HL Deb 11 March 2003 vol 645 cc1230-2

2.53 p.m.

Lord Taverne

asked Her Majesty's government:

Whether the views expressed by Mr Michael Meacher MP published in the magazine The Ecologist on 17th February represent the policy of the Government.

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

My Lords, I he article in The Ecologist was based on a lengthy and complex interview with my right honourable friend Michael Meacher. It covered a lot of ground. There is no inherent contradiction between what he said and the position of the Government.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, it was an astonishing interview. Apart from showing a certain disloyalty to a ministerial colleague, namely the Minister responsible for science—perhaps not an unknown phenomenon in the present Government—he claimed that there was no independent assessment of the safety of GM crops whereas some seven national academies of science have carried out such assessments. Most importantly, is it wise for the Government to have as the Minister responsible for the environment someone who has swallowed the policies and agenda of Greenpeace hook, line and sinker?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the House should appreciate the tremendous job that Michael Meacher has done on environmental policy over the past five or six years. He has established the United Kingdom as one of the lead participants in progress towards sustainable development. I do not believe that the strictures of the noble Lord can in any sense be accepted. My colleague was simply pointing out that some of the testing procedure requires testing by the companies themselves. Therefore, there is scope and need for caution on the part of the British and European authorities which are assessing whether we should allow the marketing of GM crops.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the article was fairly specific? Michael Meacher said that GMs are not necessary, which is a surprising contribution from the responsible Minister. He went on to say: As the current trials are only testing what effects GM crops might have on the environment…and as the government has neither the money nor the manpower to do anything else, we have to rely upon the biotech companies themselves to tell us if they discover any other problems", particularly with regard to health. Does the Minister find that a very unsatisfactory situation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my right honourable friend will be gratified by the time and attention paid to his article and to the interview. I wish that the rest of the literature produced by departments received the same degree of attention. Whether anything is necessary or not, it is clear that one has to establish a benefit. If there is a benefit, we have to establish whether a risk attaches to that benefit; and if there is such a risk we have to decide on what terms the product will be developed, grown or imported. That is the system that my right honourable friend was trying to describe. We are reliant on much of the information coming from private companies sponsoring the products. It is necessary therefore for a degree of double-checking to take place and for a degree of caution to be exercised. The Government have always adopted a cautionary approach but we are neither for nor against these individual products, and the system reflects that.

Lord Carter

My Lords, can the Minister say what is the timetable on GMOs? There should not be the precipitate rush into GMOs for which some would argue, including perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. Equally, there should not be a blanket ban, as others would argue. There should be proper evaluation and full and public discussion. What is the timetable for publication of research results, the commercial evaluation of GM crops and their release?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, different issues are involved. In regard to the GM crops grown in this country, the trials finish later this year. Primarily they are to assess the effects on the environment. As yet, there is not adequate testing. In the light of the results of those tests we shall decide whether to proceed to the commercial growing of the crops. As regards other products, whether grown or imported, or incorporated in processed foods, there is a European process, some of which is carried out in the individual member states. That is done on a case-by-case basis. Over the past few years there has been a de facto slowdown on considering each of those products. The Commission is required to consider them on a case-by-case basis.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Labour Party is lucky to have Michael Meacher as keeper of its conscience from time to time? When he said in the article that the Labour Party had changed from being hostile and sceptical about big business, he was reflecting public concern about the lack of legislation on some issues like corporate social responsibility?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, Michael Meacher is a credit to the Government. All Ministers in the Government have a conscience which we try to reflect in the best way we can when making decisions.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, does the Minister agree that GM crops have already been shown to have serious benefits for third-world countries and that in no way should Her Majesty's Government defer pursuing the benefits of such crops?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that some benefits have been demonstrated. The problem is that half the commentators and protagonists believe that GM will save the world and the other half think it threatens life as we know it. I suspect that neither side is right. The Government are trying to establish the common ground on the basis of science between the two. That is the basis on which we shall make our decisions.

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