HL Deb 23 November 1999 vol 607 cc317-20

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In view of the extension of the trial period for planting genetically modified crops, what steps they are taking to ensure that the trials will be independently monitored and that the results will be publicly debated before full commercial releases are licensed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the research being carried out in the farm-scale evaluations is overseen by a steering committee of independent scientific experts. The steering group is made up of scientists drawn from English Nature, environmental NGOs, including the RSPB, and the universities. Its purpose is to ensure that the research, which is carried out by independent contractors, is of the highest scientific standards, independent of government, independent of the biotechnology industry and independent of the contractors. All results from the farm-scale evaluations will be made publicly available, including interim and progress reports—the first of which was published on 11th November. There will therefore be a public debate before any general cultivation of these crops is permitted.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very helpful Answer. Should there be an escape of genetically modified material, can he confirm the arrangements for compensating on a no-fault basis those neighbouring or nearby farms close to a test site? I know the Minister will understand that the Bill which passed through this House but was killed off so brutally in the other place would have ensured that that was the case and would also have ensured that the issue was debated in both Houses. I should be most grateful for the noble Lord's comments on that.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is probably not in order for me to comment on the procedures, or in this case the non-procedures, of another place. The noble Baroness's Bill received a full airing in your Lordships' House. I recall that I dealt with the Second Reading and my noble friend the Chief Whip dealt with the Committee stage. A number of interesting issues were raised, including the point to which the noble Baroness has referred. However, we felt that our regulatory system already provided for most of the points covered in the Bill. That would include, in the unlikely circumstances to which she referred, any provision for compensation. Although at the time I welcomed the noble Baroness's introduction of the Bill, I believe that our regime covers most of the points about which she was concerned.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, will the noble Lord take this opportunity to explain the Government's reasoning for allowing these tests to continue? Will he give an undertaking that when the Government ultimately come to make their decision they will do so on the basis of good research and science rather than on emotion and public clamour which may be ill informed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is precisely the Government's motive here. We have to recognise that there are widespread concerns about the development and commercialisation of these crops. Had we not agreed with the industry to undertake these trials, commercialisation could have taken place. We have, in effect, these three to four-year farm-scale trials. We had previously laboratory-scale trials but those do not test for biodiversity problems and possible effects on other crops. The farm-scale trials will test out all of those aspects. I can certainly assure my noble friend that when we come to full evaluation, with full scientific advice, we shall make that public. There will then be a public debate on the basis of facts.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, given that it has been established that bees can fly up to five miles in any direction, can the Minister say what, if any, developments there have been in the arrangements over the margin of cultivation between GM trials and organic crops?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the position in terms of separation remains as it was—the 200 metres separation. There is minimal prospect of any contamination of neighbouring crops. That has been accepted by most of the scientists in the area and follows existing standards. I appreciate that some organic farmers and their representatives remain concerned. We are still in contact and trying to negotiate the terms.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, if these crops are authorised by the EC, will the UK be obliged to follow suit regardless of the result of the evaluation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we have taken the lead in the EU in biodiversity testing. Were a problem to arise on the biodiversity side, we would expect the EU institutions to take note of our results and alter their position.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people are puzzled that there should be such alacrity about the growing of GM crops, bearing in mind that there is a glut of food, certainly in the northern hemisphere, and that we are subsidising people not to grow crops? Rather than paying money to experiment with GM crops, would it not be preferable for the Government and indeed other organisations to spend their money on organic farming, which has proved its worth over many hundreds if not thousands of years?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government have indicated that they support developments in organic farming. However, I am concerned that my noble friend should suggest that the food problems of the world have somehow been resolved. That is not the case as a glance at many third world countries will indicate. It may be or it may not be that GM crops can make a contribution to resolving the world's food problems without damage to the environment. That is what we are investigating now. When we conclude the period of testing, we will have a public debate before any commercialisation of these crops takes place.