the few instances when. I have been sought out by people who, having read the report, wanted to ask me for information and to give their views. There seems to be a surfeit of information in the press, but, interestingly, there seems to be little scientific information which the average consumer can take on board in order to make up his or her mind. One of the main complaints about GMOs is a lack of information on which consumers can make up their minds. That goes back to labelling. Consumers will have to be given a choice. Without that, I believe that their current fragile acceptance of them will be shattered.
1071 Another issue which will have huge consequences on the development of GMOs is the impact in emerging countries. I find distressing the fact that the multinationals are looking to produce seed with terminator or suicide genes. The implication is that in the third world subsistence farmers will be forced to buy seed year after year rather than saving it and redeveloping it. I know that many multinationals say that that is not the case at present. However, with the mergers resulting in fewer seed production companies, that must be seen as a real risk.
I have moved my position dramatically. I believe that there will be a real case for calling for the ending of patents on specific plants. I wish to ask the Minister one question in relation to that aspect of the report. Are the Government considering appointing a Minister from the Department for International Development to the Cabinet ministerial group on biotechnology and modification?
The environmental impact of GMOs has been examined extremely carefully in the press. Although no environmental disasters have been registered in relation to anything that has been released, there is a real risk which was highlighted by the implications for the monarch butterfly. Indeed, one of the major difficulties is the difference in attitude between Europe and the United States. In Europe, there has been a small amount of planting, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Reay, pointed out, in the United States already more than 30 million acres have been planted. If there are environmental implications, planting on such a scale without the necessary trials—and I do not believe that there were trials on butterfly populations—could mean the rapid extinction of a whole species.
The environmental issues form the basis of the risk assessment of the report. The possibility of chemical toxicity to certain species from GMOs cannot be overlooked. That is why I believe field trials should be expanded. This is a major area that should be considered. In the United States there is a great deal of divide between the wildlife agencies and the agricultural agencies. However, in the US there is a far larger amount of wilderness area. Therefore, its wildlife would not be as affected to the same extent as the wildlife in this country.
I turn to an issue which I believe will be the cause of much concern in the coming years. If Europe suffers serious doubts about the environmental or health implications of GMOs and wants to impose restrictions, we are looking at a trade war with the United States that will make the current banana war seem slightly inconsequential. I believe this is an area which will be expanded upon.
Perhaps I may conclude by asking a question. I am not being provocative. The question has been asked of me by a number of organisations. It goes to the heart of what the debate is about; that is, consumer confidence. Did the Labour Party receive any donations from Monsanto, Novartis or any other organisations, before the 1997 elections, and, if so, how much? I have been asked that question so many times I felt it important to raise it.
§ 1.21 p.m.
§ Lord Wade of Chorlton
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to thank the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for the excellent way in which he chaired our committee. He kindly thanked the members of the committee, but none of what we did would have been possible without his splendid chairmanship. He led us through what he described as "the intricacies of this subject" and enabled us to come to a unanimous decision from various points of view represented on the committee. I thank him and congratulate him on the splendid way in which he did that.
Perhaps I may comment on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Shore. He referred, as he generally does, to the weaknesses of the European system. However, I have to say that I would support him in some of the comments that he made. We met with some of those within the European Commission responsible for the directives. I personally came away very disappointed with both the arrogant and misjudged way in which they dealt with these issues. It does not bode well for the future if they continue to have more and more control over such matters.
Our committee was set up to look at the impact of genetic modification in agriculture. It is from the agricultural and food point of view that I intend to make most of my remarks. I was enormously impressed by the level of scientific evidence that we received. We had a splendid scientific adviser in Dr. Kinderlerer, whose wide knowledge of the subject was extremely helpful. The scientists who gave evidence to us, and obviously take leading roles in directly advising consumers, industry and the Government, are of an enormously high calibre. I was impressed with the attitude towards their responsibilities. I should like to endorse the point made in our report that we believe very much in their integrity and the way in which they deal with their responsibilities.
I was persuaded that all food products now in the marketplace are safe to eat. I am pleased that the Government were recently able to endorse that view. I believe that Part 1 of our report should be read by anybody who intends to comment on this issue. It gives a clear understanding of the science, history and the regulatory processes now in place which should be more than sufficient to give everybody the confidence they need to be able to eat, without any doubts whatever, those products now in the marketplace.
The history of agriculture is one of continuous technological change. Throughout my lifetime in farming I can remember many new technologies that have been key to allowing the increased food production and efficiency which is now so important. The demand for food has increased throughout the world and will be an ever-increasing demand. Such demand has been met by improving technology.
Without the present farming systems and improved output, we would need twice the land area to grow the same volume of food as in the 1950s, and food production has increased dramatically from the 1950s to the present day. The steady increase in demand will not stop; it will accelerate.
1073 To meet the environmental aspirations of today in Europe, our technology for food production must become even more efficient and productive and not less so. New technology provides for consumers food of the highest quality, the greatest range and the lowest price that Europeans have ever seen. At each stage the technology that has made that possible has been criticised by somebody. I remember that leading people were critical of pasteurisation. They said that it would bring all kinds of dangers, allow the development of unknown diseases and kill off more people than it would save. What a lot of nonsense that turned out to be.
In the 1950s, artificial insemination was heavily criticised by many leading people. They said that it would interfere with the natural breeding mechanisms; that we did not know what might happen and that there were all kinds of problems with it. However, without it, we would not have had any of the major breeding advancements which have brought so many benefits to both industry and consumers.
I have no doubt that from the point of view of the agricultural and food industry, and from that of food consumers, biotechnology in all its various forms through history, as it has changed and developed, has brought and will always continue to bring, benefits.
It is interesting to note that people talk about genetic modification as if it was something unknown. It has been the basis of breeding changes since biology began. We have used it in all kinds of different industries. Gene movement and gene transfer from one species to another have been the key to improving our plants, animals and processes. However, this technology is more precise, more controlled, much more effective and much quicker. It brings opportunities which, under conventional breeding, were limited.
As has been explained, it is now possible to make use of natural resistance in one crop and put it into another. By such means we can develop a whole range of resistances to problems of heat, cold, changing weather conditions, as well as fungicides and pests. People talk about agriculture as if it is a wonderfully easy business. To me it has been a business to strive at. One is constantly up against the enemies of weather, change and products that are never as one would want them to be. Anything that will aid development is important both to the industry and consumer.
We can improve the shelf life of products. How many people now suffer from the fact that they have bought products and not stored them properly? Such products are liable to develop bacteria and cause all kind of upsets. We can now deal with those problems in a way that we never imagined possible. In large areas of the world, rice is the staple diet. It is a well-known fact that people from those areas suffer from all kinds of deficiencies, including that of vitamin A. We can now put the necessary extra vitamins into rice and improve the health of those areas tremendously. Genetically modified bananas are now used to produce hepatitis vaccine much more effectively and efficiently than other methods of producing it.
GM, being a new technology, has become a closely regulated and monitored development:. The crops from genetically modified changes that are now in the market 1074 are no doubt much safer, more closely controlled and we have a much greater knowledge of them than those conventional crops that have been in the market for so long.
I repeat again that the scientific evidence that we had in the committee was clear and positive, with many proven experiments to hand to prove that genetically modified foods are safe. In the USA the FDA is the most respected food regulatory body in the world. It has approved all GM products that are in the market-place. The issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referred, on which we had a great deal of information in the committee, is one of philosophy rather than scientific fact. Science is confident in this technology, but many people are frightened just as they are frightened of many new technologies because of the uncertainty they present.
Many people gave evidence to us who were concerned about the environmental impacts of this technology. But not one produced any evidence of where that had actually taken place. There were fears of the possible, but no indication of anything that had actually happened. In a way, that attitude indicates that there are two philosophical approaches to change, newness and new technology. I am one of those who believe strongly that it is through new technology and innovation that we create the wealth that makes it possible for so many more people in the world to derive the benefits that many of us who sit in this place already have.
Poverty is the main contributor to environmental degradation and not new technology. So as science finds new and improved technologies to develop, we must consider the philosophical attitude which needs us to explain and understand what the issues are going to be. Clearly this technology is one of many that will come forward over the coming years. It will bring many advantages to the world. But it would be wrong if we allowed those who are worried about it without any evidence to hold back what will be important for many people. This report, which gives such a balanced view of the benefits on the one hand, and those issues that need to be addressed in terms of regulation and monitoring on the other, creates the balance which will be essential between explaining the technology to help more people understand it, and providing the choice.
I should not like to see our proposals being watered down any more. I do not agree with a moratorium; a moratorium prevents the development of technology here and does not prevent it starting in any other part of the world. Clearly this is a competitive and highly important aspect of our own environment, our technology and our wealth creation. We must not do anything which prevents the input of people into it or the opportunity for new businesses to develop it. I am delighted that it received the support that it has from the Government, and trust that it will continue to be supported by everybody in the country so that we can develop what will be a new and exciting possibility for the way in which we live and for our future.
§ 1.33 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Hereford
My Lords, I am grateful for this timely debate on a matter of great public concern. I speak in it with the utmost diffidence because I am one of the few speakers who is not actually a member of Sub-Committee D, and my contribution will be very much that of a layman in these highly technical and specialised areas.
The Select Committee report on EC Regulation of Genetic Modification in Agriculture and the Government's response are in many ways very encouraging. There is much in both that is to be welcomed. I want to return later to some matters of detail, but I hope, first, that your Lordships will welcome an attempt to tease out some of the ethical and philosophical aspects of this highly contentious matter. Of course, I have not had the benefit of reading the Nuffield Council report, and look forward to doing that.
In the wake of BSE, salmonella and E.coli, there is widespread public concern about genetic modification in relation to the fact that it is "unnatural". There is an instinctive, intuitive sense that these procedures are at best risky and may even be, in a profound sense, wrong. Of course we need to recognise the potential benefits of genetic modification—benefits in terms of productivity in a world where hunger is an ever-present threat, though not at the moment in overall global terms a reality; benefits in terms of profitability in a farming industry going through a difficult time economically; and even perhaps benefits in terms of environmental gain in the sense that genetically modified crops could result—I say "could"; we do not know—in a lower use of pesticides and less damage to the environment than is caused by conventional farming. We must recognise those potential benefits while we look carefully at the risks.
I turn to the philosophical, ethical and theological issues which are briefly touched on in paragraphs 126 and 127 of the Select Committee report, though of course the Polkinghorne and Banner reports are now considerably out of date in an area which is moving extremely fast. What actually constitutes "unnatural behaviour"? To what extent is it morally acceptable to do what is "unnatural"? Is the production of genetically modified food an example of hubris, of "playing God" as some people have claimed? Certainly genetic modification would not happen at all without direct human manipulation of the natural world, intervention in natural processes. However, it is true—the noble Lord, Lord Wade, made this point—that our present agricultural practices, our livestock and our arable crops are the result of centuries of manipulation.
Much technology and most medicine is based on human intervention in natural processes. Human invention and discovery can properly be seen as the exercise by human beings of their God-given powers of mind and reason—part of what it means when we say that human beings are created "in the image of God" and, in a modest sense, are co-creators with God.
The fundamental question is whether genetic modification is actually a continuation of the process of husbanding creation and working with it, enlightened as 1076 that process has been in recent years by the insights of the environmental movement so that we see the role of humanity now in terms of stewardship rather than of dominion; or is this a radically new departure, marking a fundamental discontinuity with what has gone before and which, until now, has worked with the grain of the natural world? I would challenge the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and say that I feel that it raises new issues and is not simply to be seen in terms of the traditional way in which farmers improve their livestock and their crops.
If genetic modification is radically different, can it nevertheless be acceptable? I believe it is breaking new ground; it is crossing an ethical frontier. It can be done. But not everything that can be done, should be done. The test must be whether it positively enhances the creative order. Is the new power that we have acquired, which has been bestowed on us by a continuing quest for knowledge, something which we can legitimately exercise? That is the point at which we need not merely a rational and scientific mind, but wisdom—the special gift of the religious traditions—to add to knowledge and to control our exercise of power.
I judge, and believe this opinion to be widely shared in the Churches, that although genetic modification is in a sense unnatural, discontinuous with previous science and agricultural practice, it may nevertheless be ethically acceptable provided it is introduced with great caution; with all the wisdom we can muster; and with careful account being taken of all discoverable risks.
If the introduction of genetic modification is simply the result of an unholy alliance between science and industrial agri-business, profit driven, with no regard for the consequences, it is certainly wrong. But some of the most stringent and extreme environmentalist opposition to it may equally be wrong. Because this is a particularly emotive subject; because it lends itself to journalistic exaggeration and over-simplification—even hysteria—it is very difficult to bring true wisdom to bear on it.
Just to complicate the matter further, we need to recognise the concept of balance of risk. If a need is desperate, desperate remedies may be appropriate. If a patient is suffering from cancer, invasive and unnatural measures like chemotherapy may be acceptable. If the world were on the brink of starvation and genetically modified crops offered the prospect of a quick fix in terms of increased crop yields, it might be right to introduce them without the long-term safeguards that would otherwise be desirable. As we are not in that desperate plight—or, if we appear to be, it is only in fact because of war or poor husbandry—wisdom dictates that we proceed with the greatest possible care: sustained, controlled experiments are essential, over a long enough term, to dispel any reasonable doubt.
So what are the risks? Principally they concern food safety and environmental damage, especially in terms of a reduction in biodiversity. On the first count, there is already substantial evidence to show that genetically modified foods so far available do not damage human health. I accept the Government's conclusions and assurances on that matter. But the environmental risks are much greater and very much more difficult to 1077 quantify and assess. There are some alarming indications—notably, of course, the famous case of the monarch butterfly whose larva was seriously damaged by feeding on leaves dusted with pollen from genetically modified maize.
The implications of GM crops for biodiversity and on organic farming are potentially very serious indeed—they cannot be known until sustained farm-scale trials have taken place. I welcome the Government's commitment to four-year trials, but I question whether that is long enough and whether voluntary agreement is really an adequate way of ensuring compliance. I also share the concern, noted by the RSPB, that no baseline survey of pre-existing biodiversity will be conducted before the sowing of genetically modified oil-seed rape. I find that quite extraordinary. That baseline survey seems to be an essential prerequisite of any scientifically valid trial. I hope that the Government will be able to give us some reassurances in that respect.
I must mention another matter in connection with biodiversity—another worrying aspect of the debate. Of course it is true that intensive farming methods have had a very damaging impact on biodiversity, but that is no reason for not taking very seriously the further damage that might he inflicted by the introduction of GM crops. It is positively alarming to see that no less an authority than Professor John Beringer, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE), has said:The Government must come to grips with the fundamental problem that GM crops are not the issue: it is our pathetic inability to face existing problems arising from the intensification of agriculture".We have been pathetic in our response to the consequences for biodiversity of intensive agriculture—that is to say, heavy use of pesticides, almost universal autumn sowing with no winter fallows and no over-wintering stubble—but to say that GM crops "are not the issue" is irresponsible; they are a very significant new issue. The possibility of cumulative impact over a long period is one that must be taken seriously. It is mentioned in Recommendations 176 and 197, and I warmly welcome the emphasis on delayed and cumulative effects. I am only sorry that the time-scale for the proposed trials does not appear to be consistent with those concerns. I am mindful of the very long time that it took, many years ago, for us to become aware of the build-up of persistent pesticides in the food chain before we did anything about it.
I also welcome Recommendation 184 about antibiotic-resistance marker genes, but I regret that this issue—like that of the effects of intensive agricultural methods—has led some people to observe that we are already, by our misuse or overuse of antibiotics, contributing to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans; and that, therefore, the addition of a GM element in this process will make no great difference. Once again, it is a very strange argument which says that as we are already doing something foolish by one means, it does not matter if we also do it by another means. I am glad that the Select Committee is very firm and clear on that point and that the Government agree.
1078 I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for picking up the point about the possible impact of GM crops on developing countries. I should like to mention a few words which appear in Recommendation 194 of the report. When talking about licensing, it says:Provided that the farmer can afford any extra costs".Those are dangerous words and they seem to me to be consistent with the rather cavalier tone of the report, which does not take deeply seriously the fact that many farmers will not be able to afford the extra costs involved. That does not apply only to farmers in developing countries; it also applies to many of our smaller farmers. I fear that the introduction of GM crops will increase the preferential treatment afforded to bigger farmers and the difficulties which smaller farmers face. I am sorry that the Select Committee did not seem to take that point on board.
There is just one more issue which worries me as regards the recommendations. I have in mind the role of the market. It is spelt out in Recommendations 188 and 199. The market—that is to say, consumers in general, farmers as purchasers of GM seed and the public as consumers of GM food—may simply not know enough to make an informed judgment. People may be too fearful, without good cause or too confident or, indeed, too greedy. At present, the market, in the form of public opinion, is taking a very cautious line about GM in principle. But the market can also be fickle, as well as uninformed. It worries me that the Select Committee places such reliance on the market: and that the Government's comments, though cautious on Recommendation 199, do not seriously question this over-confident reliance on market forces in an area of such novelty, complexity and uncertainty. I recognise that the Government's intention is that market forces should come into play only when regulation for safety purposes is in place, but I still remain concerned about this emphasis.
We are in new and difficult territory: we face important ethical and practical decisions. I should say, again, that I am, in general, reassured by the Select Committee's report and the Government's response to it. But I hope very much that some of the concerns that I have raised will be taken seriously by the Government as we move cautiously forward, not denying ourselves the potential benefits of genetic modification but recognising very clearly the potential dangers and establishing appropriate timescales for the very thorough trials which are essential.
§ 1.47 p.m.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dormer
My Lords, I am now a member of the Select Committee which produced this report, but I was not a member of it at the time the report went through. Therefore, I have read the document as a lay person. I have to say that I found it to be very fair, balanced, and, indeed, informative. Within this debate about genetically modified organisms, I believe that a very dangerous polarisation has taken place between those who wish to see the science proceed with the minimum of hindrance and those who are thoroughly opposed to it in any form and 1079 at any price. However, I regret the fact that the people who question some of the progress are automatically labelled as alarmists, Luddites and scaremongers.
As I said, I found the report very balanced and informative. However, the fact that I have to address what is perhaps the most negative area of it—namely, the environmental aspect—will perhaps make me seem to fall within the more Luddite tendency. I believe that the public are correct to be concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, mentioned some of the benefits of history, but I believe that the public have learnt different lessons from history. They have been told time after time that something is safe unless it is proved to be unsafe or dangerous. I think that they are fed up with being given such advice. They want something to be proved to be safe first. Indeed, in environmental terms, that view has come through very strongly from all the public discussions that have taken place on the subject.
A good example of public concern in this area concerns the lessons that have been learnt from the DDT episode which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mentioned. The public were told that DDT was useful and quite safe. It took Rachel Carson years of painstaking and ridiculed work to prove that DDT had far-reaching effects on the food chain that had never been envisaged by the people who invented it. In fact it wiped out whole eco-systems in the United States. However, its effects were reversible.
As Sub-Committee D points out in paragraph 44 onwards, the United States adopts a "Why not?" attitude, whereas Europeans adopt more of a "Why?" attitude. I believe that is quite correct. We do not want to fall into the same trap as the United States fell into with regard to DDT. It may fall into the same trap with regard to the issue we are discussing. We need to be given clear answers. Environmentalists are worried that it will not just be a case of a silent spring, but also of silent summer, silent autumn and silent winter.
This morning the Nuffield Foundation reported its view that genetically modified crops will bring untold benefits and few problems. However, the problem is that we just do not know who to believe. The information that is available changes every week with bewildering rapidity. As other noble Lords have said, the volume of information being produced is difficult to deal with. If I were a member of the public relying mainly on the press for my information I would find the position even more difficult. Even organisations of reputable standing such as the BMA, the Royal Society and the Nuffield Foundation present views that sometimes seem to conflict.
What do we know? We know that sometimes damage done to the environment is immediately apparent, as seems to be the case with the monarch butterfly and maize pollen, as already mentioned. However, we also know that sometimes an adverse effect can take years and years to become apparent. We could wreck the biodiversity of what is after all a small country while thinking that we are simply allowing some restricted commercial planting to take place.
1080 I was particularly struck by the evidence presented to the committee by English Nature on the subject of research that is currently being undertaken and that which still needs to be undertaken. On page 70 of the evidence English Nature lists topics for future research. Some of that research has not even begun. Among the research are such basic topics as,to investigate the differences between conventional and GM crops in the relative abundance and diversity of invertebrate and weed populations. To make judgments concerning relative conservation 'value'".English Nature's written evidence to the committee emphasises the paucity of research in key areas of concern. I do not believe that we can proceed with what the Government referred to last week as "restricted commercial planting" when so much of the basic research has not been undertaken to convince us one way or the other.
An important principle outlined on page 15 of the report highlights the philosophy which I believe we should adopt in considering matters such as this. It points out that the,1992 Rio declaration on environment and development (Principle 15) states, 'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation'.That precautionary principle is a good one to follow as we proceed in this area. However, we have reached no conclusion in this country as to whether we face an issue that threatens serious or irreversible damage to our environment.
On 24th March the right honourable Michael Meacher said that,it can take many years before we have sufficient evidence to be sure we are making a sound judgment".That is exactly the case. That is why I was surprised to hear in the statement issued last week that restricted commercial planting will be allowed. That statement was made in your Lordships' House on Wednesday last week. By Friday—only two days later—the NFU was reporting that a monitored and managed approach to the first commercial plantings of GM crops had been agreed. Yet we have come to no conclusion as regards effects on our wildlife. We barely have an idea of the scale of the research that we should expect to be undertaken.
The Government state in their response to your Lordships' report that they,fully recognise that there are potential risks. No GMO may be released into the environment unless an environmental risk assessment has been carried out and reviewed, and a consent issued by the Secretary of State".I find that slightly confusing when it appears that crops will be planted not just in restricted field trials but in restricted commercial plantings. As has been mentioned, the Government and SCIMAC (the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops) have agreed a package of measures which will ensure that proper care is taken when these crops are grown on farms. The organic movement's demand for a six-mile limit has been criticised as being excessive. It is estimated that a 1081 bee can fly about two miles. Therefore one might say that a two-mile radius in this respect is fine. However, on one day a bee may fly west for two miles and may collect pollen from GM crops. The next day it may leave its hive and fly east for two miles. Therefore it has travelled four miles. In an island the size of Britain I am not sure how we can ensure a sufficient "safe area" around GM crops. I do not have the answers to this issue and I shall not try to produce them. However, the new advisory body, the Agriculture and Environmental Biotechnology Commission, has been set up to advise on issues such as these. I hope that no further planting will take place until that body has had a chance to examine the trials, their locations and the framework in which they operate. These appear to have been agreed already. Therefore what can the new advisory commission do in regard to a process that has already progressed so far? It must assess the situation quickly and it must be given the powers to change those aspects which it feels need to be changed.
In conclusion, it is quite right to say that the timescale that is envisaged is too short. We must allow the necessary research to be undertaken. A five-year moratorium on commercial growing is certainly needed to allow proper research and evaluation to be undertaken. Environmental considerations must be given due weight in global terms. The World Trade Organisation should be required to apportion due weight to such matters. The 1992 convention on biological diversity covered many of these international concerns. However, the US has not signed up to that and it has nothing like the authority of the World Trade Organisation. What we have is a philosophy that promotes trade above every other consideration and does not allow environmental considerations to carry the kind of authority that they should. The European Union regulations must allow member states to opt out of growing certain crops that have been approved at European Union level. There are differences in the ecology and size of EU countries. The environmental conditions pertaining in each country are of prime concern.
§ 1.58 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, this report comes at a time of much sensitivity to genetic modification in agriculture. The House should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Reay and his committee for what everyone has described as a balanced, wide-ranging analysis of the subject, what it implies, the regulation of it and the risk assessment to human health and the environment. It carries the message that genetic modification in agriculture has great potential benefits for the future. I agree with that assessment.
The report concludes with a recommendation,that the proposed revisions to the EC regulation of genetic modification in agriculture raise important questions to which the attention of the House should be drawn … for debate.I believe that the debate which has moved from different positions on the issue of genetic modification of crops will be of great interest to the reader both in this House and elsewhere.
1082 The report deals with issues which I believe are vital to the future of agriculture both in this country and particularly to agriculture in the developing world. I say that as someone who has had experience of the developing world and who has still a strong interest in it.
We cannot escape the fact that the world's population will dramatically increase in the next 50 years from the present population of 5.8 billion; growing to 8 billion by 2020; 9.5 billion by 2050; and possibly stabilising at 10 billion by 2100. Just as the food requirements of today cannot be met by 1940s technology, current food production practices cannot provide for the increased human population of the world. New approaches to crop and animal production systems are absolutely essential.
As has been mentioned, there are 5.8 million square miles of farming land available in the world today In order to supply food for the next growing generations of humans, it is estimated that 15 million square miles will be necessary. But that land is not available. As we find in paragraph 66 of the report, the amount of cultivable land is decreasing, not increasing.
The estimates of food needs take no note of the dietary upgrading that occurs in developing countries as they increase their national wealth. The demand for movement from a diet of cereals to include meat and from a diet of white meat to red meat is now quite common in parts of the developing world. For example, in China there has been a 10 per cent annual increase in meat production over the past 10 years. That indicates that new types of food production must be addressed.
It is often said that there is no need to enhance food production in the world, that there are many surpluses at present and that the basic problem lies in distribution or the ability to pay for the food. An alternative view, if it be true, is that a major redistribution of wealth in the world would be necessary to provide for that redistribution of food. Even that would not cope with the future demands of the world.
Agriculture in this country, in Europe and in the developed world is known for its high outputs. That is achieved by high inputs in the form of nitrogenous fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides, all of which have an effect on the environment. That has been a concern for many years, long before GM crops were on the horizon. One of the potentials of GM crops is that the high inputs which cause such concern about the environment may well be no longer necessary when there are new plants which are able to cope with soil, water and sunshine in a more effective way than at present.
In addition, many crops—particularly in the developing world—are lost through weeds, insects, and diseases of various kinds; in storage they are lost through insects, rodents and fungi. It is estimated that only 60 per cent of the food produced eventually gets to the consumer. Prior to genetic modification of maize and soya bean, for example, 10 per cent of each crop was destroyed by the borer beetle. To counter this, maize and soya bean have had inserted into them genes from the bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterial organism that produces a toxin, so that when the borers penetrate the plant they are killed. The alternative is to spray 1083 plants with insecticides. Organophosphates are normally used for this purpose. The concerns and problems caused by organophosphates have been debated in the House on more than one occasion. Therefore we might be faced with having either organophosphate contaminated food or genetically modified food grown without insecticides.
The developing world will benefit enormously from the introduction of genetically modified crops and genetically adapted animals—although the report does not deal with the animal side—which will increase production with lower inputs. That view appears to be shared by the recent Nuffield report, which I understand has been published today. I have not had the opportunity to read it, although on the radio today it was commented upon.
The report is about EC regulations. It may be asked: what has third world development and population to do with European Union regulations? The immediate answer is to recognise the increasing need on the part of the developed world to prepare for action to alleviate the anticipated food shortages. It will be countries such as the United Kingdom, those in the European Union and those elsewhere in the developed world which will progress research to meet that problem. Our regulatory system should not be such that it prevents our carrying that research forward.
There is also the issue of scientific competition in agriculture and food biotechnology in the United Kingdom. As stated in paragraph 171 on competitiveness in agriculture and food, use of biotechnology is already well established in other major countries such as the US, Canada, Argentina and China. Any undue delay in Europe could be a costly burden on our scientific development in this area; it will affect our manufacture and retail industries and hence employment.
As we have heard today and elsewhere in the press, impediments to biotechnology and genetic foods are generally borne of a mistrust of genetic engineering; the science is thought by its detractors to be new and unproven. But genetically modified organisms have been widely used for several years in the brewing industry and in cheese production. Their use in the food sector is commonplace and increasing. We have been consuming the products of genetically modified organisms for some time, albeit in an unlabelled manner. In general, I agree with labelling, but care must be taken as to whether we should label the process or the product of genetically modified organisms. For example, would it be realistic to label beer as a genetically modified product because a genetically modified yeast has been used in its production? The committee's conclusions on food labelling are well made.
The question has been posed as to whether genetically modified foods are safe. That is a difficult point to answer. It is difficult to reach a final decision about not only genetically modified foods but about foods that are not genetically modified. But there is no evidence at present that they are unsafe. Genetically modified foods have been consumed by millions of people in certain countries without any such evidence. Nevertheless, it is necessary that there be regulatory procedures. I believe 1084 that the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes in this country is doing an excellent regulatory job and should be allowed to continue.
Mention has been made today of antibiotic resistance markers in genetically modified crops. Recent newspaper articles have been somewhat inflammatory about antibiotic resistance in genetically modified crops presenting a danger, for example in regard to childhood meningitis. As we know from a science and technology sub-committee in this House, antibiotic resistance is a major problem. Although the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford would say that we do not add one difficulty to another, the problem of antibiotic resistance is so great through use in animal and human food that the potential for GM resistance transferring antibiotic resistance into the human or animal field is, I believe, minuscule.
Environmental issues figure strongly in the debates on GM crops and plants. One concern is the transfer of GM plant material and herbicide resistance. Of course, herbicide resistance has been bred into crops since long before genetic modification came along. The Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, ACRE, does an excellent job in this area. I do not accept that a new committee is necessary, although that committee's remit might well be widened.
Mention has also been made of the effect of GM crops on insects and the subsequent food chain, and in particular the monarch butterfly. It would be unusual if a genetically modified crop designed to kill off the maggot or larval stage of an insect did not have other effects. But it should be welcomed that this effect seems to be specific rather than generic. In fact, other insects, such as lacewings, ladybirds and damsel bugs, are not affected by the genetically modified pollen in question. Bumble bees and honey bees also are not affected by the pollen, although, as has been said, they can transfer it elsewhere.
No one would wish to allow the development and release of GM plants or other organisms into the environment without the appropriate evaluation and testing, but this must be done in a responsible and proper scientific manner. I believe that this is being done effectively in this country.
Furthermore, genetic modification has the potential to provide positive environmental effects and correct the adverse aspects now associated with intensive farming methods. I believe that we are on the threshold of a new and very promising era of the use of genetic modification in crops and animals which will be of great benefit to mankind. There is enormous potential for producing medicines and vaccines from plants—such as a hepatitis B vaccine in potatoes and a rabies vaccine in spinach—as well as other niche market products and designer foods.
This country is a leader in such biotechnology, and our lead should not be squandered by unnecessary restrictive approaches. I am happy that the Government's response to the report is so robust and so much in defence of that biotechnology.
§ 2.14 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, sadly, there are some very ill-informed views on genetically modified foods, views fed by the tabloid newspapers, which see in creating a scare a means of increasing their sales. Talk of Frankenstein foods has done massive damage to a technology with the potential to achieve dramatic improvements in food and in other fields for the human race.
The EC Committee heard evidence from a wide number of sources, ranging from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to Monsanto, which is in the forefront of the technology. The views ranged from those who were against any form of GM on principle to those who saw a huge potential benefit in GM and safety in the technology. subject to proper safeguards.
GM is an easy subject for the tabloids to exploit, with their talk of Frankenstein foods, regardless of any justification. A spokesman for the US Department of Agriculture has said that, if properly regulated, these products offer a significant benefit in the form of reduced chemical use, improved yields, lower production costs and enhanced quality for the consumer.
Recently there has been concern about the yellow and black butterfly being killed by GM corn pollen. Maybe feeding the insect in the laboratory on a concentrated diet of GM-produced pollen is harmful, although that pollen did not affect other insects, which in the same experiment seemed to thrive. By the same token, I understand that white bread fed on its own can kill humans.
GM corn can only kill its own predator. Non-GM corn must be sprayed with insecticide, and then every insect dies, including the yellow and black butterfly. We must weigh the £750 million annual loss from the corn borer and the total loss of all insects from the insecticides against the possible damage caused by the pollen to the black and yellow butterfly.
Pollen can drift quite some distance, but the likelihood of transgenic fertilisation is very low. It is only if the permitted rate is set at positively zero that there is a risk. Even then, if there is cross-pollination to some genetically allied weed that weed could be dealt with by other herbicides.
Should GM animals ever be seriously developed, they can be subjected to regulations and controls until such time as the authorities are certain that the improvement has no downside factor. Should that transpire, the animals could be slaughtered.
There is an endless succession of committees manned by eminent and expert scientists to watch and control every process of the development of GM foods and crops and to ensure that nothing is grown on a large scale, or still less presented to the public, before rigorous monitoring and testing. But now even the word "expert" is being paraded as a dirty word by the press. I have heard it said that an expert is a has-been drip under pressure. In fact, the experts concerned are all scientists who are very well informed in their subjects, either working in the field or with enough scientific knowledge not to be bamboozled by those who do work 1086 in it. Some, such as Professor Bainbridge, who has already been mentioned, have their own families to feed and have a direct interest in food safety.
The danger lies in those countries which have no rules or no means of enforcing any rules that they may have. An unscrupulous company could experiment in those countries without any regulation and grow any GM product.
The most frightening scenario is the prospect of the voracious GM fish that could escape and cross-breed with other fish. Once released to the sea, clearly they would be totally out of control. This probably will happen with the modified high-growth salmon, which will inevitably escape sooner or later.
It is essential that there should be international standards, so that disaster cannot emerge from some country and sweep around the world, however remote that scenario might be. Imports such as the grey squirrel into the UK and the rabbit into Australia have shown us how disasters can happen.
There are risks involved in any technology, but no ill-effects have been noted from GM products. Crops go through a long and rigorous testing under very strict rules, so they are thoroughly tested before being allowed to be put on the market.
The hard cheese that we eat nowadays is made from genetically modified yeast instead of rennet, which used to be scraped from the lining of calves' stomachs. Many people would perhaps baulk at the old, non-GM product if they realised the source of the rennet.
A great number of our foods contain soya and as it i s shipped in bulk from the United States, the conventional and the GM are both mixed up. The possible risk of eating GM crops must also be compared with the risk of eating conventional crops—for example, conventional fruit could carry the residue of pesticides. But then anything has a risk factor, the highest being probably from smoking or from driving a car. Statistically, the kitchen is a very dangerous place for accidents. A surfeit of lampreys killed King John and recently a girl died from drinking too much water.
The worry seems to be about dangers that can be dreamed up without a shred of evidence or likelihood. This worry must not be allowed to bring progress to a halt. It surprises me that while not a single danger from GM has been identified, it is feared by the public, who at the same time will buy foods containing all kinds of chemicals of which they have no idea of the meaning. People will happily eat foods with preservatives, known to be harmful, or drink luridly coloured drinks full of colouring, preservatives, chemicals and artificial flavourings, some of which, again, are known to be harmful. Equally, they will take medicine the composition of which they know even less, arid sometimes discover that those same medicines have various harmful side effects. One thinks of the organophosphates and thalidomide. Yet GM food with no suspicion of harm is feared.
GM has some fascinating possibilities. It may well be the most important field since the introduction of computers. For example, work is going on to make crops more frost tolerant through the insertion of genes 1087 from fish. It might one day be possible to cross a fish with an oak tree to make the latter grow and thrive in a cold climate. But the possibilities are exciting and endless with many spin-offs for environmental benefit. With an increasing world population and a decreasing farming area, GM is probably the only hope of avoiding world famine in the future and could transform agriculture in the third world.
Of course many of the improvements of GM could be achieved by natural selection and breeding. Wheat is no natural plant, but has been developed over millennia. But the time-scale will be very long, and it would not be possible to breed desirable characteristics into the crop without attracting undesirable ones at the same time. GM can target precisely the good characteristics.
I believe that the supermarkets that refuse to stock GM are misleading their customers. First, soya is mixed in bulk so that there is no guarantee of GM content in mixed foods. Secondly, they are pandering to and trading on their customers' fears of the unknown when they should be investigating the facts of GM and then reassuring their customers. They should study the excellent report. Yet the benefits of GM are proven, given such products as insulin since 1980 and tomatoes since 1995, all without any ill-effects.
The Government have declared GM foods to be safe. Governments are inherently cautious—and how we saw that with BSE. They must stand by their decision and continue to lead in the debate. It would be too easy for them to give way to the popular and ill-informed demand to ban GM foods for the sake of a few votes. Most of the problem is lack of understanding, and public explanation and debate would be most helpful. The Government must have the guts to continue to lead in this matter and, subject to all the vast safeguards that are in place, give full encouragement to the GM technology.
§ 2.23 p.m.
§ Lord Clement-Jones
My Lords, as many of your Lordships have already stressed during the course of the debate, there is an overriding need for public confidence to be established in this area. The Select Committee concluded that GM foods already on the market are safe, but when bodies such as the BMA enter the fray powerful new concerns are being expressed.
In its report, the BMA Board of Science and Education makes a strong point about the impact of GMOs being potentially greater than medicines which currently seek licences. The advisory and regulatory framework adopted is therefore of crucial significance. In this context the Government should of course bring forward the food standards agency as a matter of urgency. But by itself this will not solve the need for public confidence. Underlying the approach to GM food, there must be a robust assertion of the precautionary principle. I welcome the Select Committee's call for greater understanding of this aspect. We must be cautious, particularly when public worry is stoked up by phrases such as "Frankenstein food" and references to "the mad forces of genetic darkness" in the press.
1088 From recent opinion surveys it is clear that the British public do not have overwhelming confidence in scientists and government to make decisions in this area. In fact, family practitioners are held in greater regard. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, is not in his place to hear that. As part of the assessment process, however, both scientists and politicians need a definition of "safe" which has public understanding and acceptance. It is not good enough simply to expect the media and public to change their view of GM foods simply by repeating assertions that they are safe. The public have rightly, for instance, come to expect high standards of aviation safety while nevertheless understanding that air travel cannot be absolutely 100 per cent safe.
Are the public clear about what standard of safety they are being offered with GM foods? Why cannot we make it clear? The Government are rather defeatist in this respect. In reply to a Starred Question from myself, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said that he did not believe that it will be possible to have an absolute and reliable definition of "risk" or food safety. In contrast, in the light of the BSE crisis, the former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, devoted a considerable amount of space in a number of his annual reviews of public health policy to discussing the communication of risk. We really should learn the lessons of BSE and GM foods. It is quiet clear that, as the former Chief Medical Officer suggested, we need to settle the ground rules to make sure that the public have confidence in what is being communicated.
The report of the Chief Medical Officer in 1995 categorised the different elements of risk, which was an extremely helpful process. He was able to range from negligible, through minimal, moderate, to unknown. It would be helpful to have that kind of scale of risk explained clearly by the Government. Will the Government follow up that extremely useful preliminary work? The public in particular need to be educated on how risk is, and should be, assessed. The current test used by the novel foods committee, the ACNFP, on whether a GM food product is not novel is that of "substantial equivalence". That concept was developed by the World Health Organisation and the OECD. But as commentators have pointed out, it does not account for gene interaction of unexpected kinds which may take place in GM foods which on the face of it may appear equivalent to existing foods.
The recent report of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser also confirms this. It states:The fact that a GM food may be substantially equivalent to a conventional one, does not mean however that it is safe. Nor does it remove the need for a thorough assessment to be carried out to ensure that this is so before it can be allowed onto the market".The Select Committee report is therefore disappointing in its assessment of the regulatory process in that it does not examine this issue in detail. Clearly, therefore, any test used in risk assessment needs to go much wider than just "substantial equivalence". It needs to look at both direct and indirect and immediate and delayed effects.
1089 A few years ago we had no concept at all of the problems associated with pthalates. Now we do know, and many PVC products have been withdrawn as a result. Tracking in particular needs to be carried out to assess health risks. A clearly understood process of health impact assessment needs to be carried out for GM foods. The recent report of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser are helpful in this respect, particularly in advocating tracking research and the suggestion of a national surveillance unit. With these measures in place and the right kind of risk language, I believe that we could build confidence in the regulatory system. Without such a public understanding of risk and risk assessment, we will find inevitably that there is less and less public acceptance of scientific advance with all that that entails.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Lord Willoughby de Broke
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Reay for his exemplary chairmanship of our sub-committee. 'The enquiry was long and, to me at least, complex, and it became increasingly controversial as we progressed. Our chairman and our Clerk did exceptionally well to keep us, the spear-carriers, focused on the scope of the report during 17 sessions of oral evidence and a back-up library of more than 40 written submissions.
As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, noted, when the report was published in January it made waves, not ripples, in the newspapers. It was criticised by some for its content, by others for its conclusions, and by yet others for the perceived bias of the witnesses we called. If that was not enough, why not take a swipe at the committee's membership, which included representatives from that environmental criminal class, the farmer?
Naturally enough, the critics quickest out of the blocks were those who were not handicapped by actually having read the report, closely followed by those who had read the report but who had skipped the bits that did not fit with their prejudices. They were reinforced by the report appearing during a period in which the press, with a few honourable exceptions, fell victim to an attack of unmodified hysteria, encouraged—I have to say—by special interest pressure groups who depend upon a high profile to keep their membership subscriptions flowing. When newspapers run stories implying that genetically modified organisms will kill every form of wildlife on the planet, or that they cause meningitis, or damage the immune system, is it surprising that we should start running scared? Just about the only thing that genetic modification did not make you believe is that you can believe everything that you read in the Daily Mail.
It is time for a counterblast. After all, what are the facts? Perhaps we should begin by reminding ourselves that risk is never zero. With that in mind, we can say that genetically modified organisms are at the very low end of the risk spectrum. The wilder, unsubstantiated scientific scare stories have been comprehensively demolished when subjected to peer review. No one has yet suffered any harm at all from genetically modified 1090 organisms. There has never been an accident of any kind involving genetically modified organisms, either in the laboratory or in the field.
Of course I accept that risks and hazards, as was clearly stated in our report, exist and need to be properly evaluated and regulated. The report makes a number of specific recommendations, many of which have been broadly accepted by the Government, to make better what is already good. There remain, however, several points outstanding, which have already been raised, and to which I hope the Minister will reply.
But the fact is that genetically modified organisms are subject to more rigorous scrutiny than any conventional foodstuffs. As our chairman pointed out, the common potato would not have passed through the regulatory sieve. Yesterday, I tried to remind myself what that sieve consisted of. There are several advisory committees: the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, the Committee on Toxicology, the Food Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification. Those are but five of the most prominent bodies. Contrary to popular myth, they are not stuffed with tame scientists who are in the pockets of the major drug companies.
The Food Advisory Committee, which in February gave a strong vote of confidence in the approval system for genetically modified foods, has representatives from consumer interests, local authorities and food companies as well as what I would call, ignorantly, pure scientists. The Government have also recently announced the formation of two new advisory bodies: the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Agriculture and Environmental Biotechnology Commission. There is also a Cabinet committee on biotechnology and several special advisers are also on tap, such as Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert May, who have recently published their own report confirming their confidence in the rigour of current procedures.
We can also be encouraged by the recent formation of the curiously named SCIMAC, which sounds rather like a genetically modified hamburger. However, it turns out to be the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops—a framework for the development of genetically modified crops which will identify closely with public concern about the technology and its effects.
We can therefore say that the development of genetically modified organisms is underpinned by a regime of belt and braces. There will be, as the Government have said, no free-for-all. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, to note one regrettable lapse, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lard Reay, in the Government's otherwise robust attitude to scare technology. I refer to the regulations introduced in February, requiring shops, cafes and restaurants to label food which contains, or may contain genetically modified organisms. As labelling is one of the more difficult and contentious issues relating to genetically modified organisms, it seems harsh indeed to burden these small businesses with the responsibility of deciding something that has not yet been properly agreed by anybody. These regulations were introduced 1091 only one day after being laid, with the excuse of supreme urgency, even though the businesses concerned were then given six months to sort out their SCIMACs from their GMOs. The explanation, of course, is simple. This ill-thought out measure, by-passing Parliament, was brought to us by the same team who brought us the much admired beef-on-the-bone regulations. At least Ministers will have the consolation, I imagine, of having to report on compliance from the front line of The Ivy and The River Café. There is an old African saying: The man with a full belly has many problems; the man with an empty belly has but one problem. We should bear that in mind when assessing the benefits, or otherwise, of genetic modification.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Lord Rathcavan
My Lords, I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for introducing this debate, and giving such clarity to this complex and wide-ranging subject. I also thank him for the firm and fair way in which he chaired our committee.
I shall concentrate on the question of public confidence in genetic modification to crops and food, and to the labelling issue, which is the effective interface between genetically modified products and the public.
When we set out on the report, at the beginning of last year, genetic modification in agriculture was not a subject much discussed in the public domain, although the development of GM technology and the world production of genetically modified crops were proceeding at a hectic pace.
Last summer, one of the principal life science, or bio-science, companies, Monsanto—which has invested billions of dollars and which has staked much of its future on genetically modified crops and foods, and which detected resistance and delay to GM development in Europe—began a huge advertising campaign to promote GM technology. Never can an advertising campaign have been so badly judged. Rather than soothing the latent public disquiet about genetically modified food, it succeeded in raising public concern, and generating hostile opposition. It sparked off environmental groups and some newspapers to mount campaigns against genetically modified food and technology.
The Prince of Wales made a well-structured case against genetically modified crops in The Daily Telegraph, although he did not help his argument—as others have also sought to do—by invoking the support of God. Later in the year, the now infamous Dr. Puztai, poured oil on the flames with his unguarded, if not wild comments about feeding a toxic, raw genetically modified laboratory potato to rats, in what the Royal Society last week called a flawed experiment.
Although we are discussing our report of last January, today's debate is well-timed following last week's Government announcements and the recent publication of much well-informed scientific opinion and research, capped today by the report of the Nuffield Council on Bio-Ethics, covering social and ethical issues.
1092 After our first six months of taking evidence from many distinguished scientists, the members of our sub-committee began to consider that we had become fairly sophisticated GM experts. That may not have been the case, but at least we were expert enough to assess the flood of disinformation on GM technology, flawed comment, and sometimes pure rubbish being peddled by some newspapers and by so-called experts on the subject. The scare stories, with which your Lordships are familiar, ranged from super weeds which would overrun the countryside to antibiotic resistance, the transfer of allergies, fish genes in fruit and this week I heard a commentator on the radio claiming that a gene from a rat had been put into a potato. That is a total confusion of Dr. Puztai's experiment.
It is no wonder that consumers are running scared and confused when Friends of the Earth display a symbol which embraces a fish and a tomato. That refers to a failed laboratory experiment in California 10 years ago to transfer a gene from an arctic fish in an attempt to engineer a frost-proof tomato plant. The more recent GM tomato paste or puree which is on the market, or was until recently, in this country, uses a tomato in which that ripening gene which makes a ripe tomato soft has been switched off or made inactive. The result is a firmer, more robust and riper tomato which makes a tomato puree with 40 per cent less waste and which costs less. There are no green or rotten tomatoes which can make the product discoloured or bitter or both.
GM tomato paste has been the only whole and real GM product available on the UK market and has currently been withdrawn from the shelves by neurotic retailers who are not doing us any service. That product allowed the consumer to make a fair judgment and tasting of GM versus non-GM product. To confirm to your Lordships that we did our homework thoroughly, I can report that the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and I supped one evening on a blind tasting of pasta with GM tomato paste and old-fashioned tomato paste.
One of the obstacles to public acceptance of GM foods is the lack of the whole GM product which can demonstrate a real benefit in quality or value which is what the tomato paste was able to do. We are told that some way down the line is a GM potato which makes a low-fat and crispy chip which absorbs less fat. Low fat and low cholesterol foods will win more public acceptance.
Instead, the major bio-science companies have concentrated on commercial development of commodity crops associated with herbicide and pest resistance, grown mainly in the prairies of America where the public is less concerned about the potential environmental hazards. It is only when those crops come to Europe, albeit on trials, where so much farming is over the garden hedge that real environmental concerns are generated. It is only when GM soya and maize products permeated an estimated 60 per cent of the shopping basket of processed foods that real consumer concerns arise. That emotive statistic of 60 per cent of the shopping basket containing GM has been the cause of much adverse public reaction, and not surprisingly, and it is at the core of the labelling issue too. We recommended that GM labelling should be restricted to 1093 a threshold of 2 per cent of GM material. In fact, the vast majority of processed foods contain only very small, if not infinitesimal, amounts of soya, such as most breads which contain less than 1 per cent of soya flour. Where GM soya is highly processed, as in the soya oil, the DNA or protein is degraded or disappears and it cannot be scientifically detected. The question arises about whether such undetectable GM content should be labelled, if it is over the threshold.
Distillers and brewers have been concerned about public reaction to GM yeast or a potential GM malted grain. We saw experiments on a GM malted barley when we visited the John Innes Institute in Norwich. But if it ever comes to the market with great benefits to cost, the GM DNA will not be detectable in the whisky or beer.
If this 2 per cent threshold for labelling is accepted in the revised European regulation, the amount of processed food products which would have to carry a GM label would be very small, certainly much less than 5 per cent compared with the alarming figure of 60 per cent.
Without the labelling regulations, the Government's recent proposals that restaurants will have to identify any dish containing GM material is extremely demanding in present circumstances as suppliers try to identify sources of non-GM soya which is not always clearly segregated, but which undoubtedly will be as the market increasingly demands it.
I spoke last week to the Savoy's great chef, Anton Edelmann, who said that he was now seeking a commitment from all his suppliers to declare on the invoices that a product does not contain any GM material. That may pass the buck down the line and will not be reliable. It will be nearly impossible to regulate or detect that a particular dish or sauce contains 1 per cent or even 2 per cent of soya flour or oil that may or may not involve GM DNA. It is important that a threshold should also apply to restaurants. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance as to where and when the labelling threshold will be applied and whether there will be any interim guidelines, which are endlessly awaited, in a revised European regulation. The catering industry and food manufacturers urgently need to know where they stand on the labelling issue.
I hope the Minister will give us an assurance also that restaurants will not be prosecuted so long as they exercise due diligence and take whatever steps are presently available to identify GM material.
It is essential to gain public confidence in that remarkable new technology in which the United Kingdom is a world leader. I trust that the Government's new regulatory body, as announced last week, will establish a framework in which further development is strictly monitored and controlled on a case-by-case basis. I hope that development can and will continue.
The report from the Nuffield Council on Biotechnology, published this morning, proposes some tighter regulations for both monitoring and controls. I hope the Government will take careful note of what that new report, prepared by some of our leading brains on these issue, recommends.
1094 If we are to continue to be among the world leaders in the industry, where the prizes are huge and the opportunities as big, we must first put our own house in order. We must gain consumer confidence and, as soon as possible, give the consumer a choice through sensible and intelligible labelling. We must allow new GM crops, when they have passed all the scientific scrutiny from the environmental and food safety points of view, to go into production. The Government must make their regulatory process and framework work and be seen to work. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said so eloquently, the Government must also get the European decision-making process to work more effectively, fairly and quickly.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I rise with some degree of trepidation to join your Lordships in this debate because I do not purport to have a great deal of knowledge on the subject, certainly not as much knowledge as some of your Lordships have shown. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Reay and all members of the committee on producing the report, which is a balanced report, no doubt.
However, as a member of the listening public, I think I can be forgiven if I continue to have considerable concerns about the whole question of GMOs, particularly in the countryside. Some of the pieces written in the media and some of the items we have heard on the radio recently emanating from people for whom one must have a very great regard in those matters should display to all of us that there are still many issues to be resolved before we can take forward the new revolution positively and confidently.
The ability to modify arable crops genetically to protect them from insect pests, weeds and diseases represents an enormous advance in the technology to protect crops from such attacks. Man has had to protect crops from the earliest days. As early as 1669, white arsenic was used to control ants. The countryside has always experienced change. It is a dynamic place. Undoubtedly, what we are now witnessing is a rapid change at an unprecedented rate and a technology that may be used over vast acreages of the British countryside.
Much public debate has addressed the likely impact of GM crops on food safety, public health and the environment. I am bound to say that I have much more confidence in the human aspect than I do in the environmental aspect. There is clearly no evidence to date to show that GM crops are having an adverse effect on the health of human beings. It is the environmental matters on which I wish to concentrate my remarks. As chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust, I am able to draw upon the trust's long history of research on farmland—research that first drew attention to the impact of fanning technology on wildlife and the part played by pesticides, changing rotations and farming policy on declining species of plants, insects and birds.
There are grave concerns regarding the environment and wildlife following the use of GM crops in the countryside. My noble friend Lord Wade robustly 1095 defended the findings of the Select Committee, and I admired the way in which he did so. He gave clear examples of technology which, although heavily criticised at the time, has proved to be an enormous help to mankind in general. I accept that.
But there is always a flip-side to every coin. We must be very wary in these matters. We must look carefully at the instances where technology has not served us well and where we have seen damaging effects on the countryside from various industries through lack of proper environmental consultation and research.
I can give three examples. The use of pyrethroid sheep dips and its effect on aquatic insects, and indeed the tragic effect it has had on certain human beings, has been mentioned. I am sure that had we known the effects from the outset, there would have been far greater controls. There is also the effect of broad spectrum insecticides on beneficial insects. We have seen large areas of the countryside devastated by the use of such insecticidal sprays. And one of the greatest examples is the effect of farmed salmon on wild salmon. Again, I am sure that had we known in advance what that method would produce, far greater care would have been taken.
Recently, the chairman of the RSNC, Simon Lister, said on Radio 4 that it would be quite wrong for us to compare the effects of GM crops in the United States with what will happen in the British countryside. The areas where the majority of crops are grown in the US are huge prairie-lands where the word "biodiversity" has long since gone out of the dictionary. In this country we still have a diverse countryside. We still have the infrastructure for positive gain. It is dangerous to start comparing the United States with Great Britain in that respect.
Perhaps I may try to identify some of the practical problems that are likely to arise if GM crops are to be grown in the British countryside. The introduction of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops, to which my noble friend Lord Reay made reference in his opening remarks, could herald a move towards totally weed-free fields or totally monoculture crops. The herbicides that are used in modified crops are broad spectrum. They can only be used when plants are actively growing. These sprays will remove all autumn and spring germinating weeds, including some rare arable species, and the host plant of the chick food insects eaten by farmland birds. So they have enormous significance. The advent of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops could make a very serious situation even worse unless remedial action is taken. I do not believe that it is right to take the status quo as the level of comparison. We should be trying to enhance the British countryside. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when taking decisions on this important subject.
Changes in the pattern of herbicide drift could also increase ecological damage. Such herbicides used in GM manipulation are applied when weeds are actively growing, and thus preclude their use in winter when crops are growing close to the ground and herbicide drift is at its minimum. In other words, the height of the 1096 boom spray will depend on the height of the crops, because the crops in the summer are at a much higher level.
Using such herbicides in summer could harm hedgerow plants, both in the fields being sprayed and indeed the adjacent fields as well. The result could be seriously to undermine MAFF's responsibility towards the biodiversity action plan for cereal field margins.
I very much welcome the Government's attitude towards the dangers of the interface between GM crops and organic farming, as stated in their response to the Select Committee report. But surely it is equally important that the ministry should have regard to the interface between areas next to those where GM crops are grown and where there are environmental schemes in progress. There could well be a number of different government-sponsored schemes which are there to promote the countryside. The effects of the sprays could be extremely detrimental. If I had a farm where I was deliberately trying to enhance wildlife and found myself next to a farm that was being used for GM cropping, with all the dangers that I have identified and without the necessary precautions, I should be extremely angry and concerned.
Another potential problem relates to pollen from GM crops, as already identified through the monarch butterfly in America. The destination of pollen carried in the wind is even less predictable than the problems of drift to which I referred. Insects, too, will carry the pollen. So very careful assessments will need to be done in order to judge any impact that is likely to occur. Furthermore, what concentration of such pollen is toxic? And over what distance and what timescale? Those are important questions. I do not know whether or not this requires a moratorium, but I cannot believe that the answers will be found quickly. I suspect that it will be a long time before we can provide satisfactory answers.
Perhaps I may also highlight the potential dangers of herbicide resistant crops appearing as "volunteers"—a legacy from previous years' cropping. That could lead to considerable agronomic difficulties and increased herbicide use in the following years. Alternatively, autumn cultivations, which are not good for wildlife, could increase an attempt to control herbicide resistant volunteer weeds. It would render great damage to populations of beneficial insects.
Then there is the problem of hybridisation; in other words, the possible genetic mixing of crop plants and wild species. Movement of pollen by bees will cover considerable distances as well as on the wind. Clearly, monitoring such potential impacts will be both difficult and absolutely crucial if we are to get the correct answers.
There is one final point on the dangers of GMO crops to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention. I refer to the potential problems concerning crop rotation. That is sometimes overlooked. This method of farming has long been used for weed control, especially by those involved in mixed arable and livestock farming enterprises. As the Game Conservancy has shown, such farms tend to be the most valuable for wildlife, both in terms of birds and, as we discovered on our trial farm 1097 at Loddington, for hares. Yet genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops may well further reduce the need to rotate crops and thus deprive the countryside of its patchwork quilt of fields that both look attractive and, as I said, provide an important wildlife source.
Having identified some of the practical problems, I would not wish to be labelled a complete prophet of doom and I certainly would not wish to be described as a Luddite. Of course, I accept the huge importance we have derived over the years from modern technology. So much good has been done to mankind and I accept that the advent of GMOs could have its benefits, particularly on the human front.
Returning to the environment, I feel we should welcome initiatives that could not only reduce pesticide use per se, but could also reduce the impact of pesticide use on wildlife. Making a crop immune to insect attack, following genetic modification using bacterial insecticides, could dramatically reduce the use of conventional sprays of crops. Of course I would welcome that.
However, whereas I believe that this is already happening with maize and cotton, as I understand it science is some way from developing such techniques in other crops, particularly cereal crops. I should be interested if, when my noble friend replies, he can give an indication as to whether that is the case.
One further possible gain that might accrue is that by providing farmers with a weed control technique that is extremely efficient they may he more willing to leave weeds in crops in other parts of the rotation or on set-aside or on land designed for wildlife, almost as a quid pro quo. However, I acknowledge that this would be risky and almost certainly have to be accompanied by some attractive environmental schemes to provide the necessary incentive.
I believe there are great dangers, as my noble friend made clear in his introductory speech. I accept that. But as to the future, I welcome the Government's commitment to openness and the investment provided by MAFF and the DETR in the impact studies of GMO crops on wildlife. I also welcome the establishment of a commission that will oversee all work on GM crops.
In the past there has been a tendency for matters affecting wildlife and the environment to be bounced between several committees without anyone taking responsibility for the issue. What is paramount in this hugely important issue is good science. The risks must be thoroughly assessed before adapting a technology that could impose devastating consequences on the countryside of Great Britain.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, it could be too late. The Government have a huge responsibility of which I know the Minister is well aware. So has English Nature. I look forward very much to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has to say on the matter. I am aware of her deep concern and that of the members of her council. I hope that the Government will at all times take careful note of what they have to say.
1098 Finally, I hope that the Government will not be forced into using GMO crops simply by free trade agreements and international or EU rules. This matter is far too important to be regarded simply as an issue of trade. We are talking about the welfare of the British countryside and that is something we should all treasure and be wary about.
§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Lord Grantchester
My Lords, I wish to add my thanks and congratulations to those of other noble Lords to the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, on the thorough way in which he has steered the committee throughout the inquiry, to the Clerk, Mr. Jake Vaughan, on his excellent support of the committee and to the specialist adviser, Dr. Julian Kinderlerer, who was able to give so much of his time and expertise in this complex and fast-moving field of biotechnology. I declare an interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire.
I should first like to say how encouraged I am that the committee undertook the inquiry. The committee took the risk that events could overtake or make the report redundant on this highly contentious issue. However, it has proved to be an extremely timely report, as media reports have highlighted the issue as the latest food scare story.
Apart from the inevitable cries from pressure groups, the report has generally been well received as a balanced, stabilising voice in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear engendered by pressure groups. Many of the committee's recommendations have not only been accepted but implemented already.
In this regard, I am particularly pleased that only last Friday the Government answered the call for a more strategic committee to examine more general issues and to co-ordinate and plan policy, by setting up two new bodies; namely, the Commission on Human Genetics and the Commission on Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology. It is also particularly pleasing that the Government have agreed with the report and have resisted calls for a blanket moratorium on the development of the technology through the use of large-scale farm trials. It is only through realistic and rigorous trials that an accurate assessment of risks can be undertaken.
"Genetically modified crops are potentially beneficial to the environment and to human wellbeing". "Genetically modified crops are potentially harmful to man and nature, the manufacturers are only in it for the money and their products should be banned". Which view will prove to be correct? No one can say emphatically that GM crops are wholly safe or dangerously unsafe. As a comment to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I would say that nothing can be proven safe; tomorrow's dynamics may be different. What we are concerned with is the management of risk.
However, the public relations battle is swinging firmly in favour of the "antis" who can manipulate the lack of official information to their advantage. Farmers are stuck in the middle. They look across the Atlantic at the rapidly increasing acreages of GM crops and wonder how they can compete in a freer world trade 1099 environment if they are not allowed to grow crops that can be more economically produced. The big agri-businesses need farmers to make land available for trials of GM crops, but farmers will be reluctant to come forward knowing that as soon as crop trials are under way they will be targeted by vandals intent on destroying the sites and that the courts may well—as occurred last March—rule that trespass and damage are a legitimate means of protest. Nor do farmers want to grow crops which the public perceive to be a threat. Farmers are acutely aware through experiences already gained on the issues of hormones and BSE that public confidence is vital to sustain the industry. All the fears and questions raised on environmental issues, terminal genes, cross-species transfers and economic and patent matters must be addressed.
Another factor further unsettles farmers. Ministers and government officials appear to be running scared of GM issues. The Government should be setting up the framework for debate and rule-making, not taking sides through forced statements whenever GM crops hit the headlines. A re-think to their approach is vital. It may be that biotechnology will benefit mankind. Equally, we could live to regret staking the future on an untested technology. The Government's duty is to ensure that we make the right decision and that requires judgment and leadership. The announcements and assurances on the safety of GM foods and crops have all the resonance of the BSE disaster.
What does biotechnology bring to agriculture? Quite simply, the breeding of new crop varieties with enhanced value. Once they have identified the new gene, breeders have a more targeted technology that will incorporate the desired, and. only the desired, trait into the genetic make-up of the relevant organism. Furthermore, this desired trait need not be restricted to organisms of the same species. Varieties can be created that otherwise would be effectively impossible. It is this last point that makes the technology so exhilarating and also so dangerous but perhaps also separates biotechnology from the continuum of breeding technology. It offers a strategic leap for agriculture. As with all technologies, it does not make any intrinsic value judgment; it is how one utilises the technology that is decisive. The technology can benefit all types of farming in all corners of the world and can have a dramatic effect in developing countries. Biotechnology does not make any statement concerning the intensity of agricultural production or the tendency to monoculture.
It was interesting that during this inquiry all the criticisms of modern agriculture were loaded onto biotechnology, whereas perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it is the management within farming systems, not the systems themselves, that produces the negative aspects of modern agriculture. It is unfortunate that the system of agriculture which potentially will have the most to gain from biotechnology—the organic sector—should reject it so vigorously. This is all the more perplexing in that organic farming from its early days was a method of production that made no statement on genetics and worked with the same material available throughout 1100 agriculture. Yet, clearly, there could be some tremendous gains regarding pest and disease-resistant varieties that avoided the use of sprays.
It is unfortunate that the Soil Association, an organic certifying body of the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) should do such a disservice and utilise the distorting media tactics of the pressure groups as it tries to stop the technology's development. Bearing in mind the Soil Association's hostility to the technology, can the Minister comment on the call for a six-mile corridor between GM and organic crops?
From the farmer's viewpoint another major issue is the impact on his customers—the consumer—of labelling. The success or failure of the technology must ultimately be left to consumer choice. Given public anxiety it is bizarre that an adequate and robust system of labelling has not been addressed and implemented throughout Europe. For this to be effective, segregation must be implemented throughout the food chain. With the benefits of lessons learnt from the BSE debacle, the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) is to be congratulated on its initiative not only to guarantee segregation and clear labelling, but also on the introduction of an agricultural code of practice which it must continue to develop.
The Government agree with the Select Committee's recommendation that only products where the transgene or its products are detectable should be labelled. Can the Minister bring the House up to date on discussions with the European Commission on whether a list of products that do not require labelling is ready to be published? The Government are to be congratulated on the introduction of regulations on the labelling of GM soya and maize that apply to foodstuffs in shops, restaurants, cafes, bakers and delicatessens. However, there does not seem to be a threshold. Can the Minister update the House on the deliberations on implementation of the threshold level? Can the Minister confirm what I understand from other noble Lords: that processors and producers will be liable to prosecution should products become contaminated with a minute amount of GM soya or maize in a continuous processing system?
Farmers look to Government to set the framework of informed debate. The initiatives announced last Friday should begin to clarify the debate and must be implemented immediately. Consumers will look to new advisory bodies to co-ordinate recent developments. They also require an independent source of information regarding GM food and will look beyond the specific approval committees. That role should fall under the remit of the proposed food standards agency. That was a vital element in the Labour Party manifesto prior to the last election. Can the Minister give the House any indication when implementation of that proposal is likely?
Genetic modification in agriculture covers many issues. I have limited my remarks to the impact at the farm gate. There is anxiety about the decline in the diversity and abundance of wildlife within and surrounding farmland as farmers have adapted techniques to drive down the unit cost of production.
1101 The introduction of GM technologies must not contribute further to these declines. If farming is to continue to respond to the challenge of world competition without subsidies, which would indicate a continuing emphasis on efficiency, we must look to introduce GM crops in a more integrated approach with an emphasis on positive management for wildlife and diversity. There is no reason why the two should not work in conjunction.
It is imperative that the monitoring system takes into account any potential harms from a GM crop compared with the management system and compared with the harm caused by existing agricultural practice. It is vital that aspects which result from genetic modification are not confused with management practices. What wildlife is expected from farms and how is it best achieved?
The debate on genetic modification will have been timely if it focuses attention on the problems arising from the intensification of agriculture. The technology must be allowed to proceed, with due care as regards its implementation. I commend the committee's report to the House.
§ 3.16 p.m.
§ Lord Jopling
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer although no genetically modified plants so far as I know grow on my farm. Having spent a good deal of the past 35 years in this building as a member of various Select Committees, this was the first time since I joined your Lordships' House two years' ago that I have sat through an entire inquiry. I found it the most rewarding and fascinating experience. I, too, wish to pay a warm tribute to my noble friend Lord Reay for the way in which he steered the committee over that time. It has been admirable.
Perhaps I may make a point which I have not heard expressed in the debate. I refer to the new science of genetic modification. We must realise that so far we are only just scratching the surface of what can and will happen around the world over the decades that lie ahead. Virtually nothing has been done so far in genetic modification of animals, but that will all come. This is only the beginning of the start, if I may so put it. There are huge possibilities in the future.
Some noble Lords including my noble friend Lord Wade made the point that genetic modification is an extension of what the classical plant and animal breeders did in the past. I hate to argue with my noble friend but I do not agree. I agree rather more with the right reverend Prelate. We have here a totally new form of breeding of plants and animals. Perhaps I may cite a short extract from the magazine, New Scientist. It said that genetic modification is not an extension of classical breeding. You can cross a donkey arid a horse and get a mule. But you cannot cross a donkey with an oak tree. With GM technology you can cross all the biological boundaries. That is an important matter. However, because of that I despair of the way in which some individuals and companies have tried to explain to the public what is involved with genetic modification.
1102 The noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, made this point. In the past Monsanto has demonstrated that it is not good at public relations. It is only one of the several culprits in this field. It is a tragedy that the case for genetic modification has not been put over very much better.
In consequence, during the past year or two we have had a field day of silly journalism; ridiculous stories about "Frankenstein foods". It is so easy for smart journalists to exploit the inability of science, acknowledged several times in the debate, and to say about a food or a medicine, "This one is 100 per cent safe". You just cannot do that; it is the nature of science. Mankind has always lived with the risks involved in such developments.
However, knowing our press in this country, I believe resignedly that it is too much to ask of them not to let the evidence hinder a good scare story. That is the tragedy. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, made the point that the new science of genetic modification is moving at an unbelievably fast rate. It seems yonks ago since the Select Committee's report was published and a good deal has changed since then.
I have no difficulty whatever in endorsing the Select Committee's conclusion that on the evidence it heard there are huge benefits to agriculture, industry, consumers and the environment through the careful exploitation of this new science. On the evidence I have heard, I have no difficulty in eating foods which the regulators in this country have passed as being safe. Having said that, and acknowledging the great expertise and caution which bodies such as ACRE and other regulators have used, I am clear in my mind that I am not satisfied with the current structure of regulation to deal with the developments which we have before us and others which will come in a great torrent in the years ahead.
I was one of those members of the Select Committee who was immediately taken with the proposal of the Royal Society that there should be an overarching regulatory body to investigate the whole subject and consider carefully the risks and hazards which clearly lie within it. I was pleased that the Select Committee endorsed a recommendation similar to that of the Royal Society's.
Last week, the Government told us in their Statement that they are proposing two similar commissions to do much the same thing. I shall not argue with that; one or two committees is neither here nor there. But the Government have picked up the point that it is necessary to have better regulation of the introduction of these new forms of plant and animal life into the environment and into our food chain.
I strongly endorse what the Royal Society proposes and what the Government are doing because the evidence produced since genetically modified organisms were introduced into the food chain and the environment indicates that we have had too many near misses or near accidents. I wish to quote a few of them which cause me concern.
I begin with the extraordinary story of the genetically modified salmon. I shall not go into detail because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who has 1103 written most interesting articles on the subject, will do that. All I say is that the Scottish Office allowed those developments to be pursued in Scotland after they had been refused in North America. I find that an astonishing decision which, frankly, should never have happened. I hope that your Lordships will hear more of that from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in a few moments.
We also had a near accident, as I describe it, over genetically modified Bt maize which made this new form of maize poisonous to its major pest, the European corn borer. Perhaps I may elaborate. Around the time of the approval of Bt maize for use in the European Union, research by Swiss scientists was released suggesting that lacewing insects were killed when fed on the larvae of corn borers which had died after eating Bt maize. The research was criticised at the time because it later became apparent that the lacewing would not in practice gain access to the larva of the corn borer as it was physically inside the maize and the insect could not get at it. However, it seems to me that that research was something of a false alarm. But, at the same time, one is forced to wonder whether the regulators should not have spotted the possible dangers earlier on because Bt maize was being grown around Europe in particular at that time.
Lately, we have had other scares. A number of your Lordships have spoken about the effects of genetically modified pollen on butterflies. That was not spotted earlier, and I suggest that it should have been. The noble Lord, Lord Reay, referred to the problem of superweeds. That is another problem which has caused a certain amount of disquiet.
There will be hiccups as GM science develops. There are, and always have been, risks when new techniques are introduced into our lives and the environment. There will particularly be risks in the sheer mechanics of genetic modification. When we inject a new gene into a cell, we can never be absolutely certain which gene has been injected. We are also not absolutely sure of the effect that injection has had on the adjoining genes to the one that we are seeking to replace. That, again, means there is uncertainty in this new science. That is why we need to be so much more vigilant in future.
Like others, I congratulate the Government on refusing to be panicked by the scare stories with which we have been beset. I particularly welcome the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, last week to the Select Committee for its report. I feel just as confident about that report as I did when we finalised it at the turn of the year.
Undoubtedly, we have a situation where there is a good deal more concern about GM products in Europe compared with the United States. I return to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I believe that he is absolutely right in saying that there are here the seeds of a major trade dispute with the United States in the future. As many of your Lordships may know, I am involved with the British-American Parliamentary Group. As long ago as last November we held a meeting in London with a large group of United States congressmen. I tried to explain to them the genuine 1104 concern in Europe over the implications of introducing GM products. They must not feel that we in Europe are using this concern as a reason to erect trade barriers. We are not. There is clear anxiety here which, strangely, is not found in the United States.
I conclude by saying that I hope the Government will use every opportunity to try to make clear to the United States that we are generally confident about GM products, but our anxieties about the risks and the hazards are real. The US should be understanding about that and not rush to arms as they have done in the past with regard to things like bananas and other products which have caused misunderstandings about trade between Europe and the United States.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I, too, begin by declaring an interest in this area, though an academic rather than a financial one. For the past 15 years I have, wearing my academic hat, been tracking and writing about the development of biotechnology as a new technology. It is against that background that I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and his committee on a thorough and sensible report on this much-hyped subject.
The report endorses the precautionary principle which has underpinned the British approach to regulation and the approach adopted by the European Union under British guidance ever since we first began experiments in this area in the 1970s. In those days we were dealing with what was known as "contained use"; in other words, laboratory experiments which at that time had to be conducted in sealed rooms reached through a series of decontamination chambers. But it was rapidly apparent that that degree of caution in relation to this new science of test tube experiments in cloning was unnecessary. Even to this day laboratories which undertake genetic engineering are required to notify their local health and safety authorities that they are undertaking these experiments and to observe a strict code of conduct.
These experiments are now commonplace, both in academic and pharmaceutical company laboratories. They have helped to produce a new generation of biopharmaceutical drugs and vaccines which are beginning to come into the market place. They have been readily accepted because of their obvious utility. I have yet to hear somebody reject a new drug because it has been genetically engineered, yet many of the new drugs being launched at present, and that are very effective, are derived from this source.
The problem with genetically engineering plants for agriculture is that at some point we have to move from test tube experiments, beyond the laboratory and out into the environment. The question that then arises is not whether the plant will survive and exhibit the traits expected, but whether the transgenic characteristics of the plant will cross-pollinate with other wild species leading, perhaps, to uncontrollable and unexpected developments in the natural environment. That is why field experiments have been careful to cut off the flower 1105 heads before they seed, and also to curtain off the experiments from other crops. To date, that is the point we have reached with experiments in this area.
There have been no commercial plantings in this country of genetically modified crops, and we are still two to three years away from being able to do so. We still need to see whether large-scale plantings have any adverse effects on the crop itself or, which is more likely, on the environment. As the report sensibly remarks, unless we carry out such field trials, we cannot tell whether they will have adverse effects.
In this regard, I should like to join others in saying that it is most unfortunate that those companies which are pioneering these new techniques are pushing hardest in the herbicide-resistant crops in the Round-up Ready maize and wheat crops. Given the wealth of wildlife in the British countryside and our awareness of the degree to which we have already lost birds and wild flowers to herbicides, pesticides and other intensive farming techniques. it seems to me that we need this new type of product, which still requires intensive doses of broad spectrum glyphosate herbicides, like a hole in the head.
There are three issues in the report in particular that I should like to raise. The first was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling; namely, the lack of symmetry between developments in the US and those in Europe. As the report makes clear, there is now a very considerable gap between the regulatory processes in the US and in Europe in relation to GMOs. This arises because, again, as the report makes clear, the US procedures look only to the protection of agriculture and not to the protection of the environment. As a result, we now find ourselves in a position where we are importing considerable quantities of genetically manipulated maize and soya, which are entering the food chain as animal feed and as ingredients in many manufactured foodstuffs, such as cakes and biscuits.
However, as we discovered with beef hormones, we cannot just say to the US, "Sorry, we prefer not to eat these products", or that we would prefer to offer people the choice of being able to eat them if they want to and, therefore, we require separate labelling of them. For the WTO, we have to be able to prove that they are scientifically a hazard to the health of ourselves or our animals, which they are probably not. But we cannot yet be 100 per cent sure of this and the majority of the population do not wish to take that risk at present.
At this point I have to say that I was somewhat disturbed, when studying the testing that took place on the Round-up Ready soya beans, to discover that the toxicity testing involved had been conducted on plants that had not themselves been treated with Round-up. As we know that this particular herbicide changes the chemical composition of the plant, surely we would wish to be quite clear that what we are being offered is not toxic in itself. However, to refuse to import such products on those grounds, or even to ask for them to be shipped separately and labelled, would be judged as an unfair barrier to trade under the present WTO rules. Moreover, as with bananas and with beef hormones, if the EU takes this line, we shall find ourselves locked in a trade war with the US.
1106 I know that I am not the only person in your Lordships' House who feels that, as things stand at present, the WTO position is too strongly pro-trade and pro-US. Countries should be able to decide for themselves what levels of risk they are willing to accept and not have these decisions imposed upon them by a trade organisation which does not have, nor aspires to have, the confidence with which to judge the wider matters of the environment. The WTO system needs to be reversed—the burden of proof should lie on the producer countries to provide the strong scientific evidence that their products are not harmful rather than vice versa, as is the case at present.
Moreover, it is also important that the WTO system is not allowed to ride roughshod over other agreements, such as the 1992 convention on biodiversity, negotiated post-Rio, under the aegis of which a biosafety protocol dealing with the issue of the international movement of GMOs had been negotiated. The US is not a signatory to the convention. It is significant that, like the US, the WTO does not observe the agreements negotiated under the convention. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will, in the context of the millennium round of the WTO, be seeking to amend the WTO rules to ensure that they respect multilateral environmental agreements.
The second issue which I wish to raise is what I call the seed corn issue; namely, the farmers' right to retain seed for replanting. As paragraph 86 of the report makes clear, this is not seen as a problem by the American Soy Bean Association, which is used to using hybrid seed varieties and buying fresh seed each year. Even so, I can assure your Lordships that where the seed is not hybrid but is genetically modified, Monsanto for one is insistent that at the farm there is strict segregation of the GM product from other species so that it can ensure that none of the maize is retained as seed corn by the farmers that use it. This makes all the US claims about not being able to segregate at source somewhat disingenuous.
However, the issue that really concerns me here is the impact of these developments on third world countries. This issue has been raised by a number of other speakers in this debate. As the report makes clear, if used properly there are benefits to be gained by the third world from this new technology, but not, I suggest, from the route of hybrid seeds and the collection of royalties. As the third world charities are making clear, their problems are not so much a lack of food production as a lack of competent distribution systems. We must be careful not to destroy that which they have. When we see the havoc wrought on the British countryside by the monoculture regime of the CAP, we must think carefully about what kind of regime we want to export.
Finally, I wish to raise an issue closer to home. The report which we are debating today—with which we largely concur—suggests a continuation of trials subject to tight risk assessment analyses, and then, if we go forward with commercial release, continued monitoring and assessment. As I have made clear, this precautionary approach is one with which I am very much in agreement. However, I am worried about whether MAFF and the other institutions in this country have 1107 the capabilities to undertake these tasks. I bring to your Lordships' attention a statement that Professor Beringer made which is mentioned in a recent report of a Select Committee in the other place on the scientific advisory system in relation to GM foods. Your Lordships will remember that Professor Beringer is the chairman of the ACRE (the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment). He told the committee that,nine people…have to deal with all the work to do with releases in this country, all the interactions with Europe and all the international work and it is just not enough. It has not been enough for nearly three years now…People are working extraordinarily long hours; they are terribly over-taxed".This report, and the Government's response to it, add considerably to the requirements for proper risk assessment and proper monitoring procedures. Yet simultaneously we have run down our scientific Civil Service and cut back on R&D. Total MAFF expenditure on science, engineering and technology—the so-called SET expenditure—fell between 1986–87 and 1998–99 by 45 per cent. Its research budget fell by 28 per cent. Yet reliable press reports now indicate that the MAFF R&D budget is to be cut by another £13 million over the next three years.
It is all very well setting up new committees and asking for improved risk assessments and continued monitoring, but that is useless if we do not have the numbers or competence of staff to fulfil these requirements. I hope that we can get an assurance from the Minister today that the Government will staff these positions adequately, and that in doing so they will not contravene the requirements of the working time directive, and also that at a time when MAFF should be expanding rather than cutting back on its research budget, we shall see an increase, not a cut, in its R&D budget when the new Forward Look projections are published next month.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, we are discussing a highly important subject. I was pleased to sit on the committee which considered the issue in such great depth. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has already "blown my cover", I should declare an interest as the chairman of English Nature, the Government's wildlife adviser. I shall not talk at all about the food safety issues of GM foods or the ethical issues. However, I shall talk about the potential impacts on wildlife—I stress the word "potential"—of growing GM crops. I shall finish by saying a little about the issue of public concern.
In committee and in talking about GM crops, I had considerable difficulty with semantics. We hear much about "could" and "might"—GM crops "could" do this and "might" do that—and about the potential risks and potential benefits they might deliver. The noble Lords, Lord Gisborough and Lord Wade of Chorlton, talked about there being no evidence of environmental risks. Equally, there is no evidence of environmental benefits. The reason there is no evidence is because comparatively little research has been done.
Perhaps I may speak briefly about the environmental background against which the debate is taking place. We are talking about a 30-year period over which we have 1108 seen declines of as much as 70 per cent in common farmland birds. The skylark is down by 75 per cent; the song thrush by 66 per cent. Those birds were once extremely common in the countryside. It is only a signal of the decline in biodiversity elsewhere; in farmed landscape, in plants and in insects. That is the kind of background against which the technology is being introduced.
We are now beginning to see some of the research put in place that will eliminate potential environmental risks and potential environmental benefits. I shall not go into detail about the potential environmental risks. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, gave an excellent account of the very good work being done by the Game Conservancy to enumerate from its long experience what could be the risks that arise from the inappropriate use of this technology. I shall simply enumerate the classes of risks that could occur. There is the dreaded superweed and the issue of genetic creep into other plants that could create herbicide-resistant weeds; there is the issue of competition, the creation of more vigorous strains of plants that could out-compete native plants; there is the issue I designate as the "pineapples on top of the Cairngorms" whereby new strains of plants with improved resistance to cold, drought or poor soil are created that could grow in areas where previously crops would not grow.
The noble Earl gave us the benefit of his conservancy experience when he talked about perhaps the most important issue of cleaner and cleaner fields—the potential for the technology to create fields that are virtually weed and insect free. Alas, one man's weed and one man's pest is wildlife's valuable food. Were that to happen, crop fields could potentially become biodiversity free. I stress that we are talking about the potential impact. Remarkably little scientific research has been carried out. I am pleased that the field and farm scale trials will be going ahead over the next few years.
Perhaps I may mention another issue of semantics, the dreaded word "moratorium". It is unhelpful to call for a moratorium in the commercial exploitation of these crops. There should be adequate field and farm scale trials, properly controlled and properly monitored, to assess the impact of these crops on the environment before full commercial release is permitted. The trials should continue for as long as is necessary to gather the scientific evidence and to allow thereafter a suitable assessment of that evidence. That does not only need to be done for the crops the subject of the current field and farm scale trials but for all successive new crops which emerge as the technology develops, as it undoubtedly will. A call for a moratorium is an unhelpful generalisation.
One other element that the field and farm scale trials need to illuminate with proper scientific evidence is management of the crops, not simply their design and genetic modification. Much of the impact of genetic technology in crop production will come from the way in which real-life farmers manage those crops, and the field scale trials need to illuminate that.
The SCIMAC—supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops—voluntary code of practice, which was recently issued, aims to lay down some guidelines 1109 for farmers in the management of these crops during the field and farm scale trials. I believe that the code is flawed in two ways. It does not in real terms address sufficient management provisions to ensure that biodiversity will not be affected by the crops. It may be sufficient for the current very small-scale field trials, but as the trial process becomes bigger over the next two or three years I do not believe the SCIMAC code will be adequate.
Moreover, in the longer term, when we are talking about average farmers on average farms not subject to trial provisions, there needs to be something stronger than a voluntary code if the management conditions about pesticides, rotations and the availability of sacrificial strips for wildlife, a whole variety of management conditions, are to be properly taken care of.
The history of agriculture, alas, in regard to voluntary codes of practice is not good in terms of either the knowledge of farmers about the codes or compliance with them. We learnt from bitter experience that we had to introduce statutory regulations for the management of pesticides in the farm environment. In many cases genetically modified crops are the equivalent of such substances, except that here the substances are engineered in rather than applied after. Therefore, the regulatory framework that we can happily work with for pesticides should be introduced for genetically modified crops.
I am very encouraged that the Government are beginning to recognise that there are genuine potential risks for the environment from the use of genetically modified crops and that we need to bottom out the research, taking account of not only the direct effects on biodiversity but the secondary, cumulative effects. The extension of the role of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment in this respect and the addition to it of a wider range of expertise in biodiversity are very much to be welcomed. That is a sign that this is being recognised as a real issue, a point endorsed by Professor Sir Robert May, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, very recently. Let us get the science of the potential risks sorted out rather than continue to talk about what might happen.
Equally, we have to do that for the potential benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, talked about the possibility of genetically modified crops meaning less use of herbicides and pesticides. One thing we need to get clear about pesticides and herbicides and their impact on biodiversity is that it is not simply a question of volume; it is also a question of impact. The use of broad spectrum herbicides on the growing crop during the growing season has a greater impact on biodiversity than the use of selective herbicides and pesticides outside the growing season, particularly in the case of herbicides. We need now to have real research on the biodiversity impact in order to be able to understand the impact of these crops used in practice, in the field, with real applications of herbicides arid pesticides, to understand exactly how we could develop for the future crops that had real wildlife benefits.
It is disappointing that absolutely no work is being undertaken, either by the Government or by the crop companies themselves, to engineer crops specifically in 1110 order to bring positive wildlife benefits. There are no official or company research programmes directed to developing crops which will have clear environmental and biodiversity benefits rather than simply agricultural benefits.
The work in the United States which is often quoted in this respect is not applicable here. We have heard that the United States agriculture system is very different from ours. A very small proportion of the land surface there is under agricultural production, and most of the wildlife and biodiversity is in separate very Large-scale areas set aside particularly for wildlife, in the form of national parks and so on.
In this country agriculture and wildlife have to co-exist. Seventy-five per cent of our land surface is under some form of agricultural production, so land for agriculture is land for wildlife. We cannot segregate the two. When the Minister responds, I would ask him to dwell a little on how measures could be introduced to encourage crop companies to develop work on crops which might bring positive environmental benefits.
A second area of potential benefit from GM crops is increased yields. As these crops have higher yields, one could therefore say that less land would he under agricultural production and more land would be available for biodiversity. That is a potential benefit but it does not necessarily follow and certainly has not done so over the past 30 years. Our experience with increasing agricultural intensification has been that more land rather than less land has been brought into agricultural production. I ask the Minister to consider a scheme whereby farmers growing GM crops which have higher yields in an intensive fashion are asked, and perhaps are required, to provide land out of intensive production to enable the wildlife populations which may not survive within the crops to survive adjacent to the crops.
I want to conclude on three issues which to some extent follow on from the question of how we can get proper scientific evidence about the potential risks and benefits of these technologies. The first concerns organic production. For a variety of reasons we are seeing in this country a huge increase in the public's wish to buy organic foods, yet considerable concerns are being raised by the organic movement about the possibility of continuing organic production if contamination from GM crops occurs. Greater and greater separation distances are proposed as a result of pollen spread. If we are genuinely talking about organic farmers not being able to survive GM-free without six-mile separation zones, we are talking about the end of organic production in this country. I would ask the Minister to be more positive than the Government were in their response to the committee's report. They said:The Government is concerned that the introduction of GM crops into agriculture should not compromise organic production. It has therefore urged the proponents of growing GM crops here in the United Kingdom to address the issue of the interface with other crops, including organic crops, through specifying separation distances and consultation with neighbouring farms where appropriate".In view of the public's growing wish to be able to choose to buy organic foods, that is a rather flabby reply.
1111 One of the issues that is raised whenever this subject is discussed is whether we are turning our guns on the right issues. It is asserted that non-GM intensive agriculture already impacts on biodiversity; and so if GM crops have the same effect, why are we criticising GM crops? I wish to make two points on that assertion. First, GM crops have greater potential for even cleaner insect and weed free crops as a result of broad spectrum herbicides applied within the growing season.
More importantly, we must learn the lessons of history. It would be bizarre if we had 30 years of experience of the impact of intensive farming on biodiversity but we chose simply to say, "Alas, if new technologies are arising, we will continue to allow those impacts to happen rather than learn from the experience of history." I am not saying that we want to stop GM crops as a result of this history. I simply believe that we have to learn from the scientific evidence as to the real risks and how they can be mitigated and have more application to how science can produce real benefits.
I conclude with some comments about public confidence and concern. In a letter dated 4th May, Sir Robert May wrote to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about his "tentative taxonomy of worries." His tentative taxonomy of worries consisted first of food safety; secondly, of the issue of genes leaking out; and, thirdly, of the acceleration of agricultural intensification. Sir Robert says that he is most concerned about that third issue.
Public concerns are often about all three of those issues in a rather non-specific way; all in a rather hot-house atmosphere that is highly charged as a result of BSE and other food scares. The Government must not deal with this public concern simply as a public affairs issue, thinking that if only the pressure groups and the media would not go on about these issues, everything would quieten down and go away. A long-term systematic effort will be needed to rebuild public confidence. One way of doing that would be to take on board the concerns expressed by experts about the impact on wildlife, and to address them systematically and thoroughly through a process of risk assessment and proper research. That is the only way that a proper scientific basis of public confidence in GM technology can be re-established.
§ 4.3 p.m.
The Earl of Clanwilliam
My Lords, this is the first time I have had the pleasure of speaking after the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I thank her for her kind remarks about organic farming which have forestalled much of what I had to say.
If genetic modification of plants providing our staple diet can be proved to provide a sustainable environment we shall have gained a remarkable power to reverse the state of all things natural at the will of scientists. The benefits are clearly presented in the admirably concise report of the committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Reay. I join in the congratulations that he and his committee have received and make particular mention of my noble friend's forthright and clear opening speech.
1112 The benefits, which extend beyond agriculture, to medicine, vaccines and possibly to fossil fuel replacements are not to be ignored but are not relevant to this debate. For myself, I am not particularly concerned with the impact on food, which has become a scare issue. However, I am concerned about the environment. Its importance to society overrides all other benefits.
There are problems of contamination of neighbouring fields by drifting pollen and natural fertilisation by bees and butterflies which can have a 5 per cent. chance of successful pollination at a range of 4 kilometres. That is somewhat less than the six miles called for by the Soil Association, although no doubt I shall be called to account for mentioning it.
My noble friend Lord Reay suggested that 6 miles was a wrecking demand. Perhaps it is, but it also indicates the concern felt by those who farm organically. It represents a serious concern for the Soil Association and all organic or extensive farmers. The question is: how can such systems be provided with a ring fence in our small and crowded island? The field trials may no doubt provide an answer in due course.
Nature does not react immediately but slowly and inexorably, and we do not know what rogue and volunteer weeds will have established themselves in a generation's time, or whether we will be able to control them. Much mention has been made of scare stories. This is not a scare story, but merely a call for a look at the precautionary principle. Indeed, as for concern, the general public can well wonder when it is realised that Cornell University has issued a report justifying these very fears.
The current process is self-admittedly called a shotgun approach, indicating that an unknown number of gene packages end up in unknown destinations in the genome of the plant. Such a random system precludes any determination of the possible side effects. It appears that the scientists are all satisfied with what I consider to be a rather dangerous state of affairs. We have the greatest scientists in the world in this country. Professor Beringer has been mentioned. He is, beyond dispute. But the scientific community has not been all that successful in the past 30 or 40 years. Mention has already been made of DDT. What about aldrin, deldrin, organophospates, not to mention the pharmaceutical problems arising now with the antibiotic resistance? Scientists are part of our whole system but they are not always right; one has to be extremely careful.
Nevertheless, scientists can be extremely accurate in incorporating a terminator gene which will prevent the seed from reproducing. That is ironically called protecting their intellectual property rights. It may be intellectual but I am fairly sure that it is immoral. Selling non-reproducible seeds to the third world farmer is a despicable trick. Meanwhile, the shotgun gene can come from anywhere in the living world—plant, animal or microbe. It can cross the biological boundary. In that case, we have dangerous mutations, as already shown with deformed fish and mice and many other mishaps, including the news in today's press of accelerated growth of the cloned sheep, Dolly.
1113 The problem is international. We now know that 70 mil lion acres will be planted with GM crops in the American continent next year which, incidentally, is nearly three times the total agricultural land in the United Kingdom. There will be enormous benefits from increased yields, lower pesticide crops and easier harvesting. It will be possible to throw fertiliser onto the fields immediately afterwards and repeat the process ad infinitum. It is all magic. Hey presto. Suddenly, we have discovered how to beat nature and its inhabitants for ever. I do not believe it.
The catch is in the monoculture system, the use of fertiliser and pesticides and the condition of the soil. It is a precept of organic farming that monoculture agriculture and a sustainable biodiversity are mutually exclusive. We know that modern intensive farming methods require chemicals that have a reduced effect over a period of years so that ever-stronger and more unpleasant concoctions have to be produced by the agri-chemical industry to overcome the flagging effects of last year's products. With the monoculture system in particular, the need for increased supplementary chemicals is typical and cumulative. The degradation of the soil will demand ever-more powerful chemicals. The effect on the environment will be equally cumulative.
The report of my noble friend Lord Reay is sanguine about the effects for organic farmers. I look forward to the next report of his committee which has recently examined organic farming. As I indicated, organic farmers are very concerned about the issue.
As many noble Lords have said, the problem is international. It is unlikely that the World Trade Organisation will allow the EU to ban imports for long and our own farmers must be straining at the leash to take part in that bonanza. My fear is that as we have a relatively enclosed, indeed dense, environmental area in this country, there can be serious disruption of other farming methods. We do not have the wide open spaces of the American continent and it may be that that will be a deciding factor in the final argument. Genetic modification is a scientific juggernaut, developed by chemical giants to increase their hold on farming communities which have become evermore industrialised over the past 40 years. It does not seem possible to stop it unless there is international action, which is unlikely in view of the stranglehold that the US can develop over the world's cereal market or crop, which must be the next and immediate target.
This is a vexed question. My noble friend's report has clarified the issue remarkably well. However, as noble Lords will accept, I remain only slightly less alarmed.
§ 4.9 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, I was glad to be able to take part in this interesting and challenging inquiry. I, too, should like to pay tribute to our chairman, our specialist adviser and our Clerks for the valuable way in which they guided our considerations.
I agreed with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said about the handling of this question in Europe. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wade, I was appalled by our meeting with Commission representatives in 1114 Brussels. The noble Lord described the meeting as disappointing. I would describe it as truly dreadful. It was sobering to think that the people to whom we were talking decide agricultural policy throughout Europe.
Our report was criticised as putting too much emphasis on the potential benefits of GM technology. But we have already seen the great benefits of genetic modification in the production of medicines, notably insulin for diabetes. We did spell out and emphasise the risks and the need for caution. On the very first page of the report we said that,there are serious potential hazards and risks which must be addressed by proper regulation".We joined with the Royal Society in recommending a stronger regulatory body. The Government have now established two commissions and I welcome that.
The report covers the health questions fully on pages 32 to 34. I was persuaded that GM foods are not in themselves harmful, although I am glad that we agreed to call for the swift phasing out of antibiotic resistance marker genes. This month we have received the authoritative report on the health aspect by Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert May.
In relation to the environment there are real problems. I fully agree with the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on those questions. I would only add that we need to consider the effect of new hybrids arising from genetically modified crops, which can cross with wild plants and may in due course reduce biodiversity among wild plants. That would be a serious matter.
The best summary that I have seen of the environmental problems is in the discussion paper produced by Dr. Parrish and other members of the Biotechnology Safety Unit of the DETR for the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment. Its title is, The Commercial use of Genetically Modified Crops in the United Kingdom: the Potential Wider Impact on Farmland Wildlife. I commend it to the House. It is an admirable report. It makes it clear that any possibly risks from GM crops are on top of the enormous damage to farmland wildlife that has already been done by the intensification of agriculture. As the Government are committed under the UK biodiversity action plan to preserve numbers of farmland birds, plants and insects, it is important that that question should be addressed.
I have a real concern about the fact that this technology is industry-led and that so much of the research is conducted by commercial companies which are primarily interested in profits. I was very concerned when I read that the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge had been bought by Monsanto. We deal with that matter in a very gingerly way in paragraph 85 of the report.
Like other noble Lords, I am worried about the so-called "terminator technology". I note that no less an authority than Sir Ghillean Prance, who is director at Kew, stated in a recent article that,Fortunately, because of much protest, the use of terminator technology has been delayed and hopefully will never be appliedI very much hope that he is right.
1115 I wish to raise one question in the debate: transgenic fish, specifically transgenic salmon. I must declare an interest as the Chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association and Vice-President of the Atlantic Salmon Trust. I have given the Minister detailed and comprehensive notice of what I plan to say and I hope he will be able to give me a full and reassuring reply. He has kindly sent me a letter, which I received this morning and for which I am grateful. In it I am glad that he says that the Government take my concerns on the matter very seriously. However, it does not address some of the key matters I have raised.
Nearly all our report is on plants, but one of our recommendations in paragraph 156 on page 44 is on fish, about which some of us had serious worries. It is short and I will read it to your LordshipsFish are being modified for rapid growth and cold tolerance and further modifications are in development. Once released, it would be impossible to recapture a fish or to control its breeding (unless sterile). Fish do not respect national boundaries and we would be very concerned if sea or river releases were to take place here or abroad. We strongly recommend that there be an international agreement prohibiting such actions. Any trials or commercialisation must be in containment and not released into the sea or freshwater network".We were concerned about the experiments on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll, about which the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, spoke earlier. They are described on page 356 of our evidence volume. As he said, we were particularly concerned about the fact that it appeared that this experiment, which has now been discontinued, was not apparently allowed in North America, but was nevertheless being carried out in Scotland.
This is all about the technology which has been developed by an American company called A/F Protein Incorporated. The company is putting into salmon two genes. One is an anti-freeze gene derived from the winter flounder which will allow salmon to survive in icy waters much further north than they already do, so that they can be bred in sea cages far north of Passamaquoddy Bay, which is at the moment the farthest they can go northward. The other is a growth promoter gene derived from the chinook, one of the Pacific race of salmon, joined with a promoter from the ocean pout. It causes them to grow throughout the year, whereas normally wild salmon do not grow in the winter months. Therefore they grow far more rapidly, up to 50 times the speed of ordinary salmon, and they grow to a monstrous size.
I was worried that the Government did not respond specifically to our recommendation, particularly as I had expressed to MAFF beforehand the hope that they would do so. I would now like to ask the Minister this: do the Government agree with our recommendation? If not, why not? If so, what are they doing to bring about an international agreement prohibiting releases to the environment? Such an agreement is urgently needed.
Soon after we produced our report, there appeared a press report on 10th March to the effect that A/F Protein were producing about 100,000 transgenic salmon which they propose to sell within two years to salmon farmers all over the world. On 18th March I wrote to MAFF 1116 saying that if the press report was accurate—and I urged MAFF to check it—then I thought the matter should be referred to the Government's Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review Group which is now sitting under the chairmanship of Professor Lynda Warren. I thought that they should institute urgent talks with the United States and Canadian authorities to determine what actions are necessary to ensure that there is no risk of the escape of non-sterile transgenic salmon to the open seas.
Can the Minister say whether the press report is accurate? If so, have the Government asked the review group to consider the whole question? Have they had talks, as I have proposed, with the United States and Canadian authorities? If so, what are the results? If they have not had such talks I very much hope that they will initiate them without delay. I do not believe that it is adequate to leave it to ICES to consider the problem. That body is concerned with releases, which I do not believe are planned at present. I am concerned about escapes, not releases.
Essentially, I have two worries: first, the likely public response to the sale of genetically modified salmon. The consequences of a scare for the fish farming industry in Scotland could be calamitous. I hope that the Minister is in touch with his noble friend Lord Sewel on this matter. Secondly, I am concerned about the possibility, indeed the probability, if commercial exploitation of transgenic salmon is followed up, of escapes into the wild. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) considered this matter in 1996 and said:If such salmon are used in existing cage technologies they will inevitably escape to the wild and there are good reasons to believe that the inserted genes, which may be from other species, will be transmitted to the wild stocks. There are great concerns about the effects of transgenic salmon which pose a completely new and significant risk to the conservation and management of the wild stocks, and which scientists believe could destabilise aquatic ecosystems. The UK Government's independent panel on sustainable development has stated that the next major environmental or health disaster is likely to be caused by genetically modified organisms".I ask the Minister to urge his department to take this problem more seriously and to keep this House and bodies like the Salmon and Trout Association and the Atlantic Salmon Trust fully informed of developments and of its thinking.
§ 4.22 p.m.
The Earl of Haddington
My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak in the gap. I should like to add to the tribute already paid to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and his committee for producing this report on genetically modified crops and tabling this debate today.
I am a farmer and keen naturalist. I have recently asked the Government a variety of Questions on genetically modified crops, in particular on the control of genetically modified material escaping from trial plots of oilseed rape. My concern arises because there are many wild plants in the environment of the same brassica family as oilseed rape. It is very easy for GM pollen to cross-pollinate with these plants and imbue 1117 them with the same properties to be found in genetically modified crops, for example resistance to pests and such like.
However, there is another concern: damage to bees. Last year it was believed that the intestines of bees had been affected by genetically modified material, in particular from trial plots of oilseed rape. I have not received a clear Answer on the point, but I believe that research continues. I should be grateful if the Minister could provide an update on that matter. One of the Questions that I have tabled is concerned with the gap between a genetically modified trial plot and plants in the natural environment and other non-modified crops. The reply I received was that there was a sufficient gap of, I believe, 10 feet between those crops. A bee has a range of some five miles. A 10-foot gap is not sufficient.
I am a beekeeper. Another concern is that apiarists who attempt to sell honey as an organic item have now to discover whether there are trial plots in their area. If there are, they can no longer sell their produce as a purely organic item. I heard recently of a farmer who had to dump some quantity of his honey because he cannot now sell it.
However, there are many benefits to be derived from the genetic modification of crops. I am not out to knock this brilliant scientific progress. There is benefit to be derived from obtaining the nitrogen fixing gene from clover or maize and crossing it into wheat and barley, thus negating the need to spread large quantities of nitrogen on the fields, most of which finds its way into watercourses. That would clean up many of our river systems and be of great benefit to the trout and insects which live therein.
I promised that I would speak for only two minutes. I thank noble Lords for listening.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, this has been a fascinating and informative debate. I greatly enjoyed listening to so many speakers. I rather suspect that listening today will prove more profitable than talking. However, today is the first opportunity I have had to speak in your Lordships' House since attempting to transform myself into a democratically modified being. Unfortunately I failed but, if I read paragraph 12 of the report correctly, I have to keep trying.
I congratulate the committee on an authoritative and well-balanced report and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, on bringing it before the House. Fifty per cent of the speakers today are members of the committee. I believe that virtually every member of the committee has spoken. Far from being repetitive, each one has been more informative than the previous speaker.
It is a timely debate. It is not often that the publication of a report coincides with a major issue bubbling into public attention with its concomitant press attention. Therefore this debate is most useful. The subject is a major issue which is almost a metaphor for our time. We have all the ingredients: the promise of great benefits; unknown technology about which the public are somewhat frightened; and the tension of 1118 scientific development versus environmental matters. We have the challenges to morality and ethics. We have profitability, public disquiet and consequent media attention. The way in which we resolve that will be a model for many problems which will he put before us as legislators in the years to come.
There has been much comment about the role of the press as regards GMOs. I find it unhelpful when the tabloid press use wild language to describe a difficult issue. However, it is dangerous to swat aside the press and the press comment because, after all, it is the expression of the grave concerns that exist among the public.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. Perhaps if he takes a look at the Press Gallery he will see the intense interest which the press are showing in your Lordships' debate today.
§ Viscount Thurso
I am grateful to my noble friend. Clearly, today we are better served by quality than quantity. I suspect that the public perceive a pattern with GMOs similar to that which emerged with previous advances. They begin with a great scientific discovery, and it is nearly always a British one. There is then an appearance on "Tomorrow's World". There is then exploitation and great promise and gradually the problems begin to become apparent. There are the unintended consequences, and suddenly there is public concern and distrust. We have seen that with the use of pesticides, some drugs and to a certain extent with the nuclear industry.
The result is that some real and genuine benefits have been lost as a result of too much optimism and not enough precaution. We must avoid that with GMOs. It is imperative that we regain and retain public trust. I believe that it is a question of less haste, more speed. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, mentioned belt and braces. He felt that there already was belt and braces, but I would say that we have the belt but we need the braces. However, if we are to retain public trust which will allow us to go on and exploit the benefits, we must be careful how we proceed.
Listening to the debate today, it seemed to me that, broadly speaking, the matters we are discussing split into four areas. They are ethics, human health, the environment and management. The first three are points of principle and the last one is a point of practicality. I shall deal first with ethics. The right reverend Prelate made a powerful and strong contribution to our debate He said that not everything that can be done should be, done, which is a good guide in examining these matters.
Clearly, in ethical terms there is a wide variety of views ranging from those who, for perfectly justifiable religious reasons, are and always will be violently opposed to those who are merely uncomfortable and through to those who are perfectly happy. However, it is clear that the debate must not focus on the area of scientific knowledge. Simply because science says that something is possible and safe does not necessarily mean that it should proceed. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for having raised that point. The ethical value of what we do needs to be explored further.
1119 As regards human health, if anyone were ever to say that such and such an action or chemical is highly dangerous to humans, no one in your Lordships' House today would seek to introduce it. We would all ban it forthwith. The problem is that there is a scarcity of knowledge and that leads to argument. However, we must not confuse the absence of knowledge with the absence of risk. One aspect which concerns me, and which has been mentioned several times today, is antibiotic resistance markers. I would very much like to see the abandonment of these other than for laboratory use. We are already becoming aware that the over-use of antibiotics in farming generally and in medicine is leading to the arrival of superbugs. What has been a great wonder in medicine is in danger of becoming "has been" technology. Whenever we come into the area of antibiotics, we must be extremely careful.
It is up to producers of GMOs to demonstrate a reasonable degree of safety rather than for those who may be concerned to demonstrate where the dangers are. In that regard I welcome the Statement by the Government on 21st May at col. 549 of Hansard which announced the setting up of the Human Genetics Commission and the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission. Clearly, the message that we must be better safe than sorry is being heard.
The biggest worry is in relation to the damage that can be done to the environment. That has been clear from listening to your Lordships today. Most of the debate has centred on crops. I was fascinated by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who spoke about salmon. I saw exactly the same press release. Being involved in Scottish matters at that time I wrote to the Secretary of State at the Scottish Office. I received from him a reassuring letter. He categorically stated that he both had the powers and would use them, to prevent any import of transgenically modified fish from Canada. However, he left open a chink which implied that if these fish had been imported elsewhere into the European Union they could then be imported from the EU into the United Kingdom. I have written to ask for his views on that. I am still awaiting a response. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, and I are clearly thinking along exactly the same lines, although he has done a great deal more work, for which we are all grateful.
We are both concerned about the danger of the release into the wild, by accident, of animals, particularly fish, which have the risk of dramatically changing the natural DNA strains of wild fish. That is an extremely dangerous area. I also have concerns in relation to animals. There really are worries there. Inevitably, there will be escapees; there always are. How we deal with that will clearly be a problem.
Our debate today centred, in the main, around crops. The damage there is somewhat less obvious than perhaps with animals and fish, simply because they are less accessible. There is also much greater scope for the law of unintended consequences. I do not know how many noble Lords listened to Radio 4 this morning. They may recall Dolly the sheep who was cloned a few years ago. It has been discovered that as the cells from which she was cloned were six years old at the time, 1120 she thinks that instead of being three, she is nine. So, she is both three and nine at the moment. Apparently, there is not a problem at present but there may be one in future. That kind of lack of knowledge needs to be corrected to enable us to see where these experiments will lead us.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, said we had a duty to enhance the environment, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Looking at ways in which we can use genetic diversity to enhance the environment is extremely important. My noble friend Baroness Sharp spoke about the management issues of crops. There is a huge danger. We simply do not have sufficient evidence. We must therefore work on the precautionary principle.
I turn to management issues. Proper regulation is the key. It is essential that all these areas are properly regulated. I welcome the initiatives made by the Government with the creation of the two new bodies. However, overall, there are so many bodies now involved in looking at various areas of genetic modification and GMOs that we need to ensure they are properly co-ordinated.
We want to ensure that there is public accountability and transparency. It is vital that the public see what we are doing. A further item that has not been picked up in this debate is the question of liability. Undoubtedly there will be damage of some kind, somewhere. At the moment it is unclear in legal terms who is liable for what damage. I suggest that issue must be clarified.
Labelling has been much mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, a fellow hotelier and restaurateur, mentioned it. I am totally in favour of labelling of products—in fact, I was completely in favour of it until my chef came to explain the difficulties of it in relation to restaurants. I am now having second thoughts about how we deal with restaurant menus. But clearly, labelling to enable people to make a proper choice is extremely important.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the question of a moratorium. I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said that it was unhelpful. The problem lies with the semantics of the word "moratorium". We on these Benches are advocating that no commercial exploitation should take place until such time as sufficient trials and experiments have been undertaken to give the necessary confidence to all of us, and the public in particular, that commercial exploitation is not going to have a negative impact. Therefore, it is not so much a question of whether there is a timeframe of one year, five years or 10 years; it is that there is sufficient time for the experiments to take place so that we have the knowledge before we proceed. On that basis it would seem highly unrealistic that we should proceed before 2002.
The question of organic food was raised, and again I declare an interest since we have a small organic farm at Champneys. Clearly, one of the ways in which farming can make greater profits, if not greater yields, is through producing organic and natural food. It is worth bearing in mind, when one looks at fanning in the United Kingdom, that in world terms we are not hugely competitive and many other people can produce the food 1121 that we produce much more cheaply. If we removed every single subsidy from UK farming, it would have a very torrid time. One of the interesting things about organic and natural produce is that it can be produced in today's market climate at a profit. So we must be careful, purely on grounds of profits, how we deal with that.
Finally, another extremely important matter is the question of the looming trade war with the United States. I am very fond of all my American cousins and my American wife, but I have noticed that the Americans are often materialistic and sometimes quite naïve in their approach to life. They have a somewhat simplistic view that is black and white, and they do not see the grey areas. Like the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, I would be very concerned that the Americans view this simply as an excuse for us to have trade controls and do not realise the genuine anxieties that there are in this country. As my noble friend Lady Sharp said, it is imperative that the World Trade Organisation understands that there is more to international relations than simply trade.
Biotechnology clearly offers great potential; of that I have no doubt. It has been a great British scientific success. There is potential for its exploitation and for profits. But all those would count for nothing if the price we paid was damage to our environment. As legislators we owe it to the public above all to regain and then retain their trust. In that, precaution, belt and braces, is absolutely vital. With regard to GMOs, they must be guilty until demonstrated innocent.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Lord Luke
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Reay for introducing such a fascinating debate, ranging from toxic potatoes to monstrous salmon, with a great amount in between.
We on these Benches welcomed the report of the Select Committee when it was published. We do so again today and congratulate my noble friend Lord Reay and his committee on once again proving how efficiently and well the Select Committees of this House do their work. That is the only thing today that is proven. We can never be absolutely sure. Therefore, caution, balance, common sense and judgment are all required.
Life moves on, and so does this debate concerning genetically modified foods. It could be that next week there will be a new development, or the week after; or, indeed, the week after that. We must all be aware of that possibility. One of the most important factors in this debate is the fact that we are looking at two separate but interlinked aspects to the problem. One is the possible threat to human health, while the other is the possible environmental damage.
In my speech replying to the Government's Statement last Friday, at col. 551 of Hansard, I said that there were three criteria by which we would judge that Statement of government intentions. Does it protect the British people against any possible threat to human health? Does it protect the environment of Britain from any possible damage from genetically modified crops? Does it restore 1122 confidence in the integrity of the Government's approach to these matters, and assure the general public that future decisions will be taken openly, with health and the environment given priority at all times over considerations of commerce and politics?
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, assured the House that the answer to those three questions was yes. He referred to the two new commissions that the Government are establishing on human genetics and on agricultural and environmental technology. So we now know that the Government are indeed taking this matter seriously. They are aware of the need for cautious progress and are also aware of the need to re-establish public trust in the way in which these matters are carried forward.
However, it is quite clear that a great deal more research in all areas is required. That must largely be carried out by independent bodies if the general public is to be convinced at the end of the day. After all, the use of genetic modification in medicine is becoming commonplace and the general public, if it is aware of this at all, has not needed reassurance as to its safety; it is just assumed to be safe.
With regard to environmental issues, these roust centre on whether genetic modification is going to spread naturally to other species and perhaps cause the balance of nature to be upset. We agree that test plantings must continue. But here I have a question for the Government. I am somewhat at a loss in this respect. We have heard about test plantings, field trials, farm trials and, indeed, other trials; but are there any strict designations about what these things mean as to their size and their extent? When these plantings are carried out, it is essential that some kind of barrier should be set, either by distance—perhaps six miles will be enough, or perhaps it will not be; I do not know —or by physical means, to stop all but the smallest of contaminations. We can never stop them all. As has been mentioned, the culprits are likely to be bees and wind. What can we do about them? We cannot abolish either of them.
Research into all these matters will last a significant time, not least because it has to prove a negative—that is, of course, if there is no danger from these genetic modifications of crops. Organic farms have been mentioned a good deal today. I believe that they are more likely to be at risk from contamination than any other farming activities. I hope that that matter will be addressed as soon as possible. Above all, consumers wish to be able to choose between food with or without genetically modified components. Therefore, the labelling issue, difficult though it is, must be addressed effectively. However, I do not believe that the segregation of crops, though they talk about it in the United States, is actually physically possible.
I should like to return to one or two points made by my noble friends. In the course of his splendid speech, my noble friend Lord Reay mentioned the question of restaurant labelling, which was also mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. I shall be interested to hear what the Government have to say about whether that can achieved.
1123 The Food and Drugs Administration in the United States has approved all the genetic foods being sold in the market-place over there. I am afraid that I have not had time to try to find out—I would like to know this—exactly what the FDA has said about the safety of genetically modified foods with regard to the United States. However, the prairies of the United States are not, of course, the same as East Anglia, and therefore the environmental risks may be different.
I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Soulsby say that GM foods are probably also beneficial to animal production. I do not know exactly what he means by that or whether he was referring to the monstrous salmon that have already occurred. However, that is a matter that will need to be monitored carefully if experiments in that area are carried out.
My noble friend Lord Jopling said that we are just scratching the surface of the implications of this new technology for the plant and animal kingdoms. That gives us some indication of the scale of what may in 50 years' time comprise the most important method of producing all crops.
I was interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, say that as far as she knew no research had been carried out on growing genetically modified crops that would benefit wildlife. I suggest that that is a possible area of co-operation between English Nature and the Game Conservancy that could greatly benefit everyone.
The development of biotechnology offers enormous opportunities to improve our quality of life. It offers even greater opportunities to improve the quality of life in the third world and elsewhere. In the meantime we on these Benches say that a moratorium—there is that word again—on planting any genetically modified crops on a commercial scale should certainly be in place and that field trials should be most carefully monitored and structured to obtain viable results as soon as possible.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, surely he has something to say from the Conservative Opposition Front Bench about the Select Committee's recommendation that each country should have the ability to opt out of importing an approved genetically modified foodstuff or crop from within the European Union?
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the noble Lord's final remark. I was struck by the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, as regards possible problems with Dolly the sheep. However, I do not think that those problems are confined to sheep. I am 64 but by this time I feel and think that I am 99! At times I think there are noble Lords in this House who suffer from the opposite delusion!
1124 Even on the sunny eve of a Bank Holiday I welcome the opportunity for a debate on this important issue and so many impressive contributions have been made today. I offer my congratulations to the European Communities Committee on such a helpful report which has brought a welcome sense of balance and proportion to the whole question of GM crops and their products, particularly with regard to the clear and succinct summary by its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Reay. It is a pity that its appearance was followed by a period of unprecedented hysteria in the media and among certain pressure groups. This "Frankenstein" behaviour in the media has served only to frighten and confuse the public. More factual information and calm debate would certainly be welcome. I have been asked some 40-odd questions today. I shall answer as many as possible, but I shall write to noble Lords if I do not respond to them verbally.
The Government's first priority has always been, and will remain, the protection of public health and the environment. In this we have taken a cautious approach, based on science. This position was clearly restated in the Government's announcement last Friday.
In paying tribute last week to the Select Committee's work my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer observed that the package of measures he was announcing came to very similar conclusions to those of the Select Committee. These included the creation of two strategic commissions—the human genetics commission and the agriculture and environment biotechnology commission—which, together with the food standards agency, will advise Ministers on future developments and address broader issues such as ethical considerations. The Government also endorsed the SCIMAC guidelines for the cultivation of GM crops. At the same time, the Government's Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser published their report on GM foods, concluding that there is no current evidence to suggest that GM foods are inherently harmful. That is our present scientific advice.
Genetic modification offers a wide range of potential benefits for agriculture, not least a reduction in agrochemical inputs, as evidenced from commercial production in the United States. Benefits will not be realised unless industry is allowed to proceed with development. It is a major plank of our policy that United Kingdom farmers are not denied access to GM technology, providing justified concerns can be addressed. It is as well to be aware that last year some 35 million hectares of GM crops were grown commercially worldwide, of which Europe accounted for only 22,000 hectares. The main areas of cultivation are the United States, Canada, South America, Australia and China. The area under cultivation is expected to increase significantly again this year and trade will grow.
As to trade, where a product has been approved following a scientific assessment, any moves to ban its sale unilaterally would be illegal under both European Union and WTO rules and would be likely to lead to challenge by the exporting country. Equally, 1125 a requirement to segregate a product once it has been approved following an extensive safety assessment would contravene WTO rules.
A wide range of controls is in place at European and national levels on GM foods, releases of GMOs into the environment, seeds and pesticides. Where we in Britain think it is justified we have gone beyond the legislation—for example, in encouraging industry to draw up the SCIMAC guidelines on growing of GM crops and in setting up farm-scale evaluations to test ecological effects. I will come back to these initiatives shortly.
Many noble Lords raised the subject of fish, including the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Moran. and we recognise the importance that they attach to controls on GM fish. Although the Government did not respond specifically on this point, EC Directive 90/220/EEC covers the deliberate release of all GMOs, including fish, into the European environment. The Government also take very seriously releases of transgenic fish in other parts of the world and play an active role in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which in 1994 established a code of practice on the release of GMOs into open marine and fresh water environments.
Perhaps I may deal with two questions, particularly as the noble Lord was courteous enough to give us advance notice. With regard to the domestic aspects, I have said that the Government take the matter seriously. Work on any GM animal in laboratories is already regulated under the GMO contained use legislation. Work on GM fish will not be allowed unless it cart be demonstrated that the facility in which the work is carried out will be absolutely secure. There will be inspections by the Health and Safety Inspectorate to enforce this.
As for international controls, the biosafety protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity is under negotiation, though the talks are currently suspended. The draft protocol addresses unintentional trans-boundary movement of living modified organisms likely to have adverse effects on biodiversity. The United Kingdom is keen to resume the talks with a view to concluding an agreement.
The directive which covers the release and marketing of genetically modified organisms is currently being amended. Revision is particularly timely in view of the extensive discussion and public concern in the United Kingdom and elsewhere about GMOs, their impact on the environment and their use as food.
In response to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about monitoring, I am pleased to remind noble Lords that at last December's Environment Council, European Union Ministers agreed to apply provisions for post-market monitoring., as developed up to then, forthwith to new applications to market GM products under the existing directive. This strengthens the Government's commitment to take the wider biodiversity implications fully into account.
In the area under discussion today many of the most difficult issues arise in relation to the environment rather than in regard to food. With regard to GM crops, the Government have been working to implement two major 1126 initiatives announced in your Lordships' Select Committee last October. The programme of managed development will ensure that the first farm-scale plantings are strictly limited and monitored closely for their impact on biodiversity alongside conventional crops. If a problem emerges, the Government will not hesitate to take appropriate action.
That programme will be underpinned by the industry's SCIMAC guidelines on the growing of herbicide-tolerant crops. These guidelines will ensure best practice in the growing of the crops. The Government endorsed this approach in another place last week.
Biodiversity is indeed a very important issue. English Nature and other environmental bodies, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have argued that GM crops should not be grown commercially in the United Kingdom until we know more about the environmental effects. We take the views of English Nature seriously, but we believe that a moratorium is unnecessary. We very much welcome what my noble friend Baroness Young said about that. The best way to answer the concerns about biodiversity is to carry out realistic farm-scale evaluations, and that is exactly what we are doing. I am pleased that English Nature is taking an active role in the steering group. The programme started this year and the monitoring is costing £3 million. Moreover, our legal advice is that a general moratorium is unlikely to be defensible.
I mentioned the SCIMAC guidelines. I should point out that new legislation controlling the growing of GM crops would need new primary powers, which would certainly take some time to obtain. In this context, we concluded that the best alternative was to encourage the industry to develop voluntary guidelines. The group of organisations doing this work is the, Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops—SCIMAC. It includes the main players in the seed, agrochemical, supply trade and farming sectors. Their object is to ensure that the introduction of the new crops into United Kingdom agriculture is managed responsibly. The guidelines will be enforced through legally binding contracts, penalties for non-compliance and through independent audit. The Government have welcomed the guidelines as a useful step forward. In the longer term, we consider that they can form the basis for legislation.
The issues of cross-pollination and organic crops have also been raised. We recognise the concern about research evidence on long distance pollen transfer. This comes from government funded work aimed at quantifying the issue. Pollen can travel long distances but in normal agriculture most plants are pollinated by those near them in the same field. Frequency of cross-pollination decreases rapidly with distance. The SCIMAC guidelines include separation distances based on those which already successfully protect the integrity of commercial agricultural crops. On organics, the Government recognise that the organic sector, which we have done much to support, has a particular concern to avoid contamination of its produce by GMOs. We are in discussion with it about the practical safeguards which can be put in place to achieve this.
1127 I assure the House that the Government are committed to taking full account of the wider biodiversity implications of GM crops. This year we see the introduction of the farm-scale evaluations as well as the enhanced risk assessment and monitoring provisions agreed by the European Union Environment Ministers last December. The Government's statutory advisory committee on releases to the environment has set up a sub-group to consider the wider biodiversity issues. The sub-group will take into account existing government biodiversity commitments such as the biodiversity action plan. The future commercial introduction of GM crops must not prejudice our commitment to halt, and where possible reverse, existing wildlife decline in farmland.
I turn now from crops to GM foods. All genetically modified foods to be marketed in the European Union are subject to a thorough and rigorous safety assessment under the terms of the EC novel foods regulation before being permitted to enter the food chain. Safety assessment of GM foods includes full assessment of the toxicology, allergic potential and the risk of antibiotic resistance being increased and is backed up by an extensive research programme of more than £1 million a year. We are committed to the introduction of post-market monitoring for added reassurance.
We also bear in mind the importance of consumer choice, in giving people the facts about GM foods and letting them make up their own minds. We have pressed hard for labelling rules that allow consumers to do just that. The United Kingdom is leading the way in Europe by ensuring that labelling rules also apply to restaurants, bakers and delicatessens.
It has been said that public confidence must be rebuilt. I agree with that. But rebuilding public confidence will take time. During that time we are pushing a food standards agency forward. We intend to introduce a Bill this Session, if there is sufficient time, which could mean the agency up and running in the first half of next year. The strategic commission announced last week working alongside the agency to provide a broader view of biotechnology developments has an important role to play in rebuilding public confidence. I wish to reassure the House again that we take this issue most seriously. The Government recognise the considerable economic potential that GM technology has to offer. Nevertheless, we are not rushing headlong into the widespread planting of genetically modified crops in this country. We already have a robust regulatory framework in place, covering the approval of genetically modified crops and foods. That framework is kept under constant review. Indeed, we are pressing for a number of revisions to the deliberate release directive to ensure that it keeps pace with developments well into the next millennium.
We welcome rational public debate on this important and understandably controversial issue.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
My Lords, it is very welcome news to hear that there is a real chance of having the food standards agency legislation before us.
1128 On the issue of public confidence, can the Minister say something about demanding our right to opt out of the import of genetically modified materials, foodstuffs and plants along the lines recommended by the Select Committee?
§ Lord Donoughue
That involves a wider trade issue. Given the time available to us this evening, I should prefer to write to the noble Lord on that point.
The recent media campaign against genetically modified crops and foods, which has resulted in a significant loss of public confidence, has now been exposed as lacking, as yet, any credible scientific basis. Clearly, the Government are determined to rebuild that confidence, and last week we announced a series of measures designed to do just that. These measures constitute our GM policy, while scientific research and monitoring continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Reay, asked whether antibiotic resistance marker genes were being phased out. The paper published by the Chief Medical Officer in May recommended that those developing genetically modified foods should be encouraged to phase out the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes as soon as feasible.
I was also asked about independent monitoring. The Government consider that consent holders may carry out monitoring themselves, or contract independent organisations to do it for them. The methodology is the important factor.
Points have also been made about the negotiations on de minimis in the Council of Ministers. The Commission was due to issue a proposal by the end of March. Unfortunately, that, along with many other things, has been delayed following the Commission's resignation.
On the issue of the rotation of ACRE members, under post-Nolan rules, nine members of ACRE are obliged to retire as they have served two terms. One has also resigned. The Government see no reason not to comply with the guidelines. Obtaining 10 new members provides an opportunity to broaden the professional backgrounds represented.
I was asked whether the new strategic commissions would be scientifically based. They are intended to complement existing regulatory commissions, and to look more broadly than purely scientific issues, including questions of ethics and public acceptability. They will be able to include scientific members, and will have scientific expertise in the secretariat.
My noble friend Lord Grantchester asked about the six-mile corridor. We recognise the organic sector's concern to avoid contamination. We understand that the Soil Association is considering a new set of standards. It is not clear to us whether the standards will include a six-mile buffer zone. The John Innes Centre will shortly be publishing a report which concludes that complete genetic purity simply cannot be guaranteed. But it recommends appropriate safeguards. The SCIMAC guidelines, which we endorsed last week, include separation distances, and if experience shows that they are insufficient SCIMAC has indicated its willingness to amend those rules.
1129 Several noble Lords asked about the effect of Bt maize on the monarch butterfly. In any event, that particular GM crop will not be grown in the United Kingdom, nor does that butterfly live here. However, the Department of the Environment will consider that information carefully and will ask the advice of ACRE on the implications for the United Kingdom.
On the question that my noble friend Lord Shore raised, which I batted off, I should tell him that member states can put forward objections based on particular environmental circumstances in their territory. There is provision for restrictions in the European Union approval process which would avoid prejudicing those issues. We could include restrictions on a geographic or environmental basis.
The right reverend Prelate said that it is crucial to ensure that GM modification is introduced with full consideration of the implications and risks. We believe that risks are dealt with by the appropriate scientific advisory committees. The broader issues, including ethical issues, will be considered by the new commissions.
He also asked also about farm-scale evaluations, comparing the effects of GM crops with conventional crops. We have taken independent expert advice in designing that research, including advice from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Ecologists have advised that, owing to the comparative nature of that research, base-line surveys are not necessary before that research is begun.
The right reverend Prelate said that the four-year evaluation is not long enough. Our policy is to consider the results of the farm-scale evaluations year by year. If necessary, we shall consider research beyond 2002 and will take the appropriate scientific advice on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said that the Government are allowing commercial planting of GM crops. That is not correct. The Government are taking a precautionary approach of managed development. Areas grown will he limited. There will be scientific monitoring of the ecological effects. We shall not sanction unrestricted commercial planting unless we are satisfied about the results of the monitoring. As I said, we are operating the precautionary principle in regard to that.
I thought the noble Baroness said also that the scientific evidence is changing week by week. That is not our experience. The media stories certainly change week by week, but the scientific evidence available to us is certainly not complete and may evolve, but so far it is summed up consistently by the Chief Scientific Officer, who says that there is no inherent risk in GM foods.
The noble Baroness raised the scale of the evaluation. There is a need to carry out that research on a commercial scale in order to address the biodiversity issues properly and in an appropriate context. But the areas planted will be limited to 20 fields for each crop per year.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised a concern about subsistence farming in developing countries. Last week, George Foulkes, Parliamentary Under-Secretary 1130 of State at the Department for international Development, was appointed to the ministerial Cabinet committee on biotechnology and genetic modification.
The noble Lord also mentioned the risk of a trade war with the United States. He is absolutely right. Great care is needed in this area. We believe that the best way to avoid any problem is to ensure that decisions are based on sound science which is universal. That is our approach.
The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, raised the need for international controls. The United Kingdom has participated actively in negotiations on the biosafety protocol to the convention on biodiversity which will control trans-boundary movements of living modified organisms. We were disappointed that there was no agreement in Colombia in February, but will strive to keep up the momentum and seek agreement.
The noble Lord also mentioned, as did other speakers, the danger of the release of GM fish. I should add that no releases have taken place in the United Kingdom or the European Union.
The noble Lords, Lord Reay, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Rathcavan, mentioned the burden on restaurants. The Government undertook two public consultations before introducing the labelling regulations. They took place in July last year and February this year. The Government consider that all food containing GM material should be lapelled. Given the current absence of thresholds, manufacturers and retailers should take all reasonable measures to establish the content of the food that they sell in accordance with the "due diligence" provision in the Food Safety Act.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, spoke of the timetable for the introduction of GM cereals. Genetic: modification in cereals is much more complex than in other crops. We believe that it will be several years before any GM cereals reach the market.
The noble Lord also asked about herbicide tolerant crops. We accept that there are particular risks. That is why we have set up the farm-scale evaluations to see whether serious problems arise. We have encouraged industry to draw up the SCIMAC guidelines. We are requiring that herbicides should be specifically re-evaluated for their new use on GM crops. We have also set up an ACRE sub-group to examine that issue.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, will the Minister give way? He referred to the importance of the interface between genetically modified crop areas and organic farms. Does he agree that it is equally important to have a sensible regard to the interface between genetically modified crop trial areas and any areas of farmland where nature conservation schemes are in progress? The dangers of cross-pollination and damage through sprays are just as important in those areas as they are within organic farming areas.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I see the importance of the noble Earl's point. I have been talking for 30 minutes and I still have a string of questions to answer. With the permission of the House perhaps I may write to the noble Earl and to any other noble Lords who feel that they have been neglected.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Lord Reay
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all those who have taken part in this debate, members of the sub-committee and the welcome number of speakers who are not members. Everyone said something complimentary about the report. Some said a great deal that was complimentary—none more so than the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, whose previous incarnations as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Secretary of State for the Environment admirably qualified him to give endorsement to our conclusions. What appealed to him was our recommendation that the member states within the European Union should be allowed to opt out of the growing of genetically modified crops, not the import of foods, for domestic or environmental reasons. I believe those are the words we used. I am grateful to the noble Lord for demonstrating that it is arguable, from the words of the EU treaty that such opt-outs would already be legal. As he pointed out, that position is not yet endorsed by Her Majesty's Government, either at the start of the debate or at the end.
The issue of the terminator seed, the one-use only seed, was a matter of concern for several noble Lords, particularly as regards developing countries. That was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, and others. Many crops today are hybrids which lose their vigour after first use and require new seed the following year. That is likely to be the case, so far as we could see, for genetically modified crops. But I did not quite understand why the right reverend Prelate considered that our report had been cavalier—I think that was his word—n our treatment of the issue as concerns developing countries. Paragraph 69 of our report goes at some length into the interests of the developing world in this science. In paragraph 86 on the one-use only seed, we state:in the developing world many and probably most farmers would view the prospect of having to buy seeds each year with grave concern".It is true that we do not go on to solve the problem. We would have needed to tour the remote rural regions of Asia, Africa and, no doubt, Latin America in order to be in a position to do so. But we certainly acknowledge the problem and hope that others who are in better positions than ourselves will take it forward. Perhaps Her Majesty's Government have in place, even if the Church of England does not, a committee which could carry the matter forward.
My noble friend Lord Peel referred to crops genetically modified to be pest-resistant by containing pesticides and noted how this could reduce dramatically the need for the use of conventional pesticides. He asked me whether I could tell him how advanced was technology in that regard. As I understand it, the Government have agreed with industry a delay on trials of pest-resistant crops, partly because there were no such crops under application for growing in this country at present. On the other hand, I would have thought that it would be desirable to hold trials to discover whether, as we put it in paragraph 83, the net effect of genetically 1132 pest-resistant crops on non-target insect life and on birds would be positive or negative in comparison with conventional crops protected by conventional pesticides. I believe that any further questions he may have on the matter should be pursued with the Government.
In regard to trade matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, called for a change in the onus on the World Trade Organisation to respect the environmental conditions and concerns of individual states. I thought that was a most interesting proposal and would like to take it back to our committee for use in another context or possibly for consideration in its own right.
My noble friend Lord Haddington brought forward for our attention another issue, the threat to bees from genetically modified crops. I suggest that, if he could amplify it somewhat, the matter could be passed on to the Government's new commission on agricultural biotechnology.
I am grateful also for the welcome the Minister gave to our report and I thank him for the answers that he was able to give to the questions which I put to him. As for those which he did not have time to answer this afternoon, perhaps he will send answers to speakers. Perhaps he will also ensure that the replies are placed in the Library.
A great number of other interesting points have been raised this afternoon. We have had a fascinating debate. I agree entirely with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that everyone has brought to the debate his own angle, and Hansard will repay careful study. I beg to move.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.