HL Deb 27 March 2000 vol 611 cc497-500

2.55 p.m.

Lord Taverne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference in Edinburgh on genetically modified foods and health, they will promote the use of genetically modified crops in the developing world.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we support demand-led research directed at the needs of poor farmers in developing countries using whatever technology is most appropriate, cost-effective and safe. Genetic modification (GM) technologies could produce considerable benefits if applied safely and responsibly to the crops on which the poor rely. We shall continue to support the development and dissemination of beneficial technologies which poor farmers can afford and use to create sustainable livelihoods. We shall also consider how we might help developing countries to develop the capacity they need to handle and assess GM technologies.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, are the Government aware that at the Edinburgh conference, which it was my pleasure to attend, two matters became absolutely clear? First, there was not a shred of evidence that GM foods are harmful to health. Indeed, hundreds of millions of people have now consumed them for over a decade without any apparent ill effects. Secondly, there was enormous enthusiasm among representatives from the developing world for the new technology, which they regard as essential to the fight against hunger and disease and, indeed, which was already shown to be having beneficial effects in countries such as China and South Africa. In the circumstances, is there not a moral imperative on the Government to do everything they can to encourage and promote the spread of such technology?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Government aim to protect public health and the environment by taking a science-based approach to GM crops and food. We are pro-safety, pro-environment and pro-choice. As regards the question raised by the noble Lord on the developing world and the new technology, we are aware that in developing countries there is a concern that the focus has been on the developed world rather than on the way in which GM technologies can be used in the developing world. We are supporting developing countries to develop their capacity in that area. We are also supporting research on rice, for example. Bearing in mind that we are pro-safety, pro-environment and pro-choice, the Government are doing all they can with regard to the issue in developing countries.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, there are important scientific questions to be answered about GM crops. Such questions will not all be answered negatively; they could be of great benefit to the third world. Does the Minister not agree that there are no less important social, economic and political questions to be answered? It would be possible for small farmers to switch to monocrops using the so-called "terminator" seeds and to find themselves totally in the hands of the large trans-national corporations.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate; there are social, economic and political considerations. DfID is funding research which supports the safe development and testing of affordable GM technologies which have the potential to benefit poor farmers, improve food availability, human well-being and the environment. We are also funding research designed to assess the economic, environmental and social impact of GMOs on poor farmers. The concerns expressed are being taken on board by that department.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, will the Government ensure that in areas of the world in which small farmers save their own seed for the next crop, such farmers are not supplied with a so-called "terminator seed" which could not be used for their next crop?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Government do not support the development of the terminator seed. The noble Lord may be aware that last year Monsanto, which had conducted the most research on this issue and was within five or 10 years of concluding that research, decided not to take it forward. We are not supporting any kind of development of any kind of terminator gene.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind the lessons learned from the profusion of toxic chemicals which have been spread around the world and have caused enormous damage? Slogans such as that used by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, regarding the absolute safety of chemicals have proved to be untrue. Would the Minister bear in mind that, with genetic modification, there is no going back? We are playing with the basic building blocks of life and must be absolutely sure of safety before we use them.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, that is why the Government's approach is science-based and money is invested in research so that we do not facilitate the use of GM crops in areas where developing countries have not put in place the basic infrastructure or legislation that will enable them to use this technology beneficially. We want to see developing countries use this technology in a way which is beneficial for them and to ensure that they have the capacity not only to develop the technology in ways that suit them but also to market it to their own advantage.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the alternatives to genetically modified crops tend to be pesticides which are ecologically damaging and expensive, in particular when they are used on marginal land, which so many poor people are reduced to farming?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. It is important that developing countries are included in an elective and inclusive dialogue on the risks and benefits of GMOs. However, it is also important to remember that much of the research has to date been focused on the use to be made of GMOs in the developed world by large commercial organisations. We want to see the technology used to assist developing countries in the ways that suit them best.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did not Watson and Crick win the Nobel Prize for their research on the basic building blocks of life, and is anything wrong with that? Furthermore, does the noble Baroness agree that all the opinions so far expressed on GM crops have come from the developed world? Does she further agree that it is about time that the third world, where the benefits of GM crops may well be felt the most, should have their say as well?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I entirely agree that a public debate is needed on this issue. We need a public debate that focuses not only on the developed world but also includes the developing countries. For that reason, DfID provided funding for some developing countries to send representatives to the Edinburgh conference so that their voices could be heard. I hope that their voices will continue to be heard.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely has so rightly said, in the Middle Ages the Church condemned surgery because it interfered with God's handiwork, and we must follow science rather than emotions. With that in mind, does the Minister agree—taking into account all the necessary precautions that have already been mentioned, including the TRIPS agreement—and the fact that at least 30 million hectares worldwide were planted successfully with GMOs in 1998, saving many starving people in the developing world, that the Government should promote GMOs far more?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I believe that I have already addressed many of the points raised by the noble Baroness in her question. As I said, we are funding research but we are not yet at a stage where we will fund crops in developing countries unless those countries have in place the necessary legislation and infrastructure. We will continue with this work. Furthermore, we want to involve people in developing countries by helping them to build the capacity to take this technology forward.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to thank the noble Baroness for the Government's change of heart on GM technology and for demonstrating their greater awareness of public unease. I believe that the Government have also shown a greater awareness of the environmental dangers of this technology. Perhaps I may make two points, both of which have been touched on but have not yet, I think, been answered satisfactorily. First, some NGOs, in particular Christian Aid, have taken a very negative view of this technology and have considerably influenced developing countries against it. While I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has said about expressions of enthusiasm for it on the part of many developing countries, can the noble Baroness say a few words on the Government's relationship with NGOs? Secondly, is there any prospect of progress on some kind of international agreement on the vexed question of intellectual property rights in GM technology? That question lies behind much of the fear and unease.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, first, perhaps I may say to the right reverend Prelate that there has been no change of heart by the Government. We have said consistently that we need to have an open debate about these matters. To enable us to have that debate, we need to gather the right information. The Government have consistently argued that some of what has been said in the press has been inaccurate and that we have tried to address that. Indeed, in the Government's response to the Science and Technology Committee's report on this matter, we expressed the concern that we needed to see greater understanding and greater probity on the part of all the players involved. As regards the attitude of NGOs, I think it is important to ensure that dialogue continues between all NGOs and the Government on this matter. We have done our best to promote that dialogue.

In response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate on international agreements, we are of course constantly discussing ways in which we might take those international agreements forward.

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