HL Deb 18 March 2002 vol 632 cc1093-6

2.42 p.m.

Lord Taverne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy for funding research into the transgenic approach for improving crops.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government recognise that the use of transgenic technology for crop improvements could have the potential to produce benefits if applied safely and responsibly. The Government have supported and support research and development programmes which utilise genetic modification approaches for crop improvements and are aimed at providing the underpinning science and developing responsible GM approaches.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, do the Government recognise the glaring contrast between the importance of agricultural biotechnology—a technology in which we have special expertise in this country and which has enormous potential in the fight against hunger and disease and for a better environment—on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the gradual decline over the years in government support for that field? Is it not particularly important that there should be public support for this field of research rather than letting it all be done by multinational companies or other countries? Could they perhaps not divert some of the millions which are spent on organic farming, the claims for which have no scientific basis, and invest that money in proper science instead?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that the House has heard the noble Lord's opinions on both sides of the argument. The Government believe that there is benefit in developing technologies in biotechnology, including GM approaches. We also believe that there is benefit in helping the development of what many farmers and many consumers regard as the benefits of organic farming. We support both. But we also recognise that there is public concern in this area. Therefore, we support technology on GM approaches, which help speed up, for example, hybridisation, and for the use of GM technology which is to the benefit of mankind in food, medicine and other fields. However, the development of products in this area is primarily a matter for commercial concerns and not for government.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that if the research is left to individual companies there will not necessarily be public confidence in that research? Sadly, we have seen an example of that over the past year or so. Will the Government therefore consider increasing their research funding to make sure that it is linked to good-quality, accessible and relevant science which is based throughout the world on a similar basis? That should include risk assessment as a major part of that funding. Can the Minister clarify where the money is going at the present time?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government spend nearly £60 million in total in these areas. Of course only part of that total is spent on GM technology. The expenditure by my own department, which is about half of that, is mainly concerned with the development of GM techniques. Those are geared to doing exactly as the noble Baroness suggests—looking at what is being developed, assessing it and helping to use such approaches in areas that will be of benefit to the community as a whole.

The point I was making to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is that government money is not primarily directed to product development. It is directed at helping to improve the Government's ability to assess products and assess the way in which science is developing.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the debate in this country on GM crops has been disproportionately focused on the risk rather than on the potential benefits of such crops? Given the point that has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that the fear of control of technologies being in the hands of multinational corporations is a large element of that, is it not important to those of us who are concerned that the potential benefits in terms of health and agriculture in the developing world are supported by research expenditure that is not commercial? That means from government.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is precisely on those noncommercial areas where we can assess development that the Government are focusing. That includes, as my noble friend indicates, supporting developments within the developing world, within medicine and within the safe and responsible development of crop and food technology. The argument has perhaps at times not been entirely rational on this issue on either side. That is why the Government have very heavily invested in ensuring that the farm-scale trials of GM crops are completed before we take any further decision. We need to allay public concern in this area. It is not just a question of media stories; there is substantial consumer concern. We need, therefore, to have proper science and a proper assessment of the actual production risk, which is what the farm-scale trials are directed at.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the degree of public scare about genetically modified foods is disproportionate? Not many people realise that the early hybridisation and first studies on this issue go right back to the monk, Mendel. People have been breeding improved crops ever since that time. Could not a little more publicity be given to that fact? Could it not be made clear that this is really modern science progressing on from that early work?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, to a degree I agree with the noble Baroness. One can regard genetic modification as being the next stage of a programme of hybridisation that has been going on for a long time. But there is also an element of step change in this, which is why it is right to recognise that there is a degree of broader concern than there would be in just one more intensification of a process. That underlines the need for us to have the science correct and to ensure that the basis on which we are informing the public is an informed, controlled and detailed assessment of the effects of commercialisation on crop growing in this country.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the Minister was quite right to use the words "step change". It is a step of the order of many magnitudes. Does he agree that while genetic modification may look scientifically desirable or beneficial, the practical difficulties are very great indeed? Will the Government take the greatest possible care over such things as volunteer plants, escapes, hybridisation and wind pollination?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the likely controls on any commercialised growing would indeed be directed at minimising and, so far as possible, eliminating the risks on those counts. We are taking the matter carefully, but we are also taking it on the basis of sound science and sound agriculture.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister indicated that the money that the Government are investing is not in the close-to-market area but in research. Is he confident that enough money is going into research in what is an important area of science?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I said, a substantial amount of money is going into research of (IM techniques. Of course, substantial commercial money is also being invested in these areas, including within the UK and within Europe. The Government must address the balance between ensuring that we understand the science and can assess proposed developments and dealing with widespread public anxiety within the UK and within Europe as a whole.